France has waged a counterterrorism campaign in the small West African country of Burkina Faso since 2018. But on Jan. 20, hundreds of protesters in the capital city of Ouagadougou waved Russian flags and demanded the French army’s ouster. Days later, the country’s military government told the French to leave within a month.
Burkina Faso is just the latest African country where the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked mercenary organization, has become the face of Russia’s foreign policy. The organization began in 2014 aiding Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, but its operations today span the globe. The Russian government denied its existence for years but has recently praised Wagner’s essential role in its war in Ukraine.
Wagner largely does Russia’s bidding but is motivated by profit. In Africa, it provides security services in exchange for money and access to mines. It uses propaganda to drive out Western influence so it can earn a quick buck without scrutiny, and a decade of failed Western counterterrorism campaigns gave it a lot of material to work with.
Wagner’s return on investment is significant. In the Central African Republic, for example, it is set to secure nearly $1 billion in mining profits, which help pay for new weapons and fighters in Ukraine.
But the Wagner Group isn’t bringing stability in Africa. With a track record of unfathomable cruelty, it will likely bring more suffering instead. The organization relishes in sharing torture on social media to help build its brutal brand -- examples include torturing and beheading a prisoner in Syria, executing a Russian deserter by smashing his head with a hammer and skinning another prisoner recruit alive.
Wagner is directly implicated in civilian slaughter in Mali as well, but somehow Russia doesn’t have a bad rap in West Africa just yet.
Today France is the face of heavily criticized Western intervention in the region, but the West’s counterterrorism efforts there began with the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks. The United States wasn’t acting against a specific threat, but rather to President George W. Bush’s vague idea that the US military must be ready to “strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world.”
Efforts aimed to prevent wars where conflict didn’t exist yet instead seemed to fuel future instability.
When the United States began operations in Burkina Faso in 2009, the country was relatively stable and at peace. The United States poured millions into the country’s armed forces each year, providing weapons and training that beefed up the power of its military class.
Accountability wasn’t a priority, so the US government took little effort to measure the impact of its support. As its military grew stronger, the government grew more corrupt, and little was done to alleviate the suffering of its people as resources diminished and poverty increased.
When violence spilled over from neighboring Mali in 2016, the government responded with ruthless counterinsurgency tactics targeting the Fulani ethnic minority. This helped drive local recruitment to the insurgency, turning a border problem into a homegrown one.
In 2021, Burkina Faso’s security services were responsible for nearly half the people killed in conflict that year. The United States and France responded with programs to improve the justice system and provide human rights training, but it all looked like window dressing on a system embedded with impunity. The people had grown so tired of the violence and the government’s inept response that many welcomed military coups the following year, coups led by US-trained officers.
By the time Western partners soured on Burkina Faso’s government and began restricting assistance, it was too late to shape its path. When the military government looked elsewhere for support, Wagner was ready.
Wagner’s crimes will be far worse than the West’s ineptitude, and it will likely only enhance the cruelty of state security forces. But undemocratic leaders will welcome its help maintaining their grip on power, and Wagner will supply it as long as it’s paid.
The West should play the long game. The United States should continue humanitarian and other nonmilitary support aimed at improving lives in countries where military cooperation is no longer possible. It can take the lead in enhancing cooperation with like-minded regional partners, like the Economic Community of West African States, which has taken a communal approach to pressing for greater stability and democracy in the region.
Western countries should also use national and international tools to hinder Wagner’s growing global abuse. The US Treasury Department’s recent decision to designate Wagner a transnational criminal organization is a good step. Wagner’s illegal economic exploits enable its terror. International policing cooperation can help impede it.
There are no quick fixes. Western countries are right to end support for abusive and unconstitutional military regimes. Continuing counterproductive campaigns wouldn’t improve security or squeeze out Russian influence.
We must stop overlooking abuse and ensure that our assistance doesn’t entrench bad actors and undermine human rights, or we will lose what influence we still have in the rest of the region too.
Elizabeth Shackelford is a senior fellow on US foreign policy with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. She wrote this for the Chicago Tribune. -- Ed.
(Tribune Content Agency)