OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — Just weeks after Burkina Faso’s junta ousted hundreds of French troops, signs appeared that the West African country could be moving closer to Russia, including the mercenary outfit, the Wagner Group.
One signal was Burkina Faso authorities requested in February, nearly $30 million in gold from its mines to be handed over for “public necessity.”
It’s unclear what the gold was used for but some suspect the gold could be used to hire mercenaries from the Wagner Group that already is entrenched in other troubled African countries like Mali and Central African Republic.
“It might be a coincidence that the Burkinabe demanded the purchase of the gold right after they kicked out the French and started moving closer to the Russians,” said William Linder, a retired CIA officer and head of 14 North Strategies, an Africa-focused risk advisory. “Still, it strikes fear among investors that the state will renege on existing agreements and disadvantage established industrial miners to pay for Russian military contractors.”
Burkina Faso’s government denies hiring Wagner mercenaries but the government is expecting Russian instructors to come train soldiers on how to use equipment recently purchased from Russia, said Mamadou Drabo, executive secretary for Save Burkina, a civic group that supports the junta.
“We asked the Russian government because of the bilateral collaboration between Burkina and Russia, that they send us people to train our men,” he said, adding that the instructors will teach soldiers about weapons, military techniques as well as culture.
The sale of arms and bilateral military cooperation agreements between Russia and some African countries have in some instances been a precursor to the deployment of Wagner’s mercenary troops, said a report by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
Observers say countries using Wagner Group fighters often refer to them as Russian instructors. Wagner, founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian millionaire businessman with ties to President Vladimir Putin, has had about 1,000 forces in Mali for more than a year.
In January, Burkina Faso ordered the departure of some 400 French special forces based in the country, cutting military relations with France amid soaring jihadi violence that’s killed thousands and plunged the once peaceful nation into crisis.
In addition to ejecting the special forces, in February the government told all French military personnel working with Burkina Faso’s army and administration to leave, severing a military accord with France dating back to 1961, according to a confidential document by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seen by The Associated Press.
Anti-French sentiment in the former colony has grown since junta leader Capt. Ibrahim Traore seized power in September. Earlier this month, two French journalists were expelled from the country without reason. In March, French broadcaster, France 24, was suspended for interviewing a top jihadi rebel and months earlier the government suspended French broadcaster Radio France Internationale for having relayed an “intimidation message” attributed to a “terrorist,” according to a statement from the junta.
The anti-French sentiment coincides with increasing Russian support, including demonstrations in the capital, Ouagadougou, where hundreds of protesters have waved Russian flags.
France has had troops in West Africa’s Sahel region since 2013 when it helped drive Islamic extremists from power in northern Mali. But it’s facing growing pushback from populations who say France’s military presence has yielded little results as jihadi attacks are escalating. Burkina Faso’s junta says it has nothing against France but wants to diversify its military partners in its fight against the extremists and, notably, has turned to Russia.
“That’s what we’ve seen happening in country after country. We saw it in CAR, Mali. It’s just been dominos,” said Sorcha MacLeod, member of the United Nations working group on the use of mercenaries.
“There’s a vacuum now where France used to be (and) Russia has imperialist ambitions in Africa,” she said. “It’s destabilizing for the region.”
If Wagner mercenaries arrive in Burkina Faso the risk increases of human rights atrocities, including war crimes and crimes against humanity, she said. Rights groups and communities have already accused the junta of committing more extrajudicial killings against civilians since Traore came to power in September.
Wagner Group mercenaries have established a foothold for Russia in at least half a dozen African countries. Earlier this year, the group was designated a significant transnational criminal organization by the United States and was sanctioned by the European Union for human rights abuses in Central African Republic, Sudan and Mali. African countries have often paid the Russian group for its mercenary fighters by granting Wagner access to natural resources, such as mining concessions.
Western countries say the use of Wagner mercenaries in Africa is a red line. French President Emmanuel Macron called the Wagner group “criminal mercenaries” and “the life insurance of faltering and putschist regimes.”
Burkina Faso’s government said it has no plans to contract Wagner. Instead it’s working to secure the country from jihadis by recruiting and arming tens of thousands of volunteer fighters, which it refers to as its own Wagner force.
“We already have our Wagners. The (civilian volunteers) who we are recruiting are our first Wagners,” said Traore during an interview on state media in February.
But for much of Burkina Faso’s population, this provides little comfort. Like Wagner, the volunteers who fight alongside Burkina Faso’s military, have been accused by civilians and rights groups of committing atrocities such as extrajudicial killings and abductions of people alleged to be working with the jihadis. An investigation by The Associated Press into a video circulating on social media, determined that Burkina Faso’s security forces killed children in a military base in the country’s north.
Many locals say they’d rather work with Western countries like France, than turn to forces like Wagner. But they say the French are unwilling to sell them the weapons they need, leaving them little choice.
“The French have everything, aircrafts, everything, but they don’t help us,” said a soldier who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “They are here for their own business.”
Associated Press reporter Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed.