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Ouagadougou is set to be the next military regime to invite Russian mercenaries after giving France a month for its troops to leave
Captain Ibrahim Traoré's regime has brushed aside the concerns of fellow members of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) and gone even further than Mali and demanded the departure of French troops. At the end of January his government cancelled the 2018 defence agreement governing France's military presence in Burkina Faso, amid signs that it is now turning to Russia, probably the Wagner Group, for support (AC Vol 63 No 20, Palace coup could usher in Moscow's mercenaries).
The move has been a few months in the making. After the UN's humanitarian coordinator Barbara Manzi bluntly warned staff about the deteriorating security situation and decided to evacuate the families of UN personnel, the government expelled her on 23 December.
In mid-January, Ouagadougou asked France to replace ambassador Luc Hallade after he warned French residents of Koudougou, 100 kilometres west of Ouagadougou, to move to the capital or the second city Bobo Dioulasso (Dispatches 10/1/23, More European diplomatic dominoes fall as French ambassador is expelled from Ouagadogou).
In December, Prime Minister Apollinaire Kyélem de Tambèla visited Moscow, telling Russia Today that security cooperation had been on the agenda. Wagner officials are reported to have visited Burkina.
Ouagadougou's rebuff to France is especially stark, given the care Paris has taken to keep Sabre, its 400-strong Special Forces garrison at Kamboinsin, focused on supporting the Burkinabè military when requested and well out of the public eye. The exit comes as jihadist groups are now believed to control almost half of national territory.
Paris had also taken care to avoid repeating the sort of public row that poisoned its relations with Mali over the past two years. Meeting the Burkinabè leader on 10 January, France's secretary for development Chrysoula Zacharapoulou promised, with 'respect' and 'humility', that Sabre would remain only for as long as his government wished.
But the regime pressed ahead anyway, overriding the internal opposition of some officers. France says it will comply, with Niger apparently willing to accept a limited Sabre presence.
Ouagadougou's decision is also a rebuff to Ecowas and the West African political establishment, which has been trying to counter the spread of populist military regimes and deter them from hiring Wagner. Mali's 2021 decision to hire Wagner probably unnerved elected Ecowas governments as much as the country's August 2020 coup. Allegations of abuses and killings reinforced their view of the mercenary outfit as a serious threat to regional stability.
The bloc's current chair, Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embaló, met Traoré on 11 January and pleaded for the military arrangement with France to remain, describing Paris as a partner that 'can be very useful in intelligence and in this fight against jihadism'.
The setback comes after Ecowas's morale had been boosted by Mali's 7 January release of the 46 Ivorian soldiers it had detained since July (AC Vol 63 No 19, Junta holds Ivorians 'hostage').
Following months of diplomacy, including mediation by Togo's President Faure Gnassingbé and the visit to Bamako of Ivorian defence minister Téné Birahima Ouattara – brother of president Alassane – their release was a signal of restored goodwill.
Elected civilian presidents such as Ouattara, Ghana's Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo and Senegal's Macky Sall see the military regimes and their nationalistic rhetoric as a threat to the region's established governing class and its longstanding security and geopolitical alignment with Europe and the United States.
The Ecowas establishment is now trying to reassert the alignment with the west, which they regard as essential if West Africa is to stop jihadist groups' southward advance towards the prosperous and populous coastal nations.
The bloc had threatened new sanctions if Mali prolonged its detention of the Ivorian soldiers. But Alassane Ouattara also telephoned Malian junta chief Colonel Assimi Goïta with an invitation to make an official visit – just the sort of recognition of legitimacy that Bamako had been angling for. The Ecowas summit in Abuja on 4 December also endorsed Mali's political transition to elections as being on course.
The carrot and stick tactics paid off. The soldiers underwent a token trial and were convicted on state security charges but were then instantly pardoned by Goïta and flew home to a patriotic airport welcome in Abidjan.
Ecowas is also equipping itself with more muscular tools. The Abuja summit committed the bloc to 'the severest of sanctions' against the seizing or maintenance of power through unconstitutional means and decided that the mandate of a planned new regional military force structure would include promoting 'the restoration of constitutional order'.
National intelligence directors and armed forces chiefs of staff then met in Bissau on 18 and 19 December to start planning in earnest for this new 'Ecoforce' with Guinea-Bissau Foreign Minister Suzi Carla Barbosa commenting that 'the object… is to implement the decision to create a force to fight against terrorism and coups d'état.'
As in Mali, inter-communal factors feature in the Burkinabè conflict. On 30-31 December dozens were murdered around Nouna in the north-west; many or all were Peuhl (or Fulani). The killings are being blamed on local members of the Volontaires pour la défense de la patrie (VDP) and Dozo 'traditional hunters' (AC Vol 63 No 7, Goïta's junta cracks down mercilessly). Between 29 and 31 January, about 30 civilians were killed by jihadists in the southwestern region around the town of Banfora, the authorities reported.
Amid a growing siege mentality and reported French qualms about providing all the weapons the regime was seeking for a massive expansion of VDP recruitment, the Burkinabè authorities began exploring the possibility of Russian assistance.
Claims and denials
On 14 December, during talks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington, President Akufo-Addo infuriated Burkina by claiming it had already agreed terms to hire Wagner fighters, who were now deployed by the border with his own country, supposedly paid through the award of a mine concession.
Burkinabè mines minister Simon-Pierre Boussim countered that the mine, at Yimiougou, had been awarded to Nordgold, which is Russian but also a longstanding operator in Burkina with no known connections to Wagner. However, the Traoré regime has not denied claims that it might turn to the mercenary outfit.
Ecowas leaders fear the junta, still unable to contain the security crisis, will turn to Wagner – which they regard, in the words of Nigérien Foreign Minister Hassoumi Massaoudou, as 'a threat to democracy and the institutions of the region'.
Massaoudou said that since the 30 September coup Burkina had abandoned the cooperation with Nigérien forces that prevailed under the previous junta leader Lt Col Pierre-Henri Damiba and relations were back to 'level zero'. He argued that the bloc should regard the security crisis in Burkina as its biggest concern.
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