Burkina Faso’s interim leader said Russia is a “strategic ally” but denied that the Kremlin-linked mercenary group Wagner were engaged in the west African nation’s fight against Islamist insurgents.
President Ibrahim Traoré, who seized power in a military coup last September, told state broadcaster Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina (RTB) that Russia was a supplier of equipment for Ouagadougou’s military and that the countries enjoyed a “frank” relationship.
“I am satisfied with the co-operation with Russia,” he said.
But Traoré dismissed speculation that Wagner forces had been fighting alongside the Burkinabè army, as they have been in neighboring Mali since late 2021. The group was founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, and has been fighting with Russian forces in Ukraine .
“Our army fights alone,” he said. “Wagner’s presence was invented to harm Burkina, so countries would not co-operate with us.”
A French security official told the Financial Times it would be no surprise “if the Wagner company has made an attractive offer to them as in Mali”. Nana Akufo-Addo, president of neighbouring Ghana, alleged in December that Wagner mercenaries were present in Burkina Faso and operating a mine in the southern part of the country.
Like Mali, Burkina Faso’s forces are mired in a campaign against al-Qaeda and Isis-linked Islamists terrorizing large swaths of the Sahel, a semi-arid strip south of the Sahara. The insurgency threatens to spill over into coastal nations such as Ghana, Ivory Coast and Senegal.
According to Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a conflict data reporting firm, a record 4,000 people were killed in violence last year in Burkina Faso. Almost 2mn people, or 10 per cent of the population, have been displaced by the crisis. The government only controls about 40 per cent of the country’s territory, according to some estimates. Residents of the northern town of Djibo have been under a blockade by armed fighters for more than a year, according to aid groups.
Traoré has since launched a “total war”, recruiting 50,000 people to join the country’s volunteer defense forces. He told RTB that he would not negotiate with the armed groups. ” he said.
Burkina’s army and volunteer militias have been accused of attacks on civilians, particularly those of the Fulani ethnic group, who are targeted for allegedly supporting the jihadis. Men wearing military fatigues killed at least 156 civilians in the northern village of Karma last month, sparking calls by Human Rights Watch for an independent investigation.
The dire security situation has exacerbated the country’s political instability. Traoré’s coup was the second of 2022; the army captain deposed Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who had himself overthrown the democratically elected president Roch Kaboré in January.
Analysts say Traoré, 35, has to balance nationalists in his government and general disaffection with France among the wider population, and the need to keep warm relations with the former colonial ruler and other western powers. Traoré insisted that “the departure of the French army does not mean that France is not an ally”.
“Traoré has to think there’s a risk that letting in Wagner would damage their international reputation even more,” said Paul Melly, a Sahel expert at the London-based Chatham House think-tank. in dealing with the jihadis [in Mali].”
The military government announced the departure of 400 French special forces in February, ending a partnership which began in 2018 and allowed France to use the country for anti-terror operations. The following month it indefinitely suspended France 24’s broadcast license after the state-owned channel Aired an interview with the head of a terror group.
Burkina Faso remains suspended by Ecowas, the west African regional bloc, following Damiba’s coup. Mali, whose membership is also suspended, on Friday announced it would hold a delayed constitutional referendum meant to usher in a transition to democratic rule on June 18.