Burkina coup leader signs $500,000 lobbying deal to unblock US aid

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Monday, 25 July 2022 23:24

Paul Henri Sandaogo Damiba (photo: @PaulHenriDamiba)

The Burkinabe lieutenant-colonel who deposed President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré in January has hired a well-connected former Israeli intelligence officer to unblock millions of dollars in suspended US aid and court Middle East security assistance.

President Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba hired Ari Ben-Menashe and his Canadian lobbying firm Dickens and Madson for $500,000 to press Congress and the Joe Biden administration to release “all frozen funds” and approve an additional grant of undisclosed size, according to a newly disclosed lobbying filing.

The State Department suspended $158.6m in aid in February after determining that Kaboré was deposed in a coup, while the Millennium Challenge Corporation has paused a $450m multi-year electricity grant in Burkina Faso.

In addition, Ben-Menashe promises to set up meetings for Damiba with acting Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman “to start a discussion about the security situation in North Africa.” The contract states that Israel is to supply the land-locked Sahel country with military equipment for its fight against Islamist militants.

It was a coup. You can’t label it anything but a coup. But, so what?

The goal of Damiba’s engagement, Ben-Menashe told The Africa Report, is to help bring “stability, peace, and help the economy of the region.” He called the new Burkinabe leader “very pro-American” and eager to find alternatives to the unpopular French and the rising influence of Russia and China in the region.

Contagion of coups

Ben-Menashe doesn’t dispute that Damiba took power undemocratically. But he insists the US would be making a mistake by adopting a punitive approach.

“It was a coup. You can’t label it anything but a coup. But, so what?” he says.

Better to build relations with Damiba and his fellow putschists in the Sahel countries of Mali and Guinea, he says, and work with them to transition back to civilian rule.

“You have to understand that these military guys are really, really popular,” says Ben-Menashe, who is also a registered lobbyist for the Republic of Congo and the Sudanese junta, among others. “Because these French-speaking politicians, civilian politicians, were all seen as just corrupt … older guys, who (only) care about this about stealing money.”

Already African leaders in the region are turning down the pressure amid a surge in militia violence. Despite its eagerness to avoid a contagion of coups in the region, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) earlier this month agreed to lift sanctions on Mali’s military regime and approved of Burkina’s proposal for a two-year transition back to civilian rule after suspending Ouagadougou in January.

Looking for new friends

Regarding his outreach to the Middle East, Ben-Menashe said Israel is eager to continue building relations with Muslim-majority countries following the historic Abraham Accords with Morocco, Sudan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf countries have at times been accused of indoctrinating and funding jihadist groups around the world, including those wreaking havoc in the Sahel.

“There’s suspicion that some [people in the Gulf] are funding the Islamists,” Ben-Menashe said. “And the idea would be to try to get the Saudis to stop it.”

However, Andrew Lebovich, a policy fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations focusing on North Africa and the Sahel, says jihadist groups in the region have their own sources of funding including gold mining and pay limited attention to Saudi preachers. In a statement last month, the Saudi foreign ministry pointedly denounced a terrorist attack in Burkina Faso’s Seytenga city that killed dozens of people.

“The Saudis have money and a strong security apparatus, and the transitional government is looking for support wherever they can get it,” says Lebovich. “So they’re looking at a number of potential alternative partners.”

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