Burkina Faso has allegedly become the latest country in Africa to contract mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group to fight insurgents, according to Ghana’s president.
“Today, Russian mercenaries are on our northern border,” Nana Akufo-Addo told Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, in Washington during a US-Africa summit.
Without citing evidence other than a recent trip by Burkina Faso’s prime minister Joachim Kyélem de Tambèla to Moscow, Akufo-Addo alleged that Burkina’s military government had “entered into an arrangement” to employ Wagner forces to deal with a widening jihadist insurgency that has claimed thousands of lives over recent years.
“I believe a mine in southern Burkina has been allocated to them as a form of payment for their services,” he said.
The Ghanaian president’s allegations could not be independently verified. In late October, Ibrahim Traoré, the 34-year-old leader of the junta that seized power in Ouagadougou in September, told US diplomats he would not recruit Russian mercenaries.
However, that coup, the second in a year, was celebrated by a small number of demonstrators waving Russian flags on the streets of the capital. Last month, protesters called for the new military leaders to eject France, which has a military base in Burkina Faso, and to partner with Moscow instead.
The country is one of several in the Sahel, a semi-arid region south of the Sahara, battling Islamist insurgents. With 5,500 people killed in the first half of the year across Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, analysts say 2022 is set to be the deadliest in the decade-long conflict. Almost 2mn people, or 10 per cent of the population, have been displaced in Burkina Faso.
The Wagner Group already operates in Mali and the Central African Republic, where it has been accused by activists of human rights abuses. In CAR, Russian companies connected to Wagner have won control of a gold mine as well as access to diamonds, according to intelligence reports. Yevgeny Prigozhin, who controls Wagner, which has also deployed mercenaries to Ukraine, has denied any connection to mines.
In Mali, generals who came to power last year have also turned to Russian mercenaries after relations with France, the former colonial power, soured. Mali expelled the French ambassador in January and French troops withdrew to neighbouring Niger in August. Wagner mercenaries are now fighting insurgents linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State in the centre of the country.
Samuel Ramani, an Oxford academic writing a book on Russia in Africa, said the allegations of Wagner’s presence in Burkina were plausible but could not be verified. “It’s difficult to ascertain any concrete evidence that Wagner is in Burkina,” he said.
France’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that Burkina’s government was fully aware of the dangers of working with Wagner. A senior French official said there was “no smoking gun so far”, although he did not dismiss Ghana’s claims.
Ramani said regional leaders were clearly nervous about Russia’s growing influence. Niger, a western ally, had expressed concern about the presence of Wagner’s mercenaries in neighbouring Mali and had been alarmed at rumours, spread on pro-Russia social media channels, that Moscow had set its sights on the country’s uranium, he said.
Shortly after the coup in Burkina Faso in September, a post on Telegram, the messaging service, read: “Three countries were already taken out of French control — CAR, Mali and Burkina Faso. Macron is effectively presiding over the collapse of the French neocolonial empire in north-west Africa . . . Niger and its uranium mines are next.”
In recent years, Wagner has also had a presence in Sudan, where it advised on how to deal with street protests, and in Mozambique, where in 2019 several of its mercenaries were killed in clashes with Islamists.