Arms sales in Burkina Faso: Rafi Dermardirossian, the fall of the falcon

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa’s barons of arm sales

By Nadoun Coulibaly, Vincent Duhem
Posted on Friday, 20 May 2022 16:42

Between 2016 and 2022, this French-Lebanese businessman of Armenian origin was the main purchasing intermediary in the Burkinabe ministries of the interior and defence. A close friend of former President Kaboré, he fled as soon as Kaboré was overthrown.

This is part 4 of a 4-part series

The fate of Roch Marc Christian Kaboré had not yet been sealed when Rafi Dermardirossian boarded an Air Burkina flight to Niamey, Niger. Since dawn on Sunday, 23 January, elements of the Cobra units (special forces of the army) had taken over several military buildings in Ouagadougou. Their objective: to overthrow the head of state.

At nightfall, a convoy leaving Kaboré’s private residence was targeted by the mutineers. Two gendarmes of the presidential security force were seriously injured. One lost a finger. Kaboré was not to be found, since he was hiding behind the walls of the gendarmerie’s Security and Intervention Squadron (ESI), a special unit responsible for the protection of public figures, located in the Karpala neighbourhood. He agreed to resign the next day. By then, Dermardirossian was already far away. From Niamey, the security and defence equipment broker took a flight to Beirut, Lebanon, where he currently resides.

This 45-year-old French-Lebanese businessman of Armenian origin had been living in Burkina Faso’s capital for about 10 years. His villa, in the Ouaga 2000 district, was a popular meeting place for the country’s politicians and businessmen who liked to come and relax. On weekends, it was not uncommon to see Roch Marc Christian Kaboré himself there, with a glass of champagne in hand. Over the years, the two men had almost become friends.

From Compaoré to Kaboré

The trader did his first business in Burkina during Blaise Compaoré’s tenure, and grew close to the president’s wife Chantal, who introduced him to the highest levels of government. Dermardirossian was not yet an arms dealer, but a rather ordinary businessman who traded in fabrics. “He was Chantal’s ‘good boy’, which opened the doors to his first markets,” says one of his former friends.

Through the then first lady, he met Sika Bella Kaboré, a Togolese who has been married to Roch Kaboré since 1982 after meeting in Lomé. As an employee of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) in Ouagadougou, she witnessed her husband’s meteoric rise within Compaoré’s regime: from minister, to prime minister, then president of the National Assembly and eventually head of the Congress for Progress and Democracy (CDP, then in power). She also regularly spent time with Chantal Compaoré.

Rafi’s rise to power is a rather blatant symptom of the weakness of the Burkinabe presidential entourage

Sika Kaboré and Rafi Dermardirossian got along well. Dermardirossian then met Roch Kaboré, with whom he would later become friends when the latter became head of state in 2015. In the meantime, Dermardirossian started to get involved in security affairs. He first specialised in supplying law enforcement equipment, acting as a business provider for Turkish companies in the Sahel. He set up his own company, Aranko Security, and signed his first contract during the transition following the fall of Compaoré in late 2014: small arms and ballistic protection equipment for the ministry of security.

“Rafi [Dermardirossian] took advantage of the growing jihadist threat and the security vacuum around Kaboré to impose himself. His rise to power is a rather blatant symptom of the weakness of the Burkinabe presidential entourage,” says a French security source.

The businessman notably benefited from some heavyweight supporters in the president’s entourage, such as Defence Minister Chérif Sy and Senior Colonel Jean-Baptiste Parkouda, central director of the military commissariat.

Suspicions of money laundering

Between 2016 and 2022, Dermardirossian became one of the main intermediaries for purchasing with the Burkinabe ministries of the interior and defence, signing deals for several tens of billions of CFA francs, to the great displeasure of his competitors, particularly the French.

He facilitated, for example, the purchase of automatic rifles for the armed forces from a Serbian company, Beatronic Supply Doo. One of the financial transactions between this military equipment specialist and Aranko Security, worth 60m CFA francs ($96,372), was to be flagged by the US Treasury in March 2017 for suspected money laundering.

His lack of discretion began to annoy certain members of the government, who tried to call him to order…

A colourful, fast-talking night owl who lived between Ouagadougou and Monaco, where some of his assets are located, Dermardirossian became an important cog in the Kaboré system. He had a diplomatic passport and took part in many official trips, sometimes even paying the hotel bills of the Burkinabe delegation out of his own pocket. However, his lack of discretion began to annoy certain members of the government, who tried to call him to order. To no avail. The bald-headed man with a salt-and-pepper beard seemed untouchable.

According to a source close to the French intelligence services, Dermardirossian paid commissions to several people close to Roch Kaboré when certain contracts were signed. These sums were also used to finance the Mouvement du peuple pour le progrès (MPP, the presidential party).

Yet in Ouagadougou, Dermardirossian would still be unknown to the general public if he had not been at the heart of one of the biggest military scandals of the Kaboré era. In October 2019, Vladimir Putin had invited some 40 African heads of state to Sochi. The military equipment dealer was accompanying President Roch. The summit was an opportunity to conclude contracts. In particular, Russia was to deliver helicopters to Burkina, concretising the defence agreement signed between the two countries in 2018. According to several sources, the head of state decided to use Dermardirossian as his main intermediary to ensure the five aircraft were delivered according to contract.

Russian helicopter scandal

It regularly happens that helicopters are delivered without all their equipment, which arrives in another shipment and is assembled on site. In this case, Dermardirossian was trying to avoid the lengthy procedures that accompany the purchase of military aircraft, including fly-over authorisations for certain territories.

To avoid this problem, he chose to buy civilian helicopters, commissioning a French company based in Burkina, Aérotechnologies, to transform them into combat aircraft. The company was supposed to buy the necessary equipment in Chad, but its technicians soon realised that the guns needed for the transformation were incompatible with the helicopters delivered to Burkina Faso, which could therefore not be used by the army in their current state.

Facsimile of the contract between Aranko and Aérotechnologies. ©JA MOUNT

Eight months after signing the contract, Aranko decided to terminate it and took Aérotechnologies to court. On 29 September 2021, its representative in Burkina Faso was sentenced to 40 months in prison, of which 24 are without parole.

The scandal caused a stir in Burkina. However, it had no impact on Dermardirossian’s business. The coup d’état that overthrew Roch, on the other hand, brought things to a serious halt. The businessman is hoping to bounce back in West Africa.

According to our sources, he recently approached the Ivorian defence ministry, which wants to buy helicopters. For the moment, he hasn’t yet succeeded in making the sale.

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