Ramdane Gidigoro* (Niger), Malick Sadibou Coulibaly (Mali), and Rachid Zaïd Combary (Burkina Faso)

Hôtel Kremlin | Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso

Read the French version here.

From a one-eyed to a blind horse: How hopes for change in the Sahel turned into a nightmare

For decades, villagers and city dwellers in the Sahel countries of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso had hoped for change in their “dust and pollution” riddled lives, tyrannised as they were by corrupt governments, French uranium exploitation and gangster jihadis who stole their cattle and abducted their sons. When, in the 2020s, earnest-looking military colonels and captains stood up, declared themselves revolutionaries, kicked out the French, and brought in Russian partners to finally end the extremist violence plaguing the region, they celebrated in the streets.

But their hopes were smashed. Now, those seeking real independence and pragmatic solutions to poverty are oppressed, as their home region remains at the mercy of the world’s bullies. In a four-month investigation, largely undercover, members of the Network of African Investigative Reporters and Editors (NAIRE) unearthed slivers of truth and spoke to those who still try to find ways forward.

Alassane Kiemdé, a clothing seller on the market streets of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, still believes that the solution to the crisis in his country lies “in the partnership with Russia.” Like many city dwellers, he’d like nothing more than for the terrorism to be over, so that people can visit their villages again, but he feels the French military have failed dismally to help with that. “Past regimes have wasted a lot of time relying on France,” he explains. “If we had been on Russia’s side from the beginning, terrorism would have been suppressed a long time ago.” Other traders agree. Another reason they support Russia, they say, is because that country, unlike the West, shares certain “African cultural values” particularly regarding homosexuality.

“Past regimes wasted time relying on France”

In Burkina Faso’s neighbouring Sahel countries, many feel the same way. In the cities of Mali, just over the northern border, where a pro-Russian junta first took power in 2020, placards and radio speeches still blast anti-white, anti-French, and anticolonial slogans every day. In Niger, to the north east, young political activists haven’t stopped celebrating since the new military leaders arrived last year and chose to partner with Russia rather than France.

Prominent activist Nouhou Arzika, president of the Mouvement pour la promotion de la citoyenneté responsable, a civil society movement that was persecuted under previous regimes and is now close to the military junta, is happy that the revolutionary changes have put his country prominently on the world map. “Now everyone is talking about Niger,” he pronounces, satisfied.

It is just weeks after big anti-French and pro-Russian celebrations rocked the capital, Niamey, and second city, Agadez, where crowds danced to Ivorian singer Alpha Blondy’s hit: “French Army! Leave us… We no longer want you… We no longer want false independence under close surveillance…”

France is resented in the Sahel for its failure to effectively assist its weak partner-governments in their “anti-terrorism” fight (see here and here) against jihadi militants who, in this poverty-stricken region, are more akin to cattle-rustling and drugs-smuggling gangs with only a thin veneer of religion on top. Numerous observers, including ZAM network member Bram Posthumus, have pointed out how cruel and indiscriminate France’s attacks on already-tormented villagers have been.

Even the school meals programme was being eaten by the corrupt

This resentment was only exacerbated by the previous regimes: weak, thoroughly corrupt, and supported by the French. While their state collected hundreds of millions of French euros in aid, Mali’s citizens saw even their school meal program being eaten by government-connected predators.

Dust and pollution

Nigeriens, for their part, are still suffering the pollution and sickness caused by uranium mining in their country, generously facilitated by a regime that preferred to rake in luscious contracts and line elite pockets than to care for the affected population. “If we are the poorest country on the planet, it is simply because France wanted it! (They) have been exploiting Niger’s uranium for almost 50 years, but what has Niger honestly gained? Nothing but dust and pollution! We are irradiated here,” says Almoustapha Alhacen of the NGO Aghirman in an interview.

“We are irradiated here”

With the Sahel its location and its resources being a prize for the world’s more powerful players, it did not take Russia long to start turning the situation to its advantage. All through 2022 (up to September, when the pro-Russian coup took place) social media campaigns counting hundreds of messages in Burkina Faso targeted then-leader, military officer Paul-Henri Damiba, as a “craven” ally of France and accused his junta of “lacking interest in exploring partnerships with anti-colonial allies like Russia.” 

The campaigns simultaneously touted the Russian paramilitary force Wagner’s (now Africa Corps) supposedly successful role in combatting banditry and terrorism in Mali. In Niger, announcements of anti-French protests appeared to be partially informed by Russian plans to take over US military bases. “It wasn’t so much Russia creating the fertile ground for a takeover,” is Ouagadougou University Professor Augustin Loada’s analysis of the situation, “as much as aptly making use of it.”

Wagner and darkness

But Russia’s paramilitary brigades have not made the Sahel safer at all. By the end of 2023, the Blood Gold Report (compiled by a research team from various international pro-democracy organisations, focused on links between mining companies, authoritarian African governments, and Russian mercenaries) counted 600+ dead citizens massacred by Wagner in Mali’s villages. Simultaneously, also in Mali, the junta bought more and more arms from Russia while incurring more and more state debt, to the extent that it can no longer pay for diesel to keep its electricity generators working. Today, the country is plunged into darkness in the evenings, many small businesses have had to close their doors, and crime is rising in the cities.

Spending on Russian weapons increased state debt

The same rise in violent crime is, according to its citizens, plaguing Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou, while villages there have also become less safe. Massacres by the army and its Russian partners have become more frequent there, too, and have not made much of a dent in jihadi militancy. According to a report by the Institute for Economics and Peace, which produces the international index of terrorism in the world each year, Burkina Faso was the country most affected by terrorism in the world in 2023.

Niger is also buying “tons of military equipment” while already bad roads are deteriorating further, with water wells running drier by the day and construction companies “packing up.” Meanwhile, Russia’s Rosatom is preparing to take over the uranium mines in the north. It has clearly been “no use changing a one-eyed horse for a blind one,” as Almoustapha Alhacen puts it.

A vortex of self-enrichment

The captains and colonels of the juntas appear to have morphed into even worse versions of their countries’ previous corrupt regimes. Governance failures in the three countries range from the state failing to pay its bills to the further crumbling of roads, water and electricity infrastructure. “In Mali we are waiting to be paid since 2021,” said one supplier, while in Burkina Faso, fake news campaigns and the government both blamed “saboteur” tax agency workers for the empty state coffers.

The simplest analysis of this situation would blame the military leaders’ lack of governance experience, perhaps compounded by the sanctions imposed by the surrounding still West-aligned countries. But another element may be as much a cause as a consequence of these failures: the vortex of self-enrichment that has gripped the current powers in the region.

New houses for the colonels have sprung up like mushrooms

On the road to the garrison town of Kati in Mali, new houses for the colonels have recently sprung up like mushrooms, and more construction is still ongoing. “This is scandalous,” says a neighbour who lives close by. “(Junta member) Colonel Sadio Camara is feeding several horses in his yard. He even has two stables. While we are struggling to survive.”

Documents from the BMS bank in Mali, obtained by ZAM, show how current accounts belonging to individuals now in power have morphed to savings accounts, which are set to receive funds linked to public contracts, according to bank employees we interviewed.

In Burkina Faso, lucrative public contracts for security arrangements for a mining company, thirty military vehicles (contract documents in the possession of ZAM), and a new airline have been dished out by the junta-led state to allies, nephews, and friends. There are clear indicators of illicit enrichment in these contracts, as in the ongoing court case against a Canadian company for gold smuggling and tariff ducking, which was recently suddenly settled between the company and the government for US$14 million a fraction of the amount the country’s coffers would have received if the trial had run its course.

In Niger, the contracts for the “tons of military equipment” the country is currently receiving from Moscow, as well as the amounts involved in the 2023 deal for a Russian nuclear plant and the expected new uranium mining contract with Russia’s Rosatom, are shrouded in secrecy.

Persecution of critics

Meanwhile, the persecution of journalists, political opponents, and civil society activists by security forces has intensified in all three countries. Kidnappings, disappearances, and forced recruitment to the frontlines of the “war on terror” are real threats in Burkina Faso, where a recent social media post promised rewards for the capture and murder of ten named vocal critics and journalists.

A post promised rewards for the murder of ten critics and journalists

In Niger, a politician who criticised a massacre of nine villagers by the army with its Russian allies in May this year has been arrested on charges of “endangering the national defence” and is facing two years imprisonment. In Mali, a prominent anti-corruption activist has been interrogated and beaten several times in the run up to a case against the junta’s self-enrichment practices lodged by his organisation in court, and Bamako’s office of Amnesty International has had to close its doors.

In the villages of these three countries, arrests, killings, and disappearances remain the order of the day, as the slogan “those who harbour terrorists are also terrorists and must be treated as such” is increasingly taken as a literal instruction. Several interviewees told us that they almost prefer the terrorists now. They still complain bitterly about the jihadi gangs who demand cows or sheep, and failing such donations, instruct that “the father must give his son to join their ranks,” but some felt that they could still be talked to because “it’s our children who are recruited because they have nothing to do.” According to one woman who was interviewed in northern Mali, the jihadists at least “give us money. And they have protected us against several armed attacks. The army and its Russian ally, on the other hand, bombed us several times here. We will never forgive this.”

A frank and sincere dialogue

While prospects for improvement seem dim, many are still motivated to find ways to pull their countries out of this quagmire. Professor Augustin Loada at the University of Ouagadougou advocates for a “frank and sincere dialogue” between all forces in his country and region, since “brutal force in the countryside and tyranny in the cities will solve nothing.” Such a dialogue would be welcome news to the bus passengers in Niger, who debated road construction and water infrastructure needs as they bounced off their seats in the heat, and to Mali’s businesspeople, now congregating on street corners and contemplating how to deal with the power cuts and bankruptcies. A prospect of a set of “more technocratic” leaders who “bring people together,” as per a suggestion of a Ouagadougou student, might also not go amiss. But whether the region’s new “friend” Vladimir Putin would assist in charting such ways forward remains to be seen.

Almost without exception, people interviewed for this project only agreed to respond on condition of anonymity. For their own safety, all three reporters have written under pseudonyms.

Requests for comment were sent to the communications representatives of all three military governments. No answers were received, except from the Niger junta spokesman, who sent a clip of flags and speeches made at the occasion of the new formation of the Alliances of Sahel States. 

Update: A delegation from the Russian Rosatom visited Mali on 2 and 3 July to sign a set of MoUs, inter alia on the development on nuclear infrastructure.

General note: In Francophone Africa, forex is counted in euros, while ZAM generally uses the US dollar. For this story, we have used US dollars in our English report and euros in our French version. Due to heavy fluctuations of the FCFA over the months we worked on this project, there may be discrepancies regarding exact exchange values at the time of publication. Re- and co-publishers as well as readers of this investigation are welcome to check and update these figures where necessary.


Read all the investigative articles in this series:

Hôtel Kremlin | Niger (English)

Hôtel Kremlin | Niger (French)

Hôtel Kremlin | Mali (English)

Hôtel Kremlin | Mali (French)

Hôtel Kremlin | Burkina Faso (English) 

Hôtel Kremlin | Burkina Faso (French)

Hôtel Kremlin | Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso (French)

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