6 February 2023

The military-ruled government of Burkina Faso declared that France has one month to withdraw its troops from the country. In September, Burkina Faso had its second coup within eight months. Burkina Faso has experienced a decade of political instability and this coup, and its consequences, are just another chapter so far. At the moment, Burkina Faso is only cutting ties of military cooperation with France. France has approximately 400 special forces in the country as France has been conducting counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). This is only the latest incident where Russia is slowly replacing European relations with Africa.

This also comes after French troops were expelled from military rule in Mali in April. Now two neighbouring countries, that were partners of France’s Sahel counter-terrorism operation, have further cut colonial ties. France’s Operation Barkhane ceased after the Malian government requested that French troops leave the country. Although then French President Macron stated that it would be restructured, it was not. The operation was widely seen as a failure by Malians as terrorist groups continued to exist and operate. This was coupled with anti-colonial sentiments and suspicions as to what France’s intentions were.

Terrorist groups in central Mali, where Moura is located, are thriving and the security situation is not improving with the internally displaced people in the north. However, it is because different groups are taking advantage of the rifts being caused due to climate change between the traditional pastoralist tribe and the cattle herder tribe. Violent clashes between the Fulani and Dogon tribes have been occurring for a few years. The symbiotic relationship of agriculturalists bringing in the harvest and then the nomadic cattle herders bringing in their herds to feed on stalks and leftover vegetation, and also provide fertilizer for the next season has been disrupted by climate change. The Malian army sided with the Dogons, traditional farmers and trained a militia in this conflict. Whilst al-Qaeda has sided with the Fulanis as they have with the other nomadic tribespeople of the north – the Tuaregs.

The tri-border region between Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger has seen an increase in attacks from al-Qaeda’s umbrella organization (JNIM) and the Islamic State of the Greater Sahara. In the past few months, JNIM strengthened ties with other groups in Mali, including Tuareg ones. This is not an alliance, but an agreement to concentrate attacks on ISGS. Malian Tuareg’s resentment of the government is well-known, especially after five rebellions. The last was in 2012 when ethnic Tuaregs allied themselves with jihadists after a mass migration from NATO-bombed Libya. Recently,

Russia’s Military Exports to Africa (USD millions) from Stockholm International Peace Research Institute files (2022 not available at this time)

Russia transferred at least eight planes and two Mi-8 transport helicopters to Mali. The planes included Sukhoi Su-25, which is designed for ground support operations and Czech-designed Albatros L-39 which was designed for training purposes but has been used as ground support as well. Russian arms transfers have been prominent in Africa for years, however, the transfer of new aircraft to combat the terrorist threat is a new step forward for Russian relations. The issue, of course, how sustainable that can be with the ongoing war in Ukraine and the logistical nightmare that Russia is facing with its significant losses. An option for Russia would be to seek other allied countries to transfer weapon systems to Africa on Russia’s behalf – Iran, North Korea and possibly China.

Mali’s military government embraced Russia and the Wagner group like other African countries such as Libya and the Central African Republic (CAR). The Malian government invited the Wagner group into the country as “trainers”. However, shortly after civilians and human rights groups claimed that Mali and “white mercenaries” were committing war crimes. UN experts want an investigation into possible war crimes committed by Mali’s army and the Wagner group. The most documented was the siege of the town of Moura in March 2022. An estimated 300 people were killed by Malian and “white mercenaries” during a typical farmer’s market day. The Malian government denies that it killed civilians and that it only killed terrorists.

Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, claims that Burkina Faso gave the Wagner Group mining rights for a mine in southern Burkina Faso in payment for its mercenary work against non-state actors. This has been denied by the Burkina Faso government. The Wagner Group has been operating in Africa for years. The Sudanese government gave gold rights to  Yevgeniy Prigozhin for the Wagner Group’s role in the country and the US put sanctions on Prigozhin surrounding this relationship in 2020. This was due to his links with the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian troll farm that was linked to disinformation and propaganda activities. Recently, it was revealed that the Wagner Group, has 1,890 “instructors” deployed to the CAR. The Wagner Group has been unable to secure all the gold and diamond mines in the CAR. It has been accused of the mass killing of miners in the unsecured area between Sudan and the CAR. It is believed that the group was promised mineral wealth as an exchange for payment. A similar arrangement is probable in Mali, which is Africa’s third-largest gold producer. CIA director William Burns pressured Libya’s Khalifa Haftar on expelling the Wagner Group from Libya stating concerns that the group may try to tap into Libya’s oil and gas wealth. Haftar is not part of the Libyan government, but he is aligned with it.

Human rights abuses have also been documented in the Central African Republic by Russian-speaking fighters. In one incident, at least twelve unarmed men were killed at a roadblock. Human Rights Watch has documented incidents including the killing and torture of civilians by Russian-speaking fighters in CAR since 2019. The Mozambique government hired the Wagner Group in 2017 to help end its al-Shabaab insurgency. This al-Shabaab is not linked to al-Shabaab in Somalia. Al-Shabaab translates to “The Youth”; just as the Taliban translates to students. The Wagner Group did not fare well in Mozambique as they could not, or would not, coordinate with Mozambique’s military.

Torture, executions and the killing of unarmed civilians is not a concern for the Wagner Group. The promise of results for a heavy handed counterterrorism strategy can easily be twisted into a new truth that civilian dissatisfaction with the government and sympathy with the terrorists is soaring. Wagner’s willingness and participation is only determinant of natural resource extraction.

The extraction of mineral or fossil fuel wealth is crucial for the Russian economy. Gold, diamonds, etc can be transferred to shell corporations and sold on the market — just as conflict diamonds and rare earth minerals have. It is also crucial for Prigozhin. As much as his Wagner fighters are contributing to the war in Ukraine, his mineral extraction and favours gained in Africa keep the Russian government going. Thus, winning the most crucial currency in Putin’s political system – leverage. There are already whispers with some analysts that Prigozhin may take over from Putin or at least be the kingmaker for the next.

The War in Ukraine has been seen as a war in that many non-aligned countries can sit out and not take sides. It is a war where states who are disillusioned with European and North American approaches, promises and good intentions can show their discontent. Once the West understands that and has the political courage and currency to rectify that then maybe Russia’s influence will wain. Until then, it is a source for Russia to gain strength, and political-economic influence.

Featured Photo: “Prime Minister Vladimir Putin tours the new factory Concord, which supplies pre-prepared meals to schools with Yevgeny Prigozhin (left)” – Wikimedia Commons, 2023

By Stewart Webb

The editor of DefenceReport and Senior Analyst, Stewart Webb holds a MScEcon in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and a BA in Political Science from Acadia University. A frequent guest on defence issues for CTV National News, and other Canadian media outlets, his specialities include commentary on terrorist/insurgent activity and Canadian defence issues. Stewart can be contacted at: [email protected]