Fact check: Russia’s influence on Africa

Russia seeks to gain influence in Africa in several ways, from disinformation campaigns to sending Wagner Group mercenaries. Why is Africa so important to Vladimir Putin?

Russia’s influence is prevalent in a number of African countriesDeutsche Welle

Russia is trying to undermine democracy in more than two dozen African countries, according to a new study from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, an academic institution within the US Department of Defense.

The main tools Russia uses are: political interference, disinformation and extraconstitutional claims on power, found the study, which was released last month. In some cases, these tools work.

At the last UN General Assembly in February, countries such as Botswana, Zambia and Tunisia voted for “just and lasting” peace in Ukraine, while Mali and Eritrea voted against it, and 15 other African countries abstained during the vote.

Russia’s influence on African countries might play a role in this. But how exactly does Russia strengthen pro-Russian and anti-Western narratives? Here are some of the most important questions and answers.

Why is Africa an important target for Russian propaganda?

One of Russia’s key aims is to gain diplomatic legitimisation of its war in Ukraine.

“Russia really needs Africa,” Mark Duerksen, research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told DW, especially now that Russia faces increasing international isolation.

Those African governments that lack domestic checks and balances create an environment that allows Russia to exert influence on the continent. They are often themselves isolated internationally and therefore welcome partners for Russia.

“Even prior to the Ukrainian war, we saw Russia aggressively trying to build support for its policies, often when they were contrary to European or NATO or North American policies,” Justin Arenstein, CEO of the African continent’s largest civic technology network, Code for Africa, told DW.

Russia, on the other hand, is important for many African countries in the UN Security Council. Russia often sides with other autocratic countries. In October 2019, for example, after Omar al-Bashir, the former president of Sudan, was ousted in a coup, Russia blocked the call by the UN to condemn it. “Russia’s place in the UN Security Council is problematic for advancing democracy in Africa,” Joseph Siegle, researcher at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told DW. Also, Russia wants to provide alternative markets to the northern European and US economies that Russia currently is locked out of, Arenstein told DW.

Russia in Committing War Crimes in Ukraine
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Wagner’s influence on Africa Additionally, Russia’s military engagement plays an important role in African countries. Wagner Group mercenaries are active in countries such as Mali, Libya and the Central African Republic.

In return for their services, the Wagner troops gain access to raw materials such as gold. The Wagner Group also plays a role in spreading the Kremlin’s political influence.

In Mali, for example, after 10 years of helping in the fight against Islamist militants, France withdrew its forces after failing to achieve the desired impact. Mali has also requested that the UN withdraw its MINUSMA peacekeeping mission. Mali is clearly distancing itself from former colonial powers and instead collaborating more closely with Russia.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), 44 per cent of arms that were sold to African countries between 2017 and 2021 were of Russian origin. How is Putin’s propaganda spread in African countries?

Russia uses social media to spread much of its propaganda and disinformation. According to Duerksen, this strategy is particularly successful in countries which lack a deep tradition of independent and free press. Here’s an example: The Wagner Group is the main subject of several cartoon propaganda videos on the continent. This video (archived here), for example, targets Mali, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast. In one of the scenes in the video, Russian soldiers fight in Mali against French zombies, symbolizing French soldiers. The zombies say that they are President Emmanuel Macron’s demons and that Mali “is our country.” In the video, the caricature of Macron also says: “France will reconquer Africa.” This narrative of of the “neo-colonialist” West is frequently frequently used by Russia.

These types of propaganda are directly linked to Russia, said journalist Dimitri Zufferey from the non-governmental All Eyes On Wagnercollective which tracks Wagner activities. “We know that there is Russian money involved in political association,” Zufferey told DW. The video was probably produced by a group of people in Burkina Faso working for Russia, Zufferey said.

Also, Russia pays African influencers to spread its propaganda, said Duerksen. Kemi Seba, a French-Beninese influencer with more than 1 million followers on Facebook, for example, frequently posts anti-Western and pro-Russian content. Right after Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, he claimed that Moscow was “trying to reconquer Russian lands.”

Russia has a large network of media spreading propaganda in Africa Russian embassies also play an important role spreading disinformation, as the following example shows. In early July, the Russian embassy in South Africa posted an alleged screenshot of an article from the news outlet Politico with the title “20,000,000 lives for the sake of freedom.”

Wagner's alleged engagement in Russia
Deutsche Welle

The embassy added the following comment on this posting: “(…) NATO is pushing a war to be fought until the last Ukrainian,” blaming NATO for Russia’s war in Ukraine. A closer look and some research shows that the screenshot is fake; Politico never published this article. The English grammar and spelling in the fake screenshot are full of errors and the Politico logo on the alleged screenshot is fabricated.

The Russian embassy in South Africa has since deleted the post, but it already had more than 100,000 views on Twitter. Russia’s state-owned media RT channel has expanded its network in Africa. RT has various ventures with media on the continent, such as Afrique Media, that spread pro-Russian and anti-Western propaganda. DW documented radio stations and newspapers financed by Russian institutions, such as Lengo Songo and Ndjoni Sango in the Central African Republic.

How successful is Russia’s attempt to influence African countries?

Some African countries are influenced by Russia’s propaganda, while others are not. According to the study of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, Russia’s influence is biggest in the Central African Republic (CAR), Mali, Sudan and Zimbabwe — countries where the Wagner Group operates. Mark Duerksen said that the CAR is at the top of the list when it comes to Russian influence, especially in the form of military trainers who act like advisers of the president, he adds.

Russia’s popularity also harks back to Soviet times and the fact that it was not among colonial powers during the colonisation era. This gives it a clear advantage. Many African countries enjoyed the Kremlin’s support when they were fighting for independence in the 20th century.

Still, the opinions of many African citizens are divided when it comes to the war in Ukraine. A poll taken in June among citizens in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda and Zambia shows that the majority think the Russian invasion of Ukraine was against the principles of international law. While Russia is not the only country or region trying to influence Africa, Justin Arenstein from Code for Africa sees the Russian leadership as an extraordinary threat to Africans: “They undermine open societies. They undermine the ability of citizens to make their own choices,” he said.