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April 19, 2022 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1633

Moscow Increases Its Presence In The Sahel Region – To France's Detriment: The Case Of Burkina Faso

April 19, 2022 | By Anna Mahjar-Barducci*
Russia, Africa | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1633

Russia is trying to increase its influence in the Sahel region, trying to exploit the anti-France sentiment that is developing in the area.[1] After consolidating its relations with the government in Mali, Russia is now wooing the new power in Burkina Faso. Following the recent coup that took place on January 24, 2022, several supporters of Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba, the country's interim president, have already called for strengthening the cooperation with Russia and breaking the country's partnership with France.[2]


Caption: "No to France. Yes to Russia. Listen to the people" (source: Facebook.com/Etoumou/)


(source: Twitter)

Demonstration Calling For Partnership With Russia

On March 27, 2022, the "Faso Lagam Taaba Zaka" coalition, which brings together more than 100 civil society organizations, demonstrated in the capital Ouagadougou, asking the new government to develop Burkina Faso-Russia military and strategic cooperation, with the main goal of countering jihadi movements active in the region. During the demonstration, secretary general of the coalition Somaila Nana said that the authorities must diversify their partners in this fight against terrorism by allying themselves with countries such as Russia, China, and North Korea. "We criticize the presence of military bases of foreign forces [i.e., France], which no longer deserve our confidence. We demand the cancellation of colonial defense agreements," he argued.

The promoters of the demonstration showed posters with photos of Burkina Faso interim President Damiba and Russian President Vladimir Putin, underlying their support also for the Malian military junta and its leader Colonel Assimi Goita, a military officer who has been serving as interim president since the May 2021 coup. During the event, the coalition stressed that the anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane, led by France, that spans five countries in the Sahel, namely Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, should be ended.[3]

It is worth noting that the "Faso Lagam Taaba Zaka" demonstration was previously planned to take place in the Place De La Nation ("Nation Square"), in downtown Ouagadougou, however the coalition could not get the necessary authorization and instead held the event in the Conseil Burkinabè des Chargeurs ("Burkinabe Shippers' Council").[4]

On April 10, 2022, during a conference in Ouagadougou discussing security in Burkina Faso, "Faso Lagam Taaba Zaka" stated that it is not possible win a war with someone who has never won a war. "France has never won a war, it has always granted itself victories. France has never won a war, we have chased it out everywhere." The movement then stated: "We say with [Burkinabe military officer, Marxist revolutionary, and pan-Africanist President of Burkina Faso] Thomas Sankara that 'only breaking with false friends and reorientating our foreign policy toward other horizons can guarantee us reliable and sincere partners with whom we can face the challenges of the moment in order to achieve a real independence." It then concluded that Burkina Faso needs new partnership with Russia, China, or Cuba.[5]


Faso Lagam Taaba Zaka demonstration (source: Facebook.com/globinfos/)


Faso Lagam Taaba Zaka demonstration (source: Facebook.com/globinfos/)


Faso Lagam Taaba Zaka demonstration (source: Facebook.com/globinfos/)


Poster: "French Army, get out! Down with French policy in Africa. Hello to Russia in Africa, Putin, help" (source: Facebook.com/Etoumou/)


Faso Lagam Taaba Zaka demonstration (source: Facebook.com/Etoumou/)


Faso Lagam Taaba Zaka demonstration (source: Facebook.com/Etoumou/)


Flags of Burkina Faso, Russia and Mali at the Faso Lagam Taaba Zaka demonstration (source: Facebook.com/Etoumou/)

Russia's Interests In Burkina Faso

Russian media outlet Gazeta.ru interviewed several Russia experts on Russia-Burkina Faso relations. Natalia Piskunova, an Africanist political scientist and associate professor at Moscow State University, stated that there is already a "fairly large presence" of Russian companies in Mali, Nigeria and Guinea, and now Moscow is increasing its presence in Burkina Faso. Piskunova added that Burkina Faso is not the richest country in terms of resources, but it is important for its geographical position, which connects Mali to Niger and to other African countries.[6]

The Russian expert also mentioned Burkina Faso's importance in the development of the Trans-Saharan Highway, a project that was suggested in the 1962, with some sections having been built in the 1970s, but that only now Chinese firms seem to be interested in reviving it and investing in it.[7]

Piskunova said: "Burkina Faso is important precisely as a transit state for the implementation of the large transport project of the Trans-Saharan Highway, which will allow the rapid transfer of goods across the entire African continent from East to West coast. Such a step would be a logical continuation of Moscow's policy in West Africa, where in the past two or three years there has been a systematic build-up of Russia's political, economic, and military presence. This is within the framework of the general policy of Russia's 'turn to the East,' which includes Africa."[8]

Conclusion

Pointing out that Russia is a relatively unknown player for the new leaderships in Africa (who may have had relations with the Soviet Union, but not with today's Russia), Piskunova said that Russia most of all has no "negative" record in the region. For these reasons, Moscow is perceived as the best alternative to Paris. "In Burkina Faso, the search for an alternative to the presence and influence of France has been going on for a long time, so for them a player without a colonial past and with great resources is naturally attractive."

Former Russian ambassador to Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia, Veniamin Popov, stated that the advantages of cooperation with Russia have been "increasingly understood" in the region lately. "It is from Moscow that help, solidarity, and real support come. Since, unlike the United States or France, Russia does not interfere in the internal affairs of African states. Russia offers assistance and does not set any conditions; this is very important for Africans. As a result, more and more African states are turning to Moscow asking for assistance in one area or another, this process is gaining momentum," the former diplomat stressed.[9]

According to the Russian media outlet Gazeta.ru, the real question concerning Burkina Faso is how stable the new authorities will be in order to conclude agreements with Russia. Meanwhile, on March 2, 2022, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) passed a resolution condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and Burkina Faso was among the African countries whose vote was not recorded, along with Cameroon, Ethiopia, Eswatini, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Morocco, and Togo.[10]

In April, Burkinabe Prime Minister Albert Ouedraogo stressed that Burkina Faso needs to diversify its alliances. "With regard to military cooperation with other states, the option now is to diversify partnerships, in order to optimize the specific strengths of each partner. In any case, these partnerships will be based on respect for our territorial independence and sincerity," he stressed.

*Anna Mahjar-Barducci is Director of the MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project.

 

[1] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis Series No. 1632, A Brief Review Of Russia's Influence Over Mali – To France's Detriment, April 14, 2022.

[2] It is worth noting that, according to Nigerian journalist Philip Obaji Jr., just before the coup, Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who was promoted a month earlier to oversee security in the capital city of Ouagadougou, tried twice to persuade Burkinabe President Roch Kabore to engage the Wagner Group in the country. However, Obaji wrote in the Daily Beast that Kabore rejected the idea. Thedailybeast.com/burkina-faso-president-ousted-after-refusing-to-pay-wagner-mercenaries, January 25, 2022.

[3] Globinfos.net/cooperation_militaire_franco_burkinabe-la-coalition-faso-lagam-taba-zaaka-nen-veut-plus/?fbclid=IwAR0W7PGYHsESeARm-XSJXG4zZ7C3paTSqvEDRYTaUnGTwXD2hNh9ZUJUfgM, March 27, 2022.

[4] Facebook.com/RealiteTv/photos/a.2060223827543291/3202659366633059/, March 28, 2022.

[5] Lefaso.net/spip.php?article112554, April 10, 2022.

[6] Gazeta.ru/politics/2022/01/28/14473555.shtml?updated, January 28, 2022.

[7] Asiatimes.com/2019/11/trans-saharan-highway-project-on-track/, November 13, 2019.

[8] It is also worth noting that Russian gold miner Nordgold recently announced that it had to shut Burkina Faso mine, citing security reasons in the country. Sowetanlive.co.za/business/2022-04-12-russias-nordgold-shuts-burkina-faso-mine-due-to-security-threats/?utm_medium=Social&utm_source=Facebook&fbclid=IwAR0mtilOBXLbYjdA5C4Nw8C5GFs-1_FNgYeRYOslBNuqxwfTHfAQUxJCxv0#Echobox=1649751313, April 12, 2022.

[9] Gazeta.ru/politics/2022/01/28/14473555.shtml?updated, January 28, 2022.

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