U.S. Pledges Aid for Niger, Other Sahel Nations

NIAMEY, Niger—The Biden administration pledged new humanitarian assistance to Niger as part of a broader effort to raise living standards and buttress the government’s fight against a rise in jihadist violence.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. would provide nearly $150 million in new humanitarian assistance to Niger and other countries of the semiarid Sahel region south of the Sahara, with a focus on the needs of refugees and internally displaced people. One of the world’s poorest countries, Niger is a key U.S. ally in a region that has seen a sharp rise in Islamist terrorism and where other countries have deepened relations with Russia in recent years.
“We are satisfied with what America is doing in Niger, especially in the army field,” said President Mohamed Bazoum in an interview after his dinner with Mr. Blinken and other officials.
Mr. Bazoum, who became president in 2021 in Niger’s first democratic transfer of power, said his country needed more help to support refugees from neighboring states as well as its own citizens who have been displaced by conflict. “We want the Europeans and the Americans to support us,” he said.
Niger, a country of around 25 million, hosts more than 250,000 refugees, mostly from Nigeria, Mali and Burkina Faso, while some 380,000 Nigeriens have had to leave their homes, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. As of this week, the agency’s 2023 appeal for $135.7 million for Niger had received just $23.5 million in pledges.
Mr. Blinken’s visit to Niger—the first by a U.S. secretary of state—is in part a diplomatic show of support for Mr. Bazoum, whom a senior State Department official said is “making the right decisions, we think.”
Niger is the biggest recipient of U.S. military aid in West Africa and American troops stationed there help plan raids against al Qaeda and Islamic State. With Western support, Nigeriens are pushing back Boko Haram in the east and have made progress against al Qaeda and Islamic State in the West.
The Niger visit is part of a broader U.S. outreach to Africa in recent months, with the first lady and Treasury secretary visiting recently and Vice President Kamala Harris expected to travel to Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia this month. The Biden administration, which hosted a U.S.-Africa summit in Washington last year, is seeking closer ties with nations on the continent, some of which have deep financial or political ties with Moscow and Beijing.
Mr. Bazoum said Russian disinformation was contributing to a backlash in other Sahel countries against their former colonial power, France, a key partner for Niger and the U.S. in the fight against Islamist terrorists.
“People don’t hate Americans, but there is an opinion of young men who hate France, because of Russian disinformation, which has France as the target of the campaign,” Mr. Bazoum said in the interview.
Mali in 2021 hired the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group, run by a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, and Burkina Faso in January ordered French troops to leave the country. Both countries have experienced multiple military coups in recent years.
Niger is watching closely whether Burkina Faso will also make a deal with Wagner. “There is something that is at least the beginning,” Mr. Bazoum said of talks between Burkina Faso and Wagner.
The Biden administration is betting that targeted economic assistance, including expertise in healthcare, agriculture and transportation, will help African countries grapple with the effects of conflict and hunger exacerbated by climate change. 
Mr. Blinken visited Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Friday, where he announced $331 million in new humanitarian aid to support Ethiopians facing food shortages or dislocation due to conflict and a record regional drought, adding to the $3 billion in U.S. aid sent to the country since 2020.
On Thursday morning Mr. Blinken met the chairman of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, to discuss security and economic issues throughout the continent.
Niger ranks third-to-last in a global U.N. index measuring countries’ health, education and standard of living. It has the world’s highest child mortality rate, with 115 of every 1,000 babies born alive not living past their fifth birthday.
Mr. Blinken says he has seen improvements thanks to U.S. aid since he last visited Niger as a deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration.
“It’s less about the program, whatever it’s called; the amount of money, as great as it is,” he told reporters at the presidential palace in Niger. “It’s about the fact that it is actually producing concrete results, concrete opportunities, concrete development which is foundational to Niger’s strength and resilience as a democracy.”
Mr. Blinken, who is a French speaker, on Thursday met Nigeriens involved in a pilot program to disarm and rehabilitate young extremists and retrain them for productive work in border regions. “This approach is very—I think, from our perspective—very much a model that others can look to,” Mr. Blinken said.
The U.S. is working through the Millennium Challenge Corporation, part of Washington’s foreign-aid apparatus, to help build a road connecting landlocked Niger with the port of Cotonou in neighboring Benin. Mr. Bazoum said the project is “very useful for the economy of Niger.”
A separate $442 million project funded by the agency is aimed at using satellite imaging and hydrologic research to improve irrigation. “It translates into people having much greater opportunity to actually cultivate the land that they enjoy, to bring their products to market in ways that they couldn’t before,” Mr. Blinken said.

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