FILE - Burkina Faso soldiers patrol on a road in the Sahel area of Burkina Faso, March 3, 2019.
FILE - Burkina Faso soldiers patrol on a road in the Sahel area of Burkina Faso, March 3, 2019.

WASHINGTON - The U.S. has announced $152 million in new aid to the Sahel region of Africa to support one of the most fragile and troubled regions in the world. 

U.S. Special Envoy to the Sahel Peter Pham announced the aid on Thursday following a trip to West Africa, where he visited Mauritania and Niger. The Sahel is plagued by extremist violence, a harsh and changing climate, and political instability. 

"More than 2.5 million people in the Sahel region are displaced, 3.3 [million] are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection services, and the United States is proud to be the largest donor of humanitarian assistance to the region," Pham said during a conference call announcing the aid, hosted by the Wilson Center Africa Program

The funding comes from the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and U.S. Agency for International Development's Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance (USAID). It will assist some of the most vulnerable populations in Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. 

FILE - Malian soldiers drive through the streets of Bamako, Mali, Aug. 19, 2020, the day after rebel troops seized Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Prime Minister Boubou Cisse in a dramatic escalation of a months-long crisis.

Pham added that the assistance will not go to the Malian military officers who recently took power in a coup, but stopped short of giving details about who will receive the funds in Mali. A USAID spokesperson later elaborated in an email response to VOA. "Funding is provided directly to independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and UN partners to deliver life-saving assistance in Mali, including emergency food and nutrition, shelter, safe drinking water, as well as healthcare and medicine."

However, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described areas in need where the money will be used.  

"Significant gaps in meeting humanitarian needs, in addition to environmental concerns such as major flooding across the region, have been further exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic," Pompeo said in a statement

Pompeo noted that programs funded by the aid will provide jobs, shelter, health care, food aid, drinking water and hygiene services to people at risk. 

Violence, flooding  

The Sahel has been rocked by a series of crises. More than 4,000 people died in terror attacks in the Sahel in 2019, making it the deadliest year on record for extremist violence. A military coup in Mali this year threatened to further destabilize the country beset by violence since its last military coup in 2012. And Niger is being hit with historic flooding that has left 330,000 homeless. 

Houses are surrounded by floodwaters in Farie Haoussa, Tillaberi, Niger, Aug. 26, 2020, in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. (Courtesy of @ousseyni_kalil/via Reuters)

In a recent visit to Niger, Pham said he was struck by seeing the height of the Niger River and the submerged structures. 

"This is a region where water is greeted with elation," Pham said. "Now it's turned the other way around." 

Issues of food security and poverty in the region are closely linked to personal security since violence has led to mass displacements in several countries. Approximately 5.5 million people suffered food insecurity in the region this summer in the regional "lean season," the World Food Program said. 

"I would say for the ordinary man, woman and child, the key issue of their everyday life is security and livelihood," Pham said. "This has always been a fragile region. And in recent years it has only unfortunately grown even more fragile. And it hangs by a very narrow thread." 

Optimism in Niger

Pham said, despite the daunting challenges, there is some cause for optimism on the political front. In Niger, President Mahamadou Issoufou says after his second term in office is complete this year, he will step aside to make way for a peaceful transition of power. 

"When that occurs in Niger, it's going to be the first-ever in the country's history of an elected president ceding power to whoever is elected his successor," Pham said. "That's a historic moment in the country's history and it's a good characteristic to be encouraged." 

Pham said he hopes this serves as a model for other countries on the continent. 

"Democratic and inclusive government can be a bulwark against the further spread of violence," he said. "And that's why we're pressing for free and fair elections this year in Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, Burkina Faso and Ghana, and next year in Benin."