U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will announce new humanitarian aid on Thursday during a visit to Niger, a country in West Africa's Sahel region that Washington wants to support as it grapples with Islamist insurgencies.
Blinken's visit to Niger, the first by a U.S. Secretary of State, signals its importance as a U.S. ally in the Sahel, a senior State Department official told reporters travelling with Blinken.
"They're making the right choices, we think, to help deal with the kind of threats that are common across the Sahel. So, we're trying to highlight a positive example," the official said.
Landlocked Niger and other countries in the Sahel, including its neighbours Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Chad, are all struggling to repel Islamist insurgents who in some cases have seized control of swathes of territory.
The official praised Niger's President Mohamed Bazoum for opposing military coups in Mali and Burkina Faso and for consulting the parliament over security issues rather than deciding alone.
The official also praised Bazoum for speaking out against Russia's Wagner group, which has been hired by Mali's junta to help fight insurgents there. Mali describes the Wagner personnel on its territory as "trainers".
A French-led international force has been on the ground in Mali for a decade but has fallen out of favour with Mali's leadership. Anti-French sentiment has been on the rise in Mali and several other former French colonies in West Africa.
Ghana has asserted that Burkina Faso has also hired Wagner mercenaries. Burkina Faso's junta has neither confirmed nor denied that.
"I think it's quite interesting that Wagner is most active in francophone Africa. I believe they're trying to capitalise on anti-French sentiment," the State Department official said.
"They use a lot of misinformation and disinformation to besmirch the French, I think, and the traditional French security partnership."
The official said the United States had a positive image in the region and we were not seen in the way the French were.
"The Russians are not, the Wagner Group are not a good partner," the official added.
Blinken was travelling to Niger from Ethiopia, where he met on Wednesday with Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and other government figures in an effort to repair the diplomatic damage caused by the two-year war in Tigray that ended in November.
His trip is the latest in a series of visits to Africa by senior figures from President Joe Biden's administration, which is seeking to reinforce ties with a continent where China's diplomatic and economic influence is ubiquitous and some countries maintain cordial relations with Russia.
(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Writing by Estelle Shirbon, Editing by Angus MacSwan)