OUAGADOUOU – Within hours of Burkina Faso's second coup this year, the head of Russia's shadowy mercenary outfit Wagner Group was among the first to congratulate the new junta leader in West Africa.
In a message posted on Telegram, Yevgeny Prigozhin praised the mutinous soldiers for doing what “was necessary."
That same day, pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov, posted that the Russian people had helped Capt. Ibrahim Traore, the new coup leader. And he predicted that Burkina Faso's new leadership would turn to Russia for help instead of former colonizer France.
As Traore now solidifies his grip on power in Burkina Faso, questions are already swirling about his relationship with Russia and how much it played a hand in catapulting him and his allies to power.
The recent coup “could be a gateway to a more assertive Russian policy towards the Sahel,” said Samuel Ramani, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense and security think tank.
“The Burkina Faso coup that we just witnessed could be the first example of Russia playing a part in instigating a coup rather than just capitalizing on pre-existing unrest," Ramani said.
Asked about the coup in a call with reporters earlier this month, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov wouldn’t comment on prospects of establishing ties with the country’s new leaders.
And the Kremlin denies links to the Wagner Group, though Western analysts call it a tool of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Wagner Group mercenaries already have been establishing a foothold for Russia in at least half a dozen African countries, including in Central African Republic, Sudan and Mali, which is battling an insurgency similar to the one in Burkina Faso that has killed thousands and displaced some 2 million people.
The group has been accused of committing human rights abuses. Earlier this year, it was linked to at least six alleged civilian massacres and the extrajudicial killings of 300 people in Moura village in Mali, according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
“What we observe is that elsewhere in Africa today there are worrying deployments of the Wagner militias, and we have been able to see on the ground that the effects of these militias lead to abuses of the population – we saw crimes that unfolded in Mali, in the Central African Republic, in Mozambique — also the pillaging of natural resources, and most of all, zero effectiveness in the fight against terrorism,” said Anne-Claire Legendre, the French foreign ministry spokeswoman.
France, which has had troops in the region since 2013 when it helped drive Islamic extremists from power in northern Mali, is facing growing pushback from populations who say its presence has yielded little results amid escalating jihadi violence. In the wake of Burkina Faso’s latest coup, the French Embassy and the French Institute in the capital, Ouagadougou, were attacked by protesters waving Russian flags.
It’s unclear what role, if any, Russia played in orchestrating last month’s coup or if it just capitalized on the unrest. However, people with close ties to the military ruling party said pressure had been mounting on the first coup leader, Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba, for months to work more closely with Russia.
Traore and other officers had urged Damiba to work with more partners, notably Russia, but Damiba refused, a junta member who spoke on condition of anonymity for his safety told The Associated Press.
Traore did not respond to multiple attempts for comment. In an interview with Radio France Internationale last week he played down questions about turning to Russia and said Burkina Faso had already been partnering with Moscow.
“I don’t see what’s so special about seeing a Russian flag being waved in Ouagadougou,” he told RFI.
Mamadou Drabo, executive secretary for Save Burkina, a civil society group that supports the junta, said he tried to mediate tensions for weeks before the coup because soldiers were upset at the lack of progress in stemming the violence. One of the biggest grievances was that Damiba wasn’t securing enough equipment, such as helicopters, which junta members wanted to buy from Russia since France wouldn’t give them any, he said.
Despite the Wagner Group’s controversial track record in other countries, people are so desperate for change they’re willing to take the chance, he said.
“If today we say that we don’t want Wagner then how long are we going to stay in this war?" Drabo said. “We don’t want Burkina to be turned into Somalia.”
After Damiba overthrew the democratically elected president in January, he asked Burkinabes to give him until September to show results in the fight against Islamic extremists.
His government created an overarching command center to strengthen coordination and set up local dialogue committees aimed at getting jihadists to lay down their weapons. Burkina Faso's military acquired three combat helicopters and drones, but the security situation still deteriorated.
The number of people killed between the end of January and September, when Damiba was in power, rose more than 100% from the same time last year -- 1,545 to 3,244 people killed -- according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
Last month, a transport convoy going to the besieged town of Djibo was ambushed by jihadis who killed at least 37 people, the majority of them soldiers. The attack is widely believed to be what led to Damiba’s undoing and his resistance to stronger collaboration with Russia also played a role, say civil society groups and junta members.
But many civilians and analysts think talk of greater Russian involvement is overblown. Even if Burkina Faso wanted Russian help, it’s unclear if it would be possible given that Russia is struggling to find soldiers for its war in Ukraine.
“In the absence of a promised deployment it’s not certain that (Traore) would take steps against the French forces,” said Andrew Lebovich, a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank.
Many in Burkina Faso, wary of years of foreign intervention, say that regardless of who steps in nothing will change.
“Whether it’s Russia or France or someone else, they all want the same thing: control and influence,” said Ousmane Amirou Dicko, a traditional leader known as the Emir of Liptako.
Associated Press writer Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed.