WASHINGTON — The United States is preparing long-term assistance for the Ivory Coast, Benin and Togo as concerns rise that jihadi violence in the Sahel could spill into coastal West Africa, officials said.
Speaking to AFP, the officials said Western support was also critical to halting Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, which has made major inroads in violence-torn Sahel countries, including by allying with Mali’s military junta.
Vice President Kamala Harris, visiting Ghana last month as part of a growing U.S. push in Africa, promised $100 million over 10 years to reinforce resilience in coastal West Africa. State Department officials are looking at additional funding, including some from the counterterrorism budget.
In a new global strategy to prevent conflict and promote stability, President Joe Biden’s administration identified coastal West Africa as a priority for the coming decade.
The report, released in March, said that the Sahel to the immediate north had experienced more terrorist attacks than any other region and that it was critical to “prevent violent conflicts from emerging or further spreading across the region.”
While coastal cities connected to the world through seaports have been unscathed, violence has been rising in areas bordering Mali and Burkina Faso.
“It’s a significant and burgeoning threat,” said Michael Heath, the deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of West Africa.
“It’s something of concern to us because the capabilities of the governments in place — they’ve never faced a threat like this before,” he told AFP.
“They’re trying to cope with this, and we’re trying to see what kind of tools they need,” said Heath, who recently returned from a trip to the region with other State Department officials to assess needs.
Heath said he has not yet seen a presence in the three countries of the Wagner Group, which has been accused of human rights abuses in several countries including Ukraine, where the unit has played a key role in the invasion.
“They’re not yet in the coastal West African states, but we know they’re looking for opportunities to take advantage of instability wherever they see it,” he said.
U.S. officials accuse Russia of stepping up disinformation in French-speaking Africa, seeing a ripe audience due to post-colonial resentments.
Concerns in the Sahel about violence as well as Russia have grown in the months since France ended an eight-year campaign against jihadis, which some critics faulted as overly focused on military solutions.
U.S. officials said that coastal West Africa would not be seeing violence without spillover from the north, but that instability can also be attributed to local factors and competition for resources as climate change aggravates scarcities.
U.S. officials said assistance would focus in part on addressing economic gaps that would help extremists recruit.
“We want to obviously help these governments who are more interested in a holistic approach and good governance address the problems of the north, where the resources are sparser,” said Gregory LoGerfo, a senior State Department counterterrorism official who was on the trip.
One key area, U.S. officials said, will be helping West African governments build their legal systems so they can distinguish between legitimate refugees fleeing the Sahel and security threats.
“There’s a lot of people with family ties across borders in Burkina Faso and back and so forth,” LoGerfo said. “You want a management system where you’re not shutting off families or economies, but you also have to address the security problem.”