On 25 July, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, president of Burkina Faso’s transitional government, walked the red carpet at Ouagadougou airport before taking off for St Petersburg, where the second Russia-Africa Summit is taking place (27-28 July).
After the successful Sochi summit in 2019, and a year and a half after the start of the war in Ukraine, this major gathering is a diplomatic and economic test for Vladimir Putin. Traoré is among the heads of state who responded, along with his elder Malian counterpart, Colonel Assimi Goïta.
Since his coup d’état on 2 October 2022, Traoré has only crossed Burkina Faso’s borders once: on 2 November of the same year, for a “friendship and working visit” to Bamako, marking the start of a rapprochement between Mali and Burkina Faso.
At Koulouba Palace, Goïta and his guest discussed bilateral military and security cooperation, as well as their relations with Russia.
For his part, the president of Mali’s transitional government is hardly inclined to travel: he has not left his country since his second coup d’état in May 2021.
Having made Russia his new ally and protector, Goïta was bound to attend this summit in St Petersburg, where Putin will be counting his African partners. The two men have never met, but they have had two telephone conversations, in August 2022 and June 2023.
Wagner in Mali, but not in Burkina Faso
In regular contact with Traoré, the head of the Malian junta has been working for several months to bring Moscow and Ouagadougou closer together.
In December 2022, the Malian authorities facilitated a discreet trip to Russia by Burkina Faso’s Prime Minister Apollinaire Joachim Kyélem de Tambèla. A Malian air force plane picked him up in Ouagadougou and took him to Bamako, from where he flew on to Moscow.
During this trip, the possibility of deploying mercenaries from the Wagner group in Burkina Faso and acquiring military equipment were raised. Although Goïta has not hesitated to bring in Prigojine’s men, this has not yet been the case with Traoré.
“Wagner cannot enter into the scheme of cooperation with Russia. The only valid option for curbing terrorism is the commitment of the people of Burkina Faso,” said Zéphirin Diabré, former leader of the Burkinabe opposition, in late 2022.
Ibrahim Traoré is fully committed to this approach, and has been playing the nationalist card ever since he came to power, favouring the reconquest of national territory by Burkinabè forces alone. “The fight for total independence has begun,” he said in his speech to the nation in December 2022.
The head of Burkina Faso’s transitional government has been under pressure from an increasing number of jihadist attacks that have left the country in a state of mourning.
In search of support, he claims to have approached Russia, which supplied him with weapons and attack helicopters in March. Still looking for funding to wage its war against terrorism, Ouagadougou is now talking about “deliberate and assertive cooperation” with Moscow.
Strong Malian delegation
In order to find “solutions for the security and development of Burkina Faso […] in a new mutually beneficial partnership with Russia”, Traoré is reportedly seeking new economic and military agreements in St Petersburg. With the real risk of destabilising his regime on everyone’s mind, his Russia trip was only announced at the very last moment.
Goïta, for his part, had long planned to go to St Petersburg, having confirmed his arrival back in February. For the head of the Malian junta, the stakes are twofold:
- to show that he is a respectable head of state – at a time when many suspect that he wants to run for the presidency, with elections due to be held in 2024 – and
- to pursue economic and military cooperation with Russia.
At his side is a delegation of 80 people, including several ministers: Abdoulaye Diop (foreign affairs), Sadio Camara (defence) and Alhousseini Sanou (economy). “We expect several agreements to be signed. Russia is Mali’s most strategic partner,” a spokesman for the Malian embassy in Moscow told Russian news agency Tass on 18 July.
In addition to the military agreements under way, deliveries of wheat at reduced prices have already been reported in Mali, as Moscow looks for outlets following its break with European markets.
Thierry Vircoulon, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), believes that other “secret deals”, which would enable Russia to circumvent international sanctions, could be at the heart of the St Petersburg discussions.
As the US State Department pointed out in May, Mali is also suspected of supplying the Russians with arms and munitions, officially acquired for its own army. According to US authorities, these weapons and ammunition were “intended for use in Ukraine”.
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