Even as Russia loses ground in the latest fighting in the Ukraine war, it is making gains in its campaign for military and political influence in another corner of the world: West Africa.
Soldiers and demonstrators waved Russian flags in Burkina Faso on Sunday as they celebrated a coup by army officers, who said they wanted new international partners to quell a protracted rebellion by Islamist militants. It was the second coup in the country in the past eight months.
Russian commentators praised the coup. One pro-government analyst in Moscow, Sergei Markov, said “our people” had assisted the coup leader, Captain Ibrahim Traore. It was unclear what kind of assistance might have been provided by Russia to the putschists.
Several analysts said the coup could pave the way for another African deployment of Russian mercenaries from Wagner Group, a private military contractor with close Kremlin connections. Wagner Group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said in a statement on Saturday that he “warmly congratulates” Capt. Traore, whom he described as “a truly worthy and courageous son of his Motherland.”
Wagner Group mercenaries are already active in military operations in two nearby African countries: Mali and Central African Republic. In both countries, they have been implicated in massacres of civilians and other abuses, according to reports by human-rights groups.
In all three countries, including Burkina Faso, there has been growing disenchantment with their traditional military partner, France, the former colonial power in the region. Earlier this year, Mali recruited more than 1,000 soldiers from Wagner Group and expelled French troops from the country. Many people in Burkina Faso are in favour of a similar strategy.
Hundreds of protesters, some waving Russian flags, attacked French government sites in two of Burkina Faso’s main cities on the weekend. They burned tires and threw stones at the French embassy in the capital, Ouagadougou, and vandalized the French Institute, a cultural centre, in the city of Bobo-Dioulasso.
Video clips on social media showed some of the country’s soldiers carrying Russian flags as they climbed on top of armoured vehicles, surrounded by people chanting “Russia, Russia.” Russian flags were also conspicuous in a crowd cheering Capt. Traore as he travelled with other soldiers in a military convoy in Ouagadougou on Sunday.
In a statement on Saturday, the coup leaders said they were willing “to go to other partners ready to help in the fight against terrorism” – widely interpreted as a reference to Russia.
President Paul-Henri Damiba, a lieutenant-colonel who led the previous coup in January, agreed to resign on Sunday to avoid further violence after the latest coup, according to an announcement by religious and traditional leaders at a press conference.
They said Capt. Traore had agreed to a list of conditions for the resignation, including a guarantee of the former president’s safety. Local media said the former president had fled to Togo on the weekend.
The coup leaders said the situation was “under control” and Capt. Traore would serve as president until a transitional government is appointed. They urged the protesters to cease their attacks on French sites. The violence appeared to ebb on Sunday.
Burkina Faso’s military has been divided on how to respond to an Islamist insurgency that has devastated several countries in Africa’s Sahel region, south of the Sahara desert. Many army officers were reportedly unhappy that the government had been unable to halt the rebel attacks and had failed to seek military assistance from Russia.
Until recent years, the insurgency in the Sahel region had been focused on neighbouring Mali. But then it expanded into Burkina Faso, which is now the Sahel country hardest-hit by the Islamist attacks.
An estimated two million people have been forced to flee their homes because of the insurgency, and more than 40 per cent of the country is beyond the government’s control, with many towns blockaded by the rebels. Supply convoys are often ambushed.
More than 2,150 people were killed in the conflict in the first half of this year – nearly as many as the number of deaths in the entirety of last year, according to data from the independent Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
Last week, at least 10 soldiers were reportedly killed and about 30 were wounded when a food supply convoy was attacked by gunmen in northern Burkina Faso.
West Africa has become increasingly unstable in the past two years, with military coups in Mali, Chad and Guinea in addition to the two coups in Burkina Faso.
The United Nations, the African Union and the European Union condemned the latest coup in Burkina Faso.
The Canadian government, in a statement by the Global Affairs department on Saturday, accused military factions of “fighting for power with no regard for the civilian population.”