After Mali, France’s military cooperation with Burkina is on the razor’s edge.
Published on 18.1.2023
AFP reports: Coup d’etat against a backdrop of growing insecurity, Russian service offer and eviction of the French in the process: Paris hopes to avoid a “Malian” scenario in Burkina Faso, where the future of its military cooperation hangs on a tightrope as Moscow tries to advance its pawns.
Tension has risen a notch in recent months between Paris and Ouagadougou, where the new power resulting from a new coup d’etat in September intends to assert its sovereignty with force and “diversify its partners” in the anti-jihadist fight, long led with the help of France, of which 400 special forces are stationed in the country.
“Russia is a choice of reason in this dynamic”, and “we believe that our partnership must be strengthened”, underlined Saturday the Prime Minister of Burkina Faso Apollinaire Kyélem de Tembela, at the end of an interview with the ambassador of Russia Alexey Saltykov. At the beginning of December, he had made a discreet visit to Moscow.
The Malian precedent is in everyone’s mind. After nine years of presence, the French soldiers left the country last summer, pushed out by a hostile junta which appealed to the sulphurous Russian paramilitary company Wagner.
Behind the scenes, the Burkinabè junta assures Paris that it does not intend to enlist the services of Wagner, whose liaison team has come to prospect in Burkina rich in mineral resources, according to several French sources.
For the time being, therefore, the special forces of Operation Saber remain in the country. But their departure in the long term is anticipated, and would be acted on the field if the current president, the putschist captain Ibrahim Traoré, joined forces with Russian mercenaries who could provide him with a praetorian guard to stay in power.
According to two sources familiar with the matter consulted by AFP, the preferred option would then be to redeploy these special forces in the south of neighboring Niger, a country where nearly 2,000 French soldiers are deployed.
For some experts, the departure of French soldiers from Burkina seems in fact inevitable, while the presence of the former colonial power has not made it possible to stem the spiral of violence in this country among the poorest in the world.
“There is a profound development in the Sahel, that of an increasingly significant anti-French feeling which concerns not only certain elites but also sometimes important fringes of public opinion in the big cities”, underlines Alain Antil, expert at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).
If Paris explains that “this Francophobia is fabricated from scratch by geopolitical enemies”, it is in fact “much deeper”, he observes. African governments are obliged to take this into account, underlines the researcher, judging it “probable” that the military presence in the Sahel will be greatly reduced over time.
The hypothesis of a rapprochement between Burkina and Russia is emerging as tensions have recently increased between Paris and Ouagadougou: in November, a demonstration targeted the French embassy in Ouagadougou. And in December, the Burkinabè authorities demanded the departure of the French ambassador, after remarks deemed offensive.
Tensions are such that Paris sent Secretary of State Chrysoula Zacharopoulou to Ouagadougou last week to meet the transitional president.
“France does not impose anything, it is available to invent a future together”, she insisted, ensuring that she did not want to “influence any choice or any decision, no one can dictate their choices in Burkina”.
From a diplomatic source, it is explained that “the objective of the trip was not to put the Burkinabè up against the wall”. However, “the Secretary of State was very clear about the consequences of the choice that the authorities will make. »
For Drissa Traoré, a Burkinabè political analyst, “although the tension seems to have subsided, it is still the status quo”: “The authorities of the transition are strongly determined to forge new partnerships or to revitalize them, with Russia in pole position”.
For his part, President Emmanuel Macron has given himself until the spring to rethink French military partnerships on the African continent, which will have to stick to the specific requests of the countries and rely on less visible devices. Initial conclusions should be drawn “in the coming weeks”, from a government source.
“In purely strategic terms, even if it is not the closest neighbourhood, the Sahel is part of Europe’s southern neighbourhood”, points out Alain Antil. France and its partners have an interest in avoiding a destabilization that could reach North Africa.
Paris also intends to avoid a strategic downgrading in the face of its competitors on the African continent, which will have 2.5 billion inhabitants in 2050. Because France justifies in West Africa, like nowhere else in the world, its status as average power.