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Russia deepens its influence in West Africa

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Picture: Issouf Sanogo/AFP – Supporters of Burkina Faso’s new junta leader Ibrahim Traore hold national flags of Burkina Faso and Russia during a demonstration near the national radio and television headquarters (RTB) in Ouagadougou on October 6, 2022.

By Ishaan Tharoor

At the end of September, Burkina Faso experienced its second coup of the year. A military putsch in the West African nation brought down the prevailing junta and made 34-year-old Captain Ibrahim Traoré the youngest national leader in all of Africa. The coup, largely bloodless, was denounced by the African Union (AU), European Union (EU) and United States (US) officials. But cheers came from a conspicuous corner of the world.

In a message posted via the Telegram app, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and head of the Wagner Group, a shadowy mercenary company that Western experts view as a Kremlin proxy, said Traoré’s power grab “was necessary”. He described the previously little-known captain as “a truly worthy and courageous son of his motherland” and cast the grave security troubles wracking the West African nation as part of France’s imperial legacy.

“The people of Burkina Faso were under the yoke of the colonialists, who robbed the people as well as played their vile games, trained, supported gangs of bandits and caused much grief to the local population,” Prigozhin said.

Scenes of jubilant pro-coup supporters in the capital Ouagadougou showed some waving Russian flags, a reflection both of the reach of Russian propaganda networks, as well as popular frustration with a status quo some link to Western policy. That includes a decade-long French counterterrorism campaign in the nations of the central Sahel, the vast sweep of semiarid land south of the Sahara desert.

Burkina Faso is in the grips of a harrowing security crisis. Islamist militants control swaths of the country. Thousands of civilians have been killed this year alone, while some 2 million people – a fifth of the Burkinabe population – have been displaced by the fighting. Lt Col Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, the previous coup leader whom Traoré supplanted, himself seized power in January on grounds that the government was failing the military in its battles against insurgents.

“Faced with the deteriorating situation, we tried several times to get Damiba to refocus the transition on the security question,” Traoré said in a signed statement read out by another officer on state television after the latest coup.

Experts now see Russia exploiting the vacuum. Since at least 2018, the Wagner Group has been enlisted to help fragile African regimes crack down on Islamist extremist insurgencies. In the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Libya and now Mali, Russian military contractors have operated on the ground alongside local forces. In some instances, they’ve been linked to reports of human rights abuses and possible war crimes.

Since the September. 30 coup in Burkina Faso, there have been growing suggestions that the new junta will consider forging a new “strategic partnership” with Moscow and pivot away from earlier understandings with Western powers. Prigozhin’s rhetoric may be self-serving, but also could indicate a growing Russian influence.

“Rather than being a transparent partner and improving security, Wagner exploits client states who pay for their heavy-handed security services in gold, diamonds, timber and other natural resources – this is part of Wagner Group’s business model,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, US ambassador to the United Nations, told a Security Council briefing earlier this month. “We know these ill-gotten gains are used to fund Moscow’s war machine in Africa, the Middle East and Ukraine.”

“In previous coups Russia has tried to position itself as an accidental beneficiary of regime changes,” Samuel Ramani, an analyst at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, told the BBC. “This time around Russia is a lot more proactive in support for the coup, and that has led to speculation that Russia has played a co-ordinating role.”

Though it’s unclear what actual presence Russia does or will have in Burkina Faso, the coup sets the stage for a new chapter in a broader geopolitical contest. Some African nations, including a handful of states in West Africa, have conspicuously backed Russia at the United Nations and in other forums as Moscow ducks international censure for its invasion and ongoing war in Ukraine.

“What we see is that the Sahel is becoming a battlefield for the rivalry between Russia and the West,” said Jean-Hervé Jezequel, Sahel director for the International Crisis Group, in a podcast episode recently released by the think tank. “This is an additional layer in an already complex crisis,” he added, suggesting that great power competition in this part of the world would only make things more difficult for local actors struggling to forge peace.

The struggle is already acute in cyberspace, with Kremlin-linked online accounts animating the discourse across the region. “Pro-Russian networks today are especially targeting West and Central African nations grappling with conflict,” my colleague Danielle Paquette reported earlier this year.

“Among them are Burkina Faso and Mali, which both face fast-growing insurgencies and have endured a combined three” – now, four – “coups d’état since 2020. They’re also home to deep reserves of gold and other precious minerals that analysts say Moscow covets.”

Mali, Burkina Faso’s larger neighbour, provides the sharpest illustration of the dynamics. For close to a decade, it was the main staging ground for a French military mission aimed at beating back the advances of extremist militant factions, including al-Qaeda, Islamic State-linked groups and ethnic Tuareg separatists. But after initial successes, the operation bogged down and anti-French sentiment grew.

The last French detachments left Mali for neighbouring Niger earlier this year, with the prevailing regime in Bamako – also installed after a military coup – cheering their departure. Mali has more publicly turned toward Russia. In September at the UN General Assembly, Malian Prime Minister Abdoulaye Maiga celebrated the “exemplary and fruitful cooperation between Mali and Russia” and said it spoke of a larger transition in a region long dominated by France, the former colonial power. “Move on from the colonial past and hear the anger, the frustration, the rejection that is coming up from the African cities and countryside, and understand that this movement is inexorable,” Maiga said.

Wagner forces are active in the country, operating alongside Malian soldiers. They have been linked to a string of civilian massacres, including the extra-judicial execution of some 300 people in a village in central Mali in March.

“What we observe is that elsewhere in Africa today there are worrying deployments of the Wagner militias, and we have been able to see on the ground that the effects of these militias lead to abuses of the population – we saw crimes that unfolded in Mali, in the Central African Republic, in Mozambique – also the pillaging of natural resources, and most of all, zero effectiveness in the fight against terrorism,” said Anne-Claire Legendre, French Foreign Ministry spokesperson, to the Associated Press last week.

Critics, of course, can also point to France’s limited efficacy. “In the eyes of the Malian government … the French-led system of stabilisation has not prevented the expansion of the jihadists in the Sahel,” Jezequel said. “In 10 years, the presence of the jihadists has expanded dramatically.”

Ishaan Tharoor is a columnist on the foreign desk of The Washington Post, where he authors the Today’s WorldView newsletter and column.

This article was first published in The Washington Post