Africa File

The Africa File is an analysis and assessment of the Salafi-jihadi movement in Africa and related security and political dynamics. 

Africa File: Wagner Group in Burkina Faso Will Help the Kremlin and Hurt Counterterrorism

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader’s awareness.]

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Key Takeaway: The Kremlin-linked Wagner Group will likely deploy to Burkina Faso in the coming months. Military juntas in Burkina Faso and neighboring Mali have sought to partner with Wagner to protect their regimes and mitigate the departure of Western counterterrorism forces. The Kremlin uses its partnerships with African countries to evade sanctions and advance strategic objectives such as countering Western influence and reestablishing Russia as a global power. Wagner’s priority is plunder, and it will likely stoke rather than suppress terror threats by increasing violence against vulnerable populations, thereby driving support to al Qaeda and Islamic State militants.

The Kremlin-linked Wagner Group will likely begin operating in Burkina Faso in the coming months. Wagner has likely aimed to operate in Burkina Faso for years. Russia has increased its military ties to Burkina Faso with several *military deals since at least 2017. Russian-linked activists and pro-Russia parties in Africa have condemned France and called for Russian intervention in Burkina Faso for the past several years. Russia also began a more concerted anti-Western information campaign as early as November 2021 that encouraged Russian military intervention.

These Russian information operations contributed to two successive military takeovers in Burkina Faso, yielding the current anti-French junta. Rising anti-Western sentiment and frustration with the lack of progress against Salafi-jihadi militants led to a coup in January 2022. Several Western outlets reported that the Burkinabe military’s desire to sign an agreement with Wagner was among the coup’s causes, but a deal did not materialize at that time. US intelligence nevertheless assessed in July 2022 that Burkina Faso was still most likely Wagner’s next target. The new junta’s lack of progress prompted another coup that led to a more overtly anti-French junta taking power in September 2022. Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin *praised the new junta leader immediately after the coup, indicating Wagner recognized the coup as an opportunity. Wagner’s role in the Russian invasion of Ukraine likely forced it to further delay its plans, however. The group temporarily closed recruitment to Africa in October 2022 to send all new recruits to Ukraine.

Russia and the Burkinabe junta began preparing for Wagner’s likely imminent deployment into Burkina Faso in December 2022. The Malian junta facilitated two meetings between Burkinabe and Russian officials, including an undisclosed visit by the Burkinabe prime minister to Moscow. The Burkinabe junta then severed most of its ties with France in January. It requested the removal of the French ambassador at the beginning of the month before formally renouncing Burkina Faso’s military agreement with France on January 24. The junta gave the nearly 400 French soldiers in the country a month to withdraw. On the Russian side, Wagner reopened recruitment to Africa in early January 2023. This move could be to help staff a potential deployment to Burkina Faso. Several sources have claimed a few Wagner personnel arrived in Burkina Faso in late December to finalize a broader deployment with the Burkinabe junta.

The prelude to Wagner’s likely entry into Burkina Faso parallels the group’s entry into neighboring Mali in 2021. In both cases, military cooperation agreements and yearslong information operations increased pro-Russian feelings among citizens and the military. Anti-French juntas eventually rose to power amid frustration over the lack of progress against Salafi-jihadi militants and rising anti-Western sentiment. These factors led military leaders to sever ties with France in favor of Wagner and Russia.

The Burkinabe and Malian juntas have sought to partner with Wagner to protect their regimes. Both juntas courted Wagner as an alternative security partner, believing Wagner’s militarized security approach is more effective than Western assistance. These regimes likely think Wagner will better secure the juntas’ survival because the group can provide regime security support without preconditions for protecting human rights and returning to a democratic system. Wagner also helps the juntas satisfy the anti-Western sentiment among their supporters.

Russia uses its partnerships with African countries’ juntas to evade Western sanctions. Wagner operates in four other African countries besides Mali and Burkina Faso: the Central African Republic, Libya, Madagascar, and Sudan (Figure 1). Many of these governments pay Wagner by granting them access to valuable natural resource deposits, such as gold, oil, and chromite. These natural resources help Russia mitigate the effect of Western sanctions for its invasion of Ukraine. Wagner is likely pursuing gold in Burkina Faso, the fourth-largest gold producer on the continent. The Ghanaian president already claimed the Burkinabe junta gave Wagner access to a gold mine in southern Burkina Faso in December 2022. Russia’s preexisting mines in Burkina Faso are owned by Nordgold, which has struggled under Western sanctions.

The Kremlin also uses these partnerships to advance its strategic goals of countering Western influence and reestablishing Russia as a global power. These relationships help Russia expand its military footprint through Wagner deployments and other military deals. The partnerships also provide Russia with potential votes to help it escape isolation in international bodies such as the United Nations, which Russia used as a component of its international political strategy following its invasion of Ukraine. Russia has explicitly targeted France and its former colonies—such as Mali and Burkina Faso—as part of this strategy.

Figure 1. Wagner Natural Resources Portfolio

Source: All Eyes on Wagner.

Wagner Group will focus on regime security and money laundering under the guise of counterterrorism, increasing violence against civilians and benefiting Salafi-jihadi groups. Wagner Group has increased the amount of violence used against civilians in neighboring Mali since it arrived in 2021, including carrying out collective punishment massacres that it brands as counterterrorism operations. These human rights abuses strengthen the Salafi-jihadi groups by providing a free recruitment tool that drives targeted communities to partner with jihadists for protection. Wagner has likely contributed to the spread of al Qaeda–linked militants across Mali by spreading these abuses and hastening the withdrawal of more capable Western forces.

Wagner will likely bring these same counterproductive tactics to Burkina Faso, where it will exacerbate preexisting trends that have allowed Salafi-jihadi groups to thrive. The Burkinabe junta is significantly expanding a volunteer militia force that many have accused of reinforcing ethnic ties and increasing abuses against civilians. Wagner’s arrival will increase ethnic violence by spreading the group’s brutal tactics and upsetting local dynamics, risking reinforcing ethnic militias’ worst instincts and further militarizing Burkinabe society. The Burkinabe junta has also already pushed out more capable French forces to make way for Wagner and is worsening its relationships with regional allies and the West. Salafi-jihadi militants will take advantage of the increasing violence and chaos to recruit more marginalized civilians and take advantage of likely security gaps left by dwindling Western counterterrorism support.

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Feb '23
Jan '23