OUAGADOUOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — Mere hours after the second coup in Burkina Faso this year, the head of Russia’s shadowy mercenary group Wagner Group was among the first to congratulate the new junta leader in West Africa.
In a message posted on Telegram, Yevgeny Prigozhin praised the mutinous soldiers for doing what “was necessary”.
That same day, the pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov published that the Russian people had helped Captain Ibrahim Traore, the new leader of the coup. And he predicted that Burkina Faso’s new leadership would look to Russia for help rather than to former colonizer France.
As Traore consolidates his grip on power in Burkina Faso, questions are already being raised about his relationship with Russia and how much it played a role in catapulting him and his allies to power.
The recent coup “could be a gateway to a more assertive Russian policy towards the Sahel,” said Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense and security think tank.
“The coup in Burkina Faso that we just witnessed could be the first example of Russia participating in instigating a coup rather than simply capitalizing on pre-existing unrest,” Ramani said.
Asked about the coup in a call with reporters earlier this month, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the prospects of establishing ties with the country’s new leaders.
And the Kremlin denies ties to the Wagner Group, though Western analysts call it a tool of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Wagner Group mercenaries have already established a foothold for Russia in at least half a dozen African countries, including the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mali, fighting a Burkina Faso-like insurgency that has killed thousands and displaced thousands. about 2 million people.
The group has been accused of committing human rights abuses. Earlier this year, it was linked to at least six alleged massacres of civilians and the extrajudicial executions of 300 people in the Moura village in Mali, according to the African Center for Strategic Studies.
“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,” said Anne-Claire Legendre, spokeswoman for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
France, which has had troops in the region since 2013 when it helped oust Islamic extremists from power in northern Mali, is facing growing backlash from populations who say their presence has yielded little amid escalation. of jihadist violence. Following Burkina Faso’s latest coup, the French Embassy and the French Institute in the capital, Ouagadougou, were attacked by protesters waving Russian flags.
It is unclear what role, if any, Russia played in orchestrating last month’s coup or whether it simply took advantage of the unrest. However, people with close ties to the ruling military party said pressure has been mounting for months on the coup’s first leader, Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba, to work more closely with Russia.
Traore and other officials had urged Damiba to work with more partners, particularly Russia, but Damiba refused, a board member who spoke on condition of anonymity for his safety told The Associated Press.
Traore did not respond to multiple attempts for comment. In an interview with Radio France Internationale last week, she brushed off questions about turning to Russia, saying that Burkina Faso had already partnered with Moscow.
“I don’t see what’s so special about seeing a Russian flag waving in Ouagadougou,” he told RFI.
Mamadou Drabo, executive secretary of Save Burkina, a civil society group that supports the junta, said he tried to mediate tensions in the weeks leading up to the coup because soldiers were upset by the lack of progress in stopping the violence. One of the biggest complaints was that Damiba was not securing enough equipment, such as helicopters, which board members wanted to buy from Russia since France would not give them any, he said.
Despite the Wagner Group’s controversial track record in other countries, people are so desperate for change that they are willing to take the risk, he said.
“If today we say we don’t want Wagner, how long are we going to stay in this war?” Drabo said. “We don’t want Burkina to become Somalia.”
After Damiba ousted the democratically elected president in January, he asked Burkinabe to give him until September to show results in the fight against Islamic extremists.
His government created a general command center to strengthen coordination and established local dialogue committees aimed at getting jihadists to lay down their arms. The Burkina Faso army acquired three combat helicopters and drones, but the security situation continued to deteriorate.
The number of people killed between the end of January and September, when Damiba was in power, increased more than 100% from the same period last year (between 1,545 and 3,244 people killed), according to the Event and Location Data Project. of Armed Conflicts.
Last month, a transport convoy heading to the besieged city of Djibo was ambushed by jihadists who killed at least 37 people, most of them soldiers. The attack is widely believed to have led to Damiba’s downfall and his resistance to stronger collaboration with Russia also played a role, civil society groups and board members say.
But many civilians and analysts think that talk of increased Russian involvement is exaggerated. Even if Burkina Faso wanted Russian help, it is unclear if it would be possible given that Russia is struggling to find soldiers for its war in Ukraine.
“In the absence of a promised deployment, it is not certain that (Traore) will take action against French forces,” said Andrew Lebovich, a researcher at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank.
Many in Burkina Faso, concerned about years of foreign intervention, say that no matter who intervenes, nothing will change.
“Whether it’s Russia, France or anyone else, they all want the same thing: control and influence,” said Ousmane Amirou Dicko, a traditional leader known as the Emir of Liptako.
Associated Press writer Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed.