Russian flags and Wagner group represent symbols of power in Sahel Region
By Kester Kenn Klomegah
Emerging from the second U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit held in Washington, the most leading global media including Associated Press (AP), Cable News Network (CNN), Agence France-Presse (AFP), British Broadcasting (BBC), Voice of America (VOA), Reuters, Al Jazeera and many others, well-noted for their comprehensive and verified coverage of geopolitical changes and developments shaping or affecting daily lives in the world, performed their legitimate role to inform the public about Wagner Group being hired or deployed in Burkina Faso.
The Wagner group is a private military contractor with close ties to the Kremlin. Its forces are known to be presently fighting in parts of former Soviet republic of Ukraine. Paris and its European allies pulled thousands of troops countering Islamist militants in neighbouring Mali earlier this year as relations deteriorated with the military junta after it agreed a deal with Wagner, which is staffed by Russian army veterans, to operate in the country.
In all the reports, the main message concerns the indelible fact Burkina Faso contracts shadowy Russian mercenaries to fight against jihadist insurgency. Across the Sahel region, neighbours feared the jihadist insurgency might spread further down from Burkina Faso to coastal neighbours including Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo and Benin. Nigeria is already consistently fighting Boko Haram and other militant groups.
According to several media reports, Burkina Faso has allegedly made an agreement with Russia’s Wagner Group in which the shadowy mercenary outfit will help the west African country deal with surging jihadi violence in exchange for a mine. Russia has, during its past two decades of raising its economic influence and fight French neo-colonial tendencies, bartered military equipment to have complete access into mineral resources in Central African Republic, Guinea, Mali and Chad. There are similar cases in Sudan and Libya.
Long before the start of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, reports indicated that a number of African leaders would not be in Washington. The White House explained that U.S. President Joe Biden did not invite Sudan, Guinea, Mali and Burkina Faso because they are currently suspended by the African Union following coups and counter coups in the West Africa. These countries are not in good standing with the Africa Union so were not invited.
That gathering described as an irreversible historical landmark, however brought 49 African leaders + the African Union. Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo made a genuine claim about neighbouring Burkina Faso during his visit to the US-Africa Leaders summit, during the panel discussions on Peace, Security and Governance in Washington this December.
Speaking about the growing violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group in the west African region, Akufo-Addo said Burkina Faso allocated a mine to the Wagner Group as a form of payment for its deployment of fighters in the country. “To have (Wagner) operating on our northern border is particularly distressing for us in Ghana,” a former Chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and Ghanaian leader Nana Akufo-Addo informed at the summit.
“Today, Russian mercenaries are on our northern border. Burkina Faso has now entered into an arrangement to go along with Mali in employing the Wagner forces there,” he said, added that Burkina Faso had ceded a mine, reportedly with gold reserves, near the border with Ghana in exchange for the group’s services to deal with the militant insurgency that began in 2015. In recent weeks, hundreds of people fleeing militants attacks in Burkina Faso have crossed the border into northern Ghana.
Burkina Faso has summoned the Ghanaian ambassador for ‘explanations’ after Ghana’s president alleged that Burkina Faso had hired the Russian mercenary group Wagner, according to reports from Burkina’s Foreign Ministry. Burkina Faso has further recalled its ambassador from Ghana for a meeting, a spokesperson at the ministry told Reuters.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anne-Claire Legendre told a news conference that Paris and its European partners continued to be available to cooperate with Burkinabe authorities if they wished and without ambiguity in what she described as a worsening security and humanitarian situation.
“With regard to Wagner, our message is well known, Wagner has distinguished itself in Africa by a policy of predation, a policy of plundering, which harms the sovereignty of states,” she said, Reuters reported from Paris. “The Wagner militia has distinguished itself particularly in Mozambique, the Central African Republic, and Mali; this is obviously known to the Burkinabè authorities.”
The prospect of Wagner expanding its presence in Africa has troubled Western powers such as France and the United States, who say the group exploits mineral resources and commits human rights abuses in countries where it operates.
The pace of Islamic extremist violence is increasing in Burkina Faso and getting closer to the capital, Ouagadougou, which could make the desperate junta welcome support from the Russian mercenaries, said Laith Alkhouri, CEO of Intelonyx Intelligence Advisory. “This could have significant negative implications for Burkina Faso and the region,” he said. “Wagner mercenaries have operated with impunity and they are unlikely to be held accountable for any human rights violations.”
Nana Akufo-Addo’s comments came on the heels of a trip to Moscow by Burkina Faso’s Prime Minister, Apollinaire Joachim Kyelem de Tambela, to further strengthen Russia-Burkina relations. The visit was planned to “consolidate the international community’s efforts in combating the terrorist threat” in the region, said a statement made available on the official website by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Earlier this month a new mining concession was given to Nordgold, a Russian mining company, which has been operating in Burkina Faso for more than a decade. A permit for industrial exploration was granted to the Nordgold Yimiougou SA company in Sanmatenga province, said a statement from Burkina Faso’s Council of Ministers.
The four-year agreement is estimated to contribute some $8 billion (£6.5bn) to the state budget. Burkina Faso is one of the largest gold producers on the continent. Both Nordgold and the Wagner Group are Russian companies, although there is no known connection between them.
For several years Burkina Faso has been struggling to stem jihadi violence that has killed thousands, displaced nearly two million people and made swaths of land inaccessible. Lack of faith in the Burkina Faso government’s ability to contain the jihadi insurgency has led to two coups this 2022.
After the latest coup in September, the Wagner Group was among the first to congratulate the new junta leader, Ibrahim Traore, raising questions about his relationship with Russia and how big a role it played in catapulting him to power. People with close ties to Burkina Faso’s ruling junta said pressure had been mounting on the leader of the first coup, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba, for months to work more closely with Russia but he had refused.
Associated Press reporter Sam Mednick from Dakar, Senegal, with his colleague Elise Morton from London wrote in their joint news report that Burkina Faso residents expressed skepticism at the Ghanaian president’s comments and said the junta was just trying to diversify partnerships. “We have the capacity to defend ourselves without outside help if we have the required equipment. Burkina Faso collaborates with states not with mercenaries,” said Mamadou Drabo, Executive Secretary for Save Burkina, a civil society group that supports the junta.
Edward Lozansky, President of the American University in Moscow and professor of World Politics at Moscow State University, wrote in an email interview that “there has not been too much information about Russia’s activities in Africa, but the Western media is saturated with the scary stories about Russia’s efforts to bolster its presence in at least 14 countries across Africa by building relations with existing rulers, striking military deals, and grooming a new generation of leaders and undercover agents.”
Further to the narratives, Russia has now embarked on fighting “neo-colonialism” which it considers as a stumbling block on its way to regain a part of the Soviet-era multifaceted influence in Africa. Russia has sought to convince Africans over the past years of the likely dangers of neo-colonial tendencies perpetrated by the former colonial countries and the scramble for resources on the continent. But all such warnings largely seem to fall on deaf ears as African leaders choose development partners with funds to invest in the economy.
Vedomosti, a Russian daily Financial and Business newspaper, reported that Russia is interested in offering Sahel countries military equipment in exchange for exploiting the untapped minerals resources. Worth noting here that Russia, in its strategy on Africa is reported looking into building military bases in the continent.
Late October, President Vladimir Putin participated in the final plenary session of the 19th meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, the focus was on matters related to the changing geopolitics, the new world order and its future developments. He discussed, at considerable length, so many controversial questions.
According to him, Russia still have friends around the world, mentioned that in central America and Africa, the ‘Russian flags’ are flying everywhere. Putin, along the line, argued that the support for multipolar order largely exists in the Global South, appreciated Africa’s struggle for independence and now rising against growing neo-colonialism. Russia has good relations with African countries, these absolutely unique relations were forged during the years when the Soviet Union and Russia supported African countries in their fight for freedom.
Despite this widely published allegations about Burkina Faso, Russia has demonstrated wide interests making drastic steps toward penetrating into the G5 Sahel in West Africa. The G5 Sahel are Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. Russia is broadening its geography of military diplomacy covering poor African countries and especially fragile States that need Russia’s military assistance.
Russian Foreign Ministry has oftentimes explained in statements released on its website, that Russia’s military-technical cooperation with African countries is primarily directed at settling regional conflicts and preventing the spread of terrorist threats and to fight the growing terrorism in the continent.
Over the past several years, strengthening military-technical cooperation has been the key part of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation. Russia has signed bilateral military-technical cooperation agreement nearly with 14 African countries.
The South African Journal of International Affairs has published a special report on Russia-Africa. It said, in part, heading into the 2023 Russia-Africa Summit in St Petersburg (unless the proposed date and venue change, again), Russia looks more like a ‘virtual great power’ than a genuine challenger to European, American and Chinese influence.
The report titled – Russia’s Private Military Diplomacy in Africa: High Risk, Low Reward, Limited Impact – says that Russia’s renewed interest in Africa is driven by its quest for global power status. Few expect Russia’s security engagement to bring peace and development to countries with which it has security partnerships.
While Moscow’s opportunistic use of private military diplomacy has allowed it to successfully gain a strategic foothold in partner countries, the lack of transparency in interactions, the limited scope of impact and the high financial and diplomatic costs expose the limitations of the partnership in addressing the peace and development challenges of African host countries, the report says.
The report’s authored by Ovigwe Eguegu, Beijing-based Nigerian Researcher on Politics and International Affairs, focused on the use of private military companies to carry out ‘military diplomacy’ in African states, and the main research questions were: What impact is Russia’s private military diplomacy in Africa having on host countries’ peace and development? Why Russia has chosen military diplomacy as the preferred means to gain a foothold on the continent?
His report was based on more than 80 media publications dealing with Russia’s military-technical cooperation in Africa. It interrogates whether fragile African states advance their security, diplomatic and economic interests through a relationship with Russia.
Overcoming the multidimensional problems facing Libya, Sudan, Somali, Mali and Central African Republic will require comprehensive peace and development strategies that include conflict resolution and peacebuilding, state-building, security sector reform, and profound political reforms to improve governance and rule of law – not to mention sound economic planning critical for attracting foreign direct investment needed to spur economic growth.
The United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the entire international community have expressed collective concerns about any use of private mercenary forces, instead of well-constituted regional forces approved by regional blocs, as a means to address conflicts in Africa.
The G5 Sahel are Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger. And Burkina Faso, per well-known geographical description, is a landlocked country in West Africa with an area of 274,200 km2, bordered by Mali to the northwest, Niger to the northeast, Benin to the southeast, Togo and Ghana to the south, and Ivory Coast to the southwest.
Kester Kenn Klomegah writes frequently about Russia, Africa and the BRICS. As a versatile researcher, he believes that everyone deserves equal access to quality and trustworthy media reports. Most of his well-resourced articles are reprinted elsewhere in a number of reputable foreign media. He is an author of the Geopolitical Handbook titled “Putin‘s African Dream and The New Dawn: Challenges and Emerging Opportunities” devoted to the first Russia-Africa Summit 2019.