DAKAR – 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.
Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo made that claim about neighboring Burkina Faso during his visit to the United States where he’s attending the U.S.-Africa summit.
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,” said Akufo-Addo, at the summit on Wednesday.
For six years Burkina Faso has been struggling to stem jihadi violence that’s killed thousands, displaced nearly 2 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 year.
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, Lt. Col. Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba, for months to work more closely with Russia but he had refused.
The Associated Press cannot independently verify Ghana’s allegations and Burkina Faso’s government did not immediately respond to questions about the claim made by Ghana's president.
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 Monday 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 in the Center North region, said a statement from Burkina Faso's Council of Ministers. The four-year agreement is estimated to contribute some $8 billion 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.
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.”
Wagner Group mercenaries already have established footholds for Russia in at least half a dozen African countries, including in Central African Republic, Sudan and Mali. The group has been accused of committing human rights abuses in Mali. 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.
But some in the international community don't think the mercenaries will be arriving in Burkina Faso soon. The Wagner Group has been a red line for western partners since the coup and would have implications for any further cooperation in the security sector or support to the military or government, said a western diplomat in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
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.
Others ridiculed western nations for judging the country's decisions.
“Where is the problem even if Burkina calls on Wagner?" said Passamde Sawadogo, a local singer and activist. “I think it is an international campaign that the western world organizes to discredit Russia and that’s not right,” he said.
Associated Press Reporter Elise Morton contributed from London, England