Almost a year after Burkina Faso’s most recent coup, the West African nation is grappling with an intensifying jihadist militant problem. On September 4th, 17 soldiers and 36 volunteer fighters were killed in clashes with militants, marking Burkina Faso’s worst attack in months.
However, the government, led by 34-year-old army captain Ibrahim Traoré, who assumed power in September of the previous year during the second of two coups in 2022, finds itself in an increasingly challenging predicament. With domestic options exhausted for countering the militant threat, Traoré’s pool of potential international partners has dwindled. Now, it appears that his only viable alternative is turning to Russia and the Wagner Group, a private military company.
One of Burkina Faso’s key challenges is that its army has played a supplementary role to French military contingents since 1987. This arrangement, common in many Francophone countries, has limited the size, equipment, and training of domestic armies. The insurgents facing the Burkinabè military are highly trained in the practical use of weapons, technical communication devices, surveillance, reconnaissance, and guerrilla warfare. They target government forces not to seize territory or acquire weapons and vehicles but to weaken and instill fear.
Burkina Faso’s military officers have voiced concerns about two main issues: the need for improved weaponry, technical equipment, and supplies, and a shortage of specialists, experienced sergeants, and battalion commanders.
An officer explained that in the past, they only had enough equipment for half of their contingent to participate in operations, with the rest staying at the base. Now, while the entire contingent can be deployed, effectively countering the insurgency requires better equipment and greater professionalism, which would necessitate partnering with external forces.
However, Captain Traoré, who came to power citing the country’s deteriorating security situation, is riding a wave of anti-French and pro-sovereignty sentiment among urban youth in the Sahel region. These sentiments legitimize his rule but constrain his options for international partnerships. France is no longer a viable choice, as French forces were ordered to leave Burkina Faso in January. United Nations peacekeeping forces have also faced disapproval from Traoré’s administration.
As domestic and international options dwindle, Burkina Faso is increasingly likely to turn to Russia’s Wagner Group or a similar entity. Traoré has examples in the region to draw inspiration from, including Mali’s interim president, Colonel Assimi Goïta, who hired Wagner in 2021 and has a close relationship with Captain Traoré.
Traoré has also been working to cultivate ties with Moscow, making a prominent appearance at the Russia-Africa Summit in St. Petersburg in late July. In his speech, he positioned himself as the embodiment of Africa’s new anti-imperialist generation.
However, to date, Traoré has refrained from enlisting Wagner’s services for several reasons. Burkina Faso has a strong pro-sovereignty ideology rooted in the legacy of revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara, who criticized neo-colonialism and hypocrisy. This ideology extends to all international partners, not just Western ones.
Additionally, Burkina Faso is wary of Wagner’s operations in the Central African Republic, where the private military company’s counterinsurgency measures successfully weakened armed groups but also penetrated the local economy. The capital, Ouagadougou, is cautious about facing similar issues. The track record of Wagner’s operations in Mali, where it faced challenges from the country’s elite and had less success countering insurgent groups, raises concerns about its potential effectiveness in Burkina Faso.
Therefore, Burkina Faso’s military has been working to bolster its position and avoid the Wagner option. Last year, the government announced plans to recruit 50,000 fighters for the Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland (VDP), which Traoré described as “our Wagner”. However, this recruitment drive did not quell the insurgency, leading to a “general mobilization” earlier this year to provide the state with all necessary means to combat jihadist fighters.
On September 16th, the leaders of Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger formed the Alliance of Sahel States, known as AES, under a collective defense pact. While Traoré has consistently denied plans to partner with Wagner, the private military company’s prospects and remit are evolving. The death of Wagner’s leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, in August prompted Russia’s defense ministry to seek control over Wagner’s Africa operations.
Partnering with a group controlled by the Russian government could imply a state-to-state relationship, which aligns with the Sahel’s pro-sovereignty movement. Burkina Faso has explored this possibility under the AES security agreement signed with Mali and Niger. Traoré has made every effort to avoid external intervention, but Burkina Faso’s deteriorating security situation may leave him with no choice but to engage with Wagner, albeit indirectly.