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‘Russian Time’: How Burkina Faso fell for the charms of Moscow

Russia has been increasing its influence in Burkina Faso, where disillusionment with French politics has left a void.

Supporters of Burkina Faso’s military government leader, Ibrahim Traore, hold the national flags of Burkina Faso and Russia during a demonstration in Ouagadougou on October 6, 2022. Traore was appointed president of Burkina Faso a day earlier following the West African country’s second coup in less than nine months [Issouf Sanogo/AFP]By Justin YargaPublished On 15 Mar 202415 Mar 2024

In the heart of Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, a poster advertising free Russian language courses has been attached to the large, iconic model of a globe on a road intersection which locals refer to as the “United Nations roundabout”.

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union (USSR) had a strong presence in Africa through diplomatic representation and cultural centres, including in Burkina Faso. Three decades since Russia left large parts of Africa amid the breakup of the Soviet Union, however, signs of its return are visible in Burkina Faso, where the capital’s walls are adorned with pro-Russian graffiti, and Russian flags fly in the streets.

“Something has changed, and it is eye-catching. You can feel it immediately, walking the streets and the roundabouts,” said a resident who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions from the government, which has been controlled by the military since a coup in January 2022. In the aftermath of that coup, which overthrew the elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, Russian flags began to appear during anti-French protests.

At a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is seeking re-election for a fifth term as leader of the country this weekend, is no longer welcome in many parts of the world following the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow is seen as a friend in Ouagadougou.

A view of the United Nations roundabout in Ouagadougou on November 5, 2020 [Olympia de Maismont/AFP]

A football tournament, a graffiti festival, a photo exhibition, film screenings, a public conference, and a daily radio show called “Russian Time”, during which hosts speak in a mixture of French and Russian, are some of the events that take place in Ouagadougou every day, as local frustration for former coloniser France has been exploited by Russia to secure influence in the country.

Organisations such as the African Initiative – which describes itself as “an association of Burkinabè and Russians whose aim is to strengthen friendship and mutual understanding, peace and harmony between the peoples of Burkina Faso and Russia” – and Russia’s cultural centre, The Russian House, are working to promote Russia’s image in the country.

This charm offensive began in early 2022 and has gained ground significantly since a grand Russia-Africa summit was held in Saint Petersburg at the end of July 2023. During that summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to send aid to Burkina Faso and duly followed up on January 26 this year with an official donation of 25,000 tonnes of wheat as part of that promise.

In spite of France

Dissatisfaction with French influence has grown on two fronts. One of these is cultural. One researcher who did not wish to be named explained that many people in Burkina Faso do not identify with what they see as the West European country’s progressive policies, such as same-sex marriage, and see less permissive Russian attitudes as more in line with their own.

“Russia is popular in Burkina Faso today because people are fed up with French politics,” explained a Burkinabe university professor and researcher who also requested anonymity. “The Russians sensed that France poorly negotiated its turn with Africa. It has arrived in a country in the throes of a divorce with France,” the researcher added.

“In the case of Burkina Faso, Russia is making significant diplomatic gains by repositioning itself in areas that have traditionally been Western strongholds. And the best part is, it can achieve this at a lower cost,” said Newton Ahmed Barry, a Burkinabe journalist currently in exile in France.

Bags of Russian wheat donated to Burkina Faso are displayed at an official donation ceremony in Ouagadougou on January 26, 2024 [Fanny Naoro-Kabre/AFP]

Like Mali and Niger – two neighbouring countries led by military governments – Burkina Faso’s primary complaint against the former coloniser, however, is its inability to curb threats from armed groups in the Sahel region since 2013.

France had been providing military support to Sahel countries in this fight, with troops deployed in Mali since 2013, in Niger since 2014, and special forces that have been based in Ouagadougou since 2009. Despite this, armed groups have remained powerful, and protests filled with Russian flags and images of Vladimir Putin took place in Ouagadougou in January 2023 to demand the departure of the French military and its ambassador.

Russia has tried to step into the void. Under the leadership of Captain Ibrahim Traore, who took power in a second coup in September 2022, Burkina Faso has strengthened its military cooperation with Russia, seeking support from Moscow in its fight against armed groups. “It is an official and assumed option to make Russia the partner, replacing all other partners, namely, Westerners and mainly France,” Barry said.

He added that the move is not a “diversification of partnerships”, but rather a clear choice to rely on Russia to equip the army and protect the regime – similar to Russia’s involvement in Syria, the Central African Republic and Mali.

In November 2023, the first group of Russian soldiers landed in the capital city of Burkina Faso, followed months later by another group of about 100 Russian military advisers.

A ‘laboratory’ for Russian expansion

Since then, the signs of a shift from French to Russian influence have become increasingly apparent. In Ouagadougou, large French-owned companies like the telecom giant Orange or the brewer Brakina are still present. But, apart from these businesses, significant changes are happening politically, diplomatically and, lately, increasingly culturally.

These “influence initiatives” recall the ones in the Central African Republic (CAR), where Russia, through the Wagner mercenary groupexp, anded its influence in the country in 2018 and, from there, onto other countries in the region, such as Mali.

Observers refer to the CAR as a “laboratory” for expanding Russian influence in sub-Saharan Africa through Wagner. While Wagner has no current official presence in Burkina Faso, they say this process is being repeated there, too.

“Burkina is becoming the laboratory of the post-Prigozhin Russian presence, where the dominant actor is the Russian state,” Maxime Audinet, a French researcher and expert in Russian information influence, said. He was referring to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Wagner who was killed in a plane crash north of Moscow in August 2023, two months after openly criticising Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and staging a rebellion.

A banner of Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen during a protest to support Burkina Faso President Captain Ibrahim Traore and to demand the departure of France’s ambassador and military forces, in Ouagadougou, on January 20, 2023 [Olympia de Maismont/AFP]

On February 24, four large flags, including Russia’s, were displayed in front of the stands at the Sports Complex of August 4 Stadium where a martial arts tournament was taking place. Competitors from Russia, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger competed in a combat sport almost unknown to the public – sambo, a martial art originally from the Soviet Union and similar to mixed martial arts (MMA).

The tournament, dedicated to Vladimir Putin, was organised by the Sambo Sports Association and African Initiative.

“The fact that it is the sambo is not trivial,” said Audinet. “This martial art was developed during the Soviet Union and was popular among the Soviet military and intelligence service members. It’s a hyper-Soviet sport, and it’s mind-blowing to see it is being promoted in Ouagadougou.”

Source: Al Jazeera