French soldiers prepare their armored vehicles as part of the new Task Force Takuba, a multinational military mission in sub-Saharan Africa’s troubled Sahel region on Dec. 7, 2021. Photo by Thomas Coex/AFP.
A string of coups and attempted coups across the Sahel region of Africa may be opening the door to Russian influence, led by mercenary forces, in some of Africa’s most resource-rich nations.
With a climate roughly comparable to that of the American Southwest, the Sahel region of Africa stretches like a 6,000-kilometer belt across the continent — a transition zone between the northern Sahara desert and the forests and savannas of the midcontinent. But among the dozen or so countries with land in the region, six have seen armed attempts to overthrow their government — four of them successful — since 2020, including two this year. In several cases, the coups produced openings for a growth in Russian influence.
In March 2021, a coup failed in Niger, but when the president of Chad died the next month, his son used the military to take power in that country. In September and October, military leaders in Guinea and Sudan successfully overthrew their civilian governments, ending democratic reforms. And in several of those cases, leaders of the coups, seeking stability and to put down insurgencies, opened the door to Russian influence, led by the mercenaries of the Wagner Group. Often dubbed Russia’s “little green men,” the Wagner group is owned by oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, an ex-convict and former hot dog vendor with close ties to Vladimir Putin.
In January, military leaders in the landlocked West Africa nation, citing a surging Islamic insurgency, overthrew the government of President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, a former banker and government minister who had been in power since 2015. Kaboré had struggled to contain the Islamic insurgency, which includes groups associated with the Islamic State group and al Qaeda.
The New York Times reported that violence between government forces and militants for most of Kaboré’s reign had displaced 1.4 million people, killed 2,000, and plunged much of the country into ungoverned lawlessness. Nearly 80% of the nation’s exports come from mining, including gold and silver.
Burkina Faso’s government and economy have long been tied to those of its former colonizer, France, and the leader of the coup, Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, has a history of attending schools and exercises run by the US State Department and military. However, in the week after the coup, evidence of Russian influence began to appear. The Daily Beast reported that Damiba had, prior to the coup, lobbied Kaboré to hire the Wagner Group to combat the insurgency, and pro-coup protesters were reported to be flying Russian flags during large protest events in the capital of Ouagadougou. Damiba was also said to have ties to the leaders of the juntas who seized power in Mali and Guinea.
An attempted coup in February in the small, coastal nation also appears to have roots outside its borders. But rather than geopolitics, the gunmen who stormed government buildings in an attempt to overthrow President Umaro Sissoco Embaló appear to have been associated with international drug trafficking rings that operate in the country. Though Guinea-Bissau is only about half the size of West Virginia, the US State Department declared in 2014 that the country was “a narco-trafficking hub” between South America and Europe, that “corruption is endemic at all levels of government” and that “law enforcement and judicial officers are involved in drug trafficking, as are elements of the military.”
Gunfire erupted in the country’s capital of Bissau on Feb. 1, as at least four gunmen attempted to reach Embaló and his cabinet during a meeting.
The former Portuguese colony has seen nine coups or attempted coups since 1980.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2022 print edition of Coffee or Die Magazine as “The Sahel Coups.”
Matt White is a former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine. He was a pararescueman in the Air Force and the Alaska Air National Guard for eight years and has more than a decade of experience in daily and magazine journalism.
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