The US and Russia fight for influence in West Africa

STORY: This counter-terrorism exercise in Ghana is being led by U.S. commanders.

Their mission is to contain a spreading Islamist insurgency.

But the commanders here are trying to train West Africa's coastal nations to depend on each other in that fight - rather than non-Western powers like Russia.

Colonel Robert Zyla:

"It really comes to synchronizing or bringing everybody together to help solve that collective problem going forward. It's teaching countries in the region that they can reach across borders and talk to their next-door neighbours and help solve the common problem together ... The continuation of that theme is going to be very beneficial to the United States I believe."

It comes a year after Mali hired private Russian military contractor Wagner Group amid surging Islamist groups - a move that Western governments and the United Nations say has led to a spike in violence.

“As recruitment goes up, then you have the issue where governments have problems potentially and thats when that they start to reach out for maybe other malign actors who are more exploitive of resources in a particular country.”

Relations between Moscow and Washington have become more hostile since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the West opposes Russian influence in the region.

Mali, whose government took power in a 2021 military coup, has previously said Russian forces are not mercenaries but trainers helping local troops with equipment from Russia.

In the last decade, thousands have been killed and millions displaced as offensive efforts failed to stop an Islamist insurgency.

Security experts say it could get worse after thousands of French troops were forced out of Mali and Burkina Faso by military juntas this year.

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia – a sign the U.S. is also trying to forge ties off the battlefield.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed - as both sides looked to mend diplomatic ties damaged by the war there.

The pair agreed to strengthen bilateral relations - with a commitment to partnership.

But it's unclear what more resources the U.S. would be willing to give to Africa.

It has been reluctant to engage after four soldiers were killed in Niger in 2017.

Critics say timing is crucial - as Islamist violence continues to spread.