Russia deepens its influence in West Africa

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In late September, Burkina Faso experienced its second coup of the year. A military coup in the West African nation has toppled the ruling junta and made 34-year-old Captain Ibrahim Traoré the youngest national leader in all of Africa. The largely bloodless coup was denounced by the African Union and officials from the European Union and the United States. But the applause 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 firm that Western experts see as a proxy for the Kremlin, said that Traoré’s seizure of power “was necessary. He” described the previously little-known captain as “a truly worthy and courageous son of his fatherland” and called the serious security problems rocking the West African nation part of France’s imperial legacy.

“The people of Burkina Faso were under the yoke of the colonialists, who robbed people and played their vile games, trained, supported bandit gangs and caused the local population a lot of pain,” Prigozhin said. Scenes of jubilant coup supporters in the capital Ouagadougou showed some waving Russian flags, a reflection both of the reach of Russian propaganda networks and of popular frustration with the status quo and some link to Western politics. That includes a decade-long French counterterrorism campaign in the nations of the central Sahel, the vast expanse of semi-arid land south of the Sahara desert.

Burkina Faso is mired in a harrowing security crisis. Islamist militants control swathes 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, took power in January on the grounds that the government was failing the military in its battles against insurgents.

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

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Experts now come to Russia exploiting the void. Since at least 2018, the Wagner Group has been enlisted to help fragile African regimes crack down on extremist Islamist insurgencies. In the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Libya and now Mali, Russian military contractors have operated on the ground alongside local forces. In some cases, they have 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 moving away from previous deals with Western powers. Prigozhin’s rhetoric may be selfish, but it could also indicate growing Russian influence.

“Instead of being a transparent partner and enhancing security, Wagner exploits client states that pay for its heavy-handed security services in gold, diamonds, timber and other natural resources; this is part of the Wagner Group business model,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, told a Security Council briefing earlier this month. “We know that these ill-gotten gains are used to finance 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 change,” Samuel Ramani, an analyst at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, told the BBC. “This time, Russia is much more proactive in supporting the coup, and that has led to speculation that Russia has played a coordinating role.”

Although it is unclear what actual presence Russia has or will have in Burkina Faso, the coup sets the stage for a new chapter in a broader geopolitical feud. Some African nations, including a handful of West African states, have been vocal backers of Russia at the United Nations and other forums as Moscow skirts international censure over its invasion and ongoing war in Ukraine.

Civilian killings skyrocket as Russian mercenaries join the fight in West Africa

“What we see is that the Sahel is becoming a battlefield of rivalry between Russia and the West,” said Jean-Hervé Jezequel, Sahel director for the International Crisis Group, in a podcast episode recently published by the think tank. “This is an additional layer on 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 fight is already acute in cyberspace, with Kremlin-linked online accounts animating the discourse across the region. “Today’s pro-Russian networks are especially targeting West and Central African nations dealing with conflict,” my colleague Danielle Paquette reported earlier this year. “Among them are Burkina Faso and Mali, which are facing fast-growing insurgencies and have endured three” — now four — “coups since 2020. They are also home to deep reserves of gold and other precious minerals. that analysts say Moscow covets.”

Mali, Burkina Faso’s larger neighbor, provides the starkest illustration of the dynamic. For nearly a decade, it was the main theater of a French military mission aimed at rolling back the advances of extremist militant factions, including al Qaeda, Islamic State-linked groups and Tuareg ethnic separatists. But after initial successes, the operation stalled and anti-French sentiment grew.

The last French detachments left Mali for neighboring Niger earlier this year, with the ruling regime in Bamako, also installed after a military coup, celebrating their departure. Mali has turned more publicly towards Russia in years. In September, at the UN General Assembly, Mali’s Prime Minister Abdoulaye Maiga hailed “exemplary and fruitful cooperation between Mali and Russia” and said he was speaking of a broader transition in a region long dominated by France. , the former colonial power. “Stand back from the colonial past and listen to the anger, the frustration, the rejection coming out of the African cities and countryside, and understand that this movement is inexorable,” Maiga said.

Wagner’s forces are active in the country, operating alongside Malian soldiers. They have been linked to a series of massacres of civilians, including the extrajudicial execution of some 300 people in a village in central Mali in March.

“What we see is that in other parts of Africa today there are worrying deployments of Wagner’s militias, and we have been able to see on the ground that the effects of these militias lead to abuses against the population: we saw crimes that took place in Mali, in the Central African Republic, in Mozambique, also the looting of natural resources and, above all, the zero effectiveness in the fight against terrorism,” Anne-Claire Legendre, a spokeswoman for the French Foreign Ministry, told the Associated Press last week. pass.

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

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