In January 2023, the leader of Burkina Faso’s junta, Ibrahim Traoré, asked French counterterrorism forces to withdraw from the country within a month amid rising anti-French sentiment in the Sahel. By doing so Traoré exercised the country’s sovereign right to determine which, if any, foreign presence is welcome. However, many analysts argue Burkina Faso is likely to replace the military support of French forces with Russia’s notorious Wagner Group in the coming months. While Traoré denied this, it is widely believed that high-level meetings between Wagner and senior officials in Burkina Faso will culminate in collaboration despite Western concerns and probable high-cost repercussions.
The use of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group would be a dangerous mistake for Burkina Faso’s government, and would threaten broader efforts to contain the rising Salafi-jihadist threat in West Africa. The introduction of Wagner mercenaries with a history of grievous human rights abuses will not improve the situation—it will inflame it.
While long-term solutions cannot come from Russian mercenaries, the prolonged French military presence has also failed to bring peace and stability to the region. Tainted by a long colonial legacy in North Africa and limited success in the Sahel crisis since 2013, the French have been facing a wave of rejection and anti-French sentiment from both civilians and governments in the Sahel countries as they have struggled to contain the Salafi-jihadist rebels operating there. Just last year, Mali’s ruling junta replaced French military support with the Wagner Group, which was seen as more flexible and potentially more effective than the French. With France’s withdrawal from Burkina Faso and Traoré’s legitimacy dependent on improving the security situation, many fear that the new military regime will follow the Malian model and resort to the Wagner Group as a primary security partner. But with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and the al-Qaeda-affiliated JMIN surging across West Africa, the deployment of Wagner mercenaries in Burkina Faso would exacerbate the conflict in three provocative ways.
First, the brutal methods of the Wagner Group have been on full display in Ukraine, where its contract soldiers carry out indiscriminate attacks with no regard for civilian life to make minor advances. In neighboring Mali, which has already welcomed Wagner forces, data published by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project reveals that civilian deaths skyrocketed as the group targeted Fulani tribes and herders seen as sympathetic to the militant Islamists. Such indiscriminate targeting further deepens ethnic divisions and pushes local communities to seek protection and closer ties with extremist groups. The dire consequences are clear in the Malian case: in the year following Wagner’s arrival in December 2021, civilian targeting by rebel groups increased fourfold. The brutal tactics of the Wagner Group are not only morally wrong, they are counterproductive. If Burkina Faso follows the path of Mali in relying on Wagner mercenaries, it will only further inflame the conflict.
Second, Traoré’s government has severely damaged bilateral relations with France and despite its efforts to patch relations up, this development is likely to affect the aid and foreign direct investment the country receives from European partners in the future, especially as it pivots to greater reliance on Moscow. Decreased aid funding from France and the international community will only make the insurgency worse in the medium to long term as the country has fewer and fewer economic resources, a key driver of extremism and conflict. Already, the country is experiencing economic challenges and any reduction in aid and international funding will severely exacerbate this.
Lastly, the presence of foreign mercenaries will reduce pressure on Traoré to implement promised elections during 2024, ultimately diminishing chances for democracy to provide the government of Burkina Faso with some degree of legitimacy among Burkinabes. Partnership with the Wagner Group and Moscow rather than Western states will also reduce pressure on the regime to respect democratic norms such as press freedom and political dissent; not only is this an undesirable outcome in itself, but it will also make the regime less palatable and contribute to pushing dissidents to extremism if nonviolent opposition is made to seem incapable of achieving political goals. This democratic deficit will only further stoke discontent and continue to fuel the conflict, especially if—as we argue is likely—the incumbent regime fails to live up to its promise of improving the security situation in the long term.
Advocates of the Wagner option would assert that effectively countering the insurgent threat requires an approach that is tough on terrorism, and that the Wagner Group will infringe less on Burkina Faso’s sovereignty as a private military company compared to erstwhile colonial masters. Such advocates are destined to be disappointed on both counts. Heavy-handed counterinsurgency efforts usually backfire by pushing local communities into the arms of militant groups, and Wagner’s sledgehammer approach will engender the same result in Burkina Faso. Finally, while the Wagner Group does not officially condition aid in the same way as Western states, it does acquire commercial assets, access to natural resources, and privileged access to strategic infrastructure and bases. The more the incumbent regime relies on Wagner to remain in power, the more leverage the organization—and by extension, Moscow—will have to pressure the state and infringe on its sovereignty.
Wagner’s track record makes clear that its involvement in Burkina Faso would severely worsen the conflict rather than solve it, despite apparent short-term military gains (which would be accompanied by an explosion in civilian casualties). However, we should not underestimate Wagner. The group has managed to insert itself into Mali, expanding Moscow’s geopolitical influence in the region and producing slick propaganda to promote itself and its anti-Western narrative. Rather than employing Russian mercenaries or an overload of French military forces, which are tainted by colonial legacy and viewed as ineffective, sustainable peace in Burkina Faso requires multilateral cooperation—including other African states—with a steadfast commitment to respect for human rights and an openness to negotiate with ethnic and militant leaders. Western states who are involved militarily in the Sahel crisis should be especially careful not to come across as paternalistic and to avoid neocolonial optics—a mistake French President Emmanuel Macron made on more than one occasion. They should also be conscious of Wagner’s misinformation tactics and Russian anti-Western propaganda and should take determined measures both to counter it and avoid playing into its narrative. At the same time, the United States and European states should be careful not to treat Burkina Faso as a theater of great power competition but to understand that stability, security, and effective governance in the country are worthy objectives in their own right.
Regardless of the spike in political instability and conflict in diverse locations around the world, Burkina Faso remains crucial to international security. If Salafi-jihadist groups continue to expand and govern territory in the Sahel, they will secure yet another safe haven from which to plan attacks abroad and inspire similar ventures globally. Enduring insecurity contributes to new waves of migration and threatens the spread of violence and extremist networks into neighboring countries. As West Africa increasingly becomes the main locus for global militant Islamist movements outside the Middle East, taking constructive steps toward sustainable peace in Burkina Faso is more important than ever.
Broderick McDonald is an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and a postgraduate researcher at the University of Oxford.
Guy Fiennes is an OSINT analyst and a resettlement support worker at Asylum Welcome.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Daniel Tiveau, CIFOR