‘Russia’s African lab’: How Putin won over Burkina Faso after French adieu

In the heart of Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, a poster advertising free Russian language courses has been attached to the large, iconic model of a globe on a road intersection which locals refer to as the “United Nations roundabout”.

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union (USSR) had a strong presence in Africa through diplomatic representation and cultural centres, including in Burkina Faso. Three decades since Russia left large parts of Africa amid the breakup of the Soviet Union, however, signs of its return are visible in Burkina Faso, where the capital’s walls are adorned with pro-Russian graffiti, and Russian flags fly in the streets.

“Something has changed, and it is eye-catching. You can feel it immediately, walking the streets and the roundabouts,” said a resident who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions from the government, which has been controlled by the military since a coup in January 2022. In the aftermath of that coup, which overthrew the elected president, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, Russian flags began to appear during anti-French protests.

At a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is seeking re-election for a fifth term as leader of the country this weekend, is no longer welcome in many parts of the world following the invasion of Ukraine, Moscow is seen as a friend in Ouagadougou.

UN Roundabout
A view of the United Nations roundabout in Ouagadougou on November 5, 2020 [Olympia de Maismont/AFP]
A football tournament, a graffiti festival, a photo exhibition, film screenings, a public conference, and a daily radio show called “Russian Time”, during which hosts speak in a mixture of French and Russian, are some of the events that take place in Ouagadougou every day, as local frustration for former coloniser France has been exploited by Russia to secure influence in the country.

Organisations such as the African Initiative – which describes itself as “an association of Burkinabè and Russians whose aim is to strengthen friendship and mutual understanding, peace and harmony between the peoples of Burkina Faso and Russia” – and Russia’s cultural centre, The Russian House, are working to promote Russia’s image in the country.

This charm offensive began in early 2022 and has gained ground significantly since a grand Russia-Africa summit was held in Saint Petersburg at the end of July 2023. During that summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to send aid to Burkina Faso and duly followed up on January 26 this year with an official donation of 25,000 tonnes of wheat as part of that promise.