Russia is expanding its influence and military presence in the Sahel at a pace never seen before. After having consolidated itself in Mali, where Wagner’s mercenaries were decisive in the reconquest of Kidal by the national army against the Tuareg rebels last November, Moscow is now laying the foundations for its deployment in Burkina Faso and negotiating with Niger to become the necessary military ally. . To this end, the Russian government has created a new military structure, dependent on the Ministry of Defense and called Africa Corps, with which it intends to replace Wagner. Thus, they will move from a decentralized private enterprise model to another formula involving more direct control of the State. At the same time, the UN formalized its complete withdrawal from Mali at the beginning of December after handing over the Mopti base to the Malian authorities.
On November 14, after violent fighting against Tuareg rebels, the Malian army triumphantly entered the town of Kidal, a stronghold of the separatists which had escaped state control for more than a decade. But the Malian soldiers were not alone: some 600 Wagner mercenaries were part of the enormous convoy that left Gao for the reconquest. In various videos circulating on social networks, they could be seen aboard armored vehicles circulating in the city after their fall. A few days later, a flag with the Wagner logo flew over the Kidal fort until it was removed by the Malian authorities, who prefer to maintain a patriotic discourse attributing the role of the operation to their own armed forces.
“Would the Malian army have been capable of reconquering the Kidal region alone? Who knows. What is beyond doubt is that Russian participation has helped and that the Sahel Armed Forces, as is the case in Mali, now have better equipment,” said Amid Bencherif, researcher specializing in the Sahel. . The presence of Wagner’s mercenaries on Malian soil has been proven since at least December 2021, as well as their participation in numerous anti-terrorist operations, particularly in the center of the country. Since then, Russian weapons have been flowing into Mali and Colonel Assimi Goïta, head of the Malian military junta, received a lot of attention from Vladimir Putin himself during the Africa-Russia summit held last July.
However, the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s boss, after his rebellion against the Russian president, changed the way that country provides military support to its African allies. On November 22, a recruitment ad for a structure called Africa Corps appeared on Telegram, which presents itself as Russia’s new armed wing on the continent, directly linked to the Ministry of Defense. According to the All Eyes on Wagner association, which specializes in the activities of this company, “Africa Corps would be a convenient cover to accommodate the operational staff of the Russian Ministry of Defense, but also its security services, with much more limited autonomy than the Wagner group and without a strong figure.”
The proximity of Burkina Faso and Niger
Burkina Faso is also moving closer to Russia. On November 10, a Russian army plane landed at Ouagadougou airport. Around twenty uniformed officers got off the plane and settled in a luxurious hotel in the Burkinabe capital, according to different sources. For the first time and after a year of rumors, Russian soldiers were seen openly in a chemical factory and allowed themselves to be photographed in the laboratory of substances against viral hemorrhagic fevers in Bobo-Dioulasso, the country’s second city. A few days earlier, public television in this African country had broadcast a report on the fight against jihadism in the North-Central region in which an army captain appeared wearing two large Wagner logos sewn on his uniform, according to All Eyes on Wagner.
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Even if Captain Ibrahim Traoré, strong man of the Burkinabè military junta, has chosen since coming to power to strengthen his own anti-jihadist fight capabilities, carrying out intense, even forced, recruitment both for his Armed Forces and for the controversial Volunteers. for the Defense of the Fatherland (VDP), has also recognized on numerous occasions the need to have international support in this fight, particularly in material resources. Like Goïta, the Burkinabe leader had several conversations with Vladimir Putin at the St. Petersburg summit and then by telephone, and the Russian and Burkinabe military delegations met several times over the last year.
In Niger, where a military junta has also reigned since last summer, the new authorities denounced last Monday the defense agreements which linked it to the European Union. The same day, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Yunous-Bek Evkurov met in Niamey with General Abdourahmane Tchiani, Nigerien President, and General Salifou Mody, Minister of Defense. The meetings aimed to “strengthen cooperation between the two countries in the field of Defense”, according to a press release from the Nigerien government. “It is obvious that there is a strategy (on Russia’s part) to expand its influence,” says Bencherif, while hindering Western influence.
This Russian expansion comes after the authorities of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger expelled French soldiers from their respective territories and created the Alliance of Sahel States, a mutual aid and military cooperation organization born in the midst of a military threat . intervention against Niger by the rest of the countries in the region. The three states also collaborate on economic and commercial matters to counter the sanctions to which they are subject by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The UN mission in Mali was also forced to fold at the request of the military junta.
Meanwhile, the jihadism that has plagued the region for more than a decade and is led by local branches of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State remains very active. The massive attack launched at the end of November against the town of Djibo, in the north of Burkina Faso, repelled by the army and leaving at least 22 soldiers and dozens of terrorists dead, as well as the latest attacks by jihadists in several Malian cities like Ménaka, are testing their operational capacity. Last week, the G5 Sahel anti-jihadist alliance, supported by the West, began its dissolution process.
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