A US$500,000 contract between a controversial Canadian lobbyist and the military regime that seized power in Burkina Faso is the latest sign of an increasingly desperate search for unconventional allies in the battle between Islamist insurgents and isolated West African governments after a series of recent coups.
Under the contract signed last week, Montreal-based lobbyist Ari Ben-Menashe has promised the Burkina Faso government that he will seek Israeli weapons and Saudi Arabian security co-operation for the besieged country where Islamist militants have killed thousands of civilians and gained control of large swathes of the territory.
Mr. Ben-Menashe, a former Israeli intelligence officer, has been widely criticized for his lobbying deals with military juntas or factions in Myanmar, Sudan and Libya. He signed a US$2-million deal with Myanmar’s ruling junta last year but abandoned the deal because U.S. and Canadian sanctions would have blocked his payment. Sudanese-Canadian prodemocracy activists held a demonstration in Ottawa last year to protest against his lobbying deal with Sudan’s military rulers.
He signed the new contract on July 18 with Burkina Faso coup leader Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, a lieutenant-colonel who orchestrated the military takeover in January and installed himself as president. The contract has been filed with a U.S. lobbyist registry.
Burkina Faso and neighbouring Mali, where another military regime took power in a coup last year, have been devastated by Islamist insurgencies in recent years, and their new governments have struggled to make progress against the rebels. U.S. security analyst Michael Shurkin has called it an “uninterrupted escalation of violence” that could kill 8,000 people across the Sahel region of West Africa this year if current trends continue.
In Burkina Faso alone, more than 2,150 people have been killed in conflict in the first half of this year, compared with 2,374 fatalities in all of last year, according to data from the independent Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
“I think Burkina Faso is looking for an effective way to deal with the terrorism crisis, which they have no solution for right now,” said Yvan Guichaoua, a Sahel region expert at the Brussels School of International Studies at the University of Kent.
“It’s absolutely disastrous – 40 per cent of the territory is under the control of the jihadists,” he told The Globe and Mail. “Going for new military alliances is definitely on the agenda.”
In Mali, the military regime has expelled French troops and recruited an estimated 1,000 mercenaries from the private Russian contractor Wagner Group, beginning last December. Human-rights groups say the Russian troops have been involved in a series of massacres and other attacks on civilians.
The Wagner troops have been unable to halt the insurgent attacks, which have increasingly moved into new territory in southern Mali. Last week, insurgents launched an attack on Mali’s main military base, using car bombs to kill and injure several soldiers. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Mali claimed responsibility for the attack – the first on a military camp so close to the capital, Bamako – and said it was retaliation for the recruitment of Russian mercenaries.
Russia has reportedly offered a similar Wagner Group arrangement for Burkina Faso, but the government there has resisted the idea. Analysts say it is worried that it could lose Western support if it accepts Russian mercenaries.
“Burkina Faso has been relying on air support from France, but those operations are limited and don’t bring tangible results in the fight against the insurgency,” said Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, a Morocco-based think tank.
“The situation is totally different on the ground as Burkina Faso continues to struggle to contain the expansion of the insurgency. They simply don’t have the resources to face the insurgents, who are carrying out attacks in multiple areas.”
Mali and Burkina Faso were left isolated for months after their coups. Mali faced sanctions, and both countries were suspended from the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States, although they were later allowed to rejoin when they promised a transition to civilian rule.
Under the US$500,000 Burkina Faso lobbying contract, Mr. Ben-Menashe and his company, Dickens & Madson (Canada) Inc., promised to arrange Israeli military supplies and a meeting with Saudi and Israeli leaders to discuss the West African security situation. He also promised to lobby the United States to unblock US$158-million in aid that was suspended after the January coup.
In an interview with The Globe on Friday, Mr. Ben-Menashe defended the lobbying contract, insisting that the military rulers are highly popular in their country.
“They need help,” he said. “They need new partners, they need financial help, and their economy isn’t that great.”