Russia’s role in the crisis in Burkina Faso is under scrutiny

OUAGADOUOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — Just hours after the second coup of the year in Burkina Faso, the head of Russia’s shadowy mercenary group the Wagner Group was among the first to congratulate the new leader of the West African junta.

In a message posted on Telegram, Yevgeny Prigozhin praised the rebel soldiers for doing what “was necessary.”

On the same day, pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov announced that the Russian people had helped Captain Ibrahim Traore, the new coup leader. And he predicted that Burkina Faso’s new leadership would turn to Russia for help instead of former colonizer France.

As Traore now consolidates his power in Burkina Faso, questions are already swirling about his relationship with Russia and how much it played a hand in catapulting him and his allies to power.

The recent coup “could be a gateway to a stronger Russian policy towards the Sahel,” said Samuel Ramani, a 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 playing a role in instigating the coup, not just capitalizing on already existing unrest,” Ramani said.

Asked about the coup in a press conference earlier this month, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the prospect of establishing ties with the country’s new leaders.

The Kremlin also denies any connection with the Wagner Group, although Western analysts call it a tool of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Wagner Group mercenaries are already establishing footholds for Russia in at least half a dozen African countries, including the Central African Republic, Sudan and Mali, which is fighting an insurgency similar to the one in Burkina Faso that has killed thousands and displaced some 2 million people.

The group is accused of violating human rights. Earlier this year, it was linked to at least six alleged massacres of civilians and the extrajudicial killings of 300 people in the village of Moura in Mali, according to the African Center for Strategic Studies.

“What we notice is that today elsewhere in Africa there are troubling deployments of Wagner militias and we could see on the ground that the effects of these militias lead to the abuse of the population – we saw the atrocities that took place in Mali, in the Central African Republic, in Mozambique – also the looting of natural resources, and above all, 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 drive Islamic extremists from power in northern Mali, faces a growing pushback from a population that says its presence has produced little results amid escalating jihadist violence. After the latest coup in Burkina Faso, 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 was merely capitalizing on the unrest. But people close to the military’s ruling party said pressure had been building for months on the coup’s first leader, Lt. Col. Paul Henry Sandaogo Damiba, to work more closely with Russia.

Traore and other officers urged Damiba to work with more partners, particularly Russia, but Damiba refused, a member of the junta 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, he downplayed questions about turning to Russia and said Burkina Faso was already in partnership with Moscow.

“I don’t see what’s so special about seeing the Russian flag flying in Ouagadougou,” he told RFI.

Mamadou Drabo, executive secretary of Sava Burkina, a civil society group that supports the junta, said he had been trying to mediate tensions in the weeks before the coup because soldiers were upset about the lack of progress in ending the violence. One of the biggest complaints was that Damiba did not provide enough equipment, such as helicopters, that members of the junta wanted to buy from Russia because France would not give them anything, he said.

Despite the Wagner Group’s controversial past work in other countries, people are so desperate for change that they are willing to take risks, he said.

“If we say today that we don’t want Wagner, how long will we stay in this war?” Drabo said. “We don’t want Burkina to turn into Somalia.”

After Damiba ousted the democratically elected president in January, he asked Burkinabes to give him until September to show results in the fight against Islamic extremists.

His government created a comprehensive command center to strengthen coordination and established local dialogue committees with the aim of getting jihadists to lay down their arms. Burkina Faso’s army acquired three combat helicopters and drones, but the security situation continued to deteriorate.

The number killed between late January and September, when Damiba was in power, rose by more than 100% compared to the same time last year – 1,545 to 3,244 people killed – according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.

Last month, a transport convoy heading to the besieged town of Djibo was ambushed by jihadists who killed at least 37 people, most of them soldiers. The attack is believed to be what led to Damiba’s execution, and his resistance to stronger cooperation with Russia also played a role, civil society groups and junta members say.

But many civilians and analysts believe talk of greater Russian involvement is overblown. Even if Burkina Faso wanted Russian help, it is unclear whether 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 steps against French forces,” said Andrew Lebovich, a researcher at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank.

Many in Burkina Faso, wary of years of foreign intervention, say that no matter who gets in, nothing will change.

“Whether it’s Russia or France or someone else, they all want the same thing: control and influence,” said Ousmane Amirou Dicko, a traditional leader known as Emir Liptaka.


Associated Press writer Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, copied or distributed without permission.

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