As if fighting in what – for now, at least – appears to be a losing battle in Ukraine weren’t enough, the Wagner Group, a private army of Russian mercenaries commanded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Vladimir Putin, is heavily committed in a range of conflicts and security crises in west Africa.
Already involved in Libya, Central African Republic, Mozambique, Mali, Sudan and Madagascar, the Wagner Group is engaged in training, fighting anti-government forces and brutally quashing protests, all supporting Russia’s fight to supplant the influence of French and the UK’s former colonial powers in Africa.
Mali, a country at the core of violent extremism spreading throughout west African Sahel, has pledged allegiance to Russia at the expense of France, which wound up its operations there in August, despite nine years and a total cost of billions of euros for supporting its military.
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Burkina Faso, Captain Ibrahim Traore took power in a coup d’etat on September 30, citing the deteriorating security situation in Burkina Faso as his reason for seizing power. His coup came just nine months after Lieutenant-Colonel Paul-Henri Damiba toppled the previous regime in a similar fashion. September 30 was the tenth coup since the west African country gained its independence in 1960.
The Burkina Faso government reportedly only controls 60% of the country. Terrorist attacks, mainly from armed Islamist groups, have been responsible for an almost complete breakdown in security in many regions. During Damiba’s first 100 days as president, there were 610 terrorist attacks resulting in 567 fatalities.
Prigozhin congratulated Traore afteeer the coup as “a truly worthy and courageous son of his motherland”.
“The people of Burkina Faso were under the yoke of the colonialists, who robbed the people as well as played their vile games, trained, supported gangs of bandits and caused much grief to the local population,” he said.
Prigozhin’s statement reflects both anti-French and pro-Russian sentiment in Burkina Faso – and across West Africa, which has played into the hands of the Wagner Group, despite its links to massive civilian casualties and allegations of grift surrounding the group’s acquisition of major long-term mining concessions.
The Russian aggression on Ukraine is barely making the news in West Africa – so Moscow can still shine as the contemporary defender of the USSR’s self-awarded identity as a champion against imperialism. There is little critical analysis of the situation in mainstream media. Instead, information is taken from Russian social media sites, filling the void with misinformation and fake news, aggravating the already tense situation.
Facebook is by far the most popular social media platform in Burkina Faso, used by an estimated 94% of the 2.2 million social media users in the country. They are exposed to comments accusing France, among other things, of arming terrorists.
This mistrust is expressed on Facebook and WhatsApp. Meanwhile, in the mainstream media, including TV and radio, critical analysis is largely absent, since experts, analysts and academics are taking a step back, according to Mahamadou Savadogo, an academic and security analyst in Burkina Faso, who spoke with us for this article. This is partly out of a lack of credible information – but also because of the risk of speaking out in a particularly volatile situation.
These fake messages have real effects. According to Savadogo, the media have been instrumental in swaying public opinion and are being manipulated by those in power, or trying to gain power.
On October 1, Traoré declared on state television that the French had provided refuge to Damiba, saying Damiba was “believed to have taken refuge in the French base at Kamboinsin in order to plan a counter-offensive to stir up trouble in our defence and security forces”. The French government issued a categorical denial, but Traoré’s allegation went viral and led to increased social unrest culminating in the French embassy being set alight the same day.
There were also anti-French demonstrations in Bobo-Dioulasso, the country’s second city, where the gate of the French Institute was also reportedly set ablaze by protesters.
Questions abound both about who is behind much of the misinformation on social media and who is funding the demonstrations and this coup. Savadogo commented on the large numbers of Russian flags that appeared on the streets of the capital. He asked about where they could have come from so quickly. But such images, combined with anti-France posts on social media, are indicative of a turn away from France in favour of Russia.
While there is no direct evidence connecting the Wagner Group to this latest coup, the mercenary group appears poised to take advantage of the turmoil to establish another power base in Africa, and arguably a beachhead for Russia itself.
Emma Heywood, Senior Lecturer and Researcher in Journalism, Radio and Communication, University of Sheffield; Emmanuel Klimis, Lecturer and Researcher in Politics, Université Saint-Louis – Bruxelles; Lassané Yaméogo, Chargé de Recherche au CNRST Burkina Faso & Chercheur associé à l’ULB, Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), and Marie Fierens, Researcher, Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB)