Russia – Africa: Behind the scenes of Moscow’s soft power

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: From Russia to Africa: The trail of Wagner

By Benjamin Roger, Georges Dougueli

Posted on Thursday, 29 July 2021 18:59
Russia's President Vladimir Putin waves during a family photo with heads of countries taking part in the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia, October 24, 2019. Sergei Chirikov/Pool via REUTERS

Moscow is deploying several means to promote its agenda in Africa, including producing audiovisual content, financing local media, sponsoring “anti-imperialist” influencers and running internet propaganda campaigns. In the second part of our investigation, we go behind-the-scenes to Russia's softer but growing influence.

This is part 2 of a 2-part investigation series

On 14 May, several thousand people gathered at Bangui’s Barthélémy-Boganda stadium. They did not come to watch a Fauves match but rather to attend the preview of a rather special film titled Touriste. This Russian-Central African feature film, which was shot in the CAR, traces – and glorifies – the actions of Russian ‘instructors’ who supported the regime of Faustin-Archange Touadéra, who was re-elected in December 2020, and defeated rebels allied to former president François Bozizé.

It is a sort of Hollywood blockbuster with a Moscow twist: it features war scenes where a few Russians stand up to dozens of rebels – Kalashnikovs going off in all directions – and a wounded hero emerges from combat feeling that he has accomplished his mission. This film propagandises Russian mercenaries on the banks of the Ubangi – without addressing the accusations of abuse that target them.

Poster of the Russian film ‘Tourist’ shot in CAR. The ‘fiction’, in which one can recognise the Bangui M’Poko airport, the Roux camp, the Russian military camp of Berengo…

According to the Russian press, Touriste was entirely financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch close to Vladimir Putin and the head of the Wagner group.

Ever since Bangui and Moscow signed defence agreements at the end of 2017, Russia has been promoting its agenda in the CAR. Lobaye Invest, a mining company linked to the Wagner group, has been acting as the patron of the operation. Headed by Yevgeny Khodotov, a Prigozhin loyalist, it has financed Lengo Songo – a radio station (radio is the country’s dominant media) and La Feuille Volante du Président – a free weekly newspaper.

It also sponsored the Miss Central African beauty contest in Bangui in December 2018. Even children have not been left out: the Russian company has printed school books and ‘supported’ a small cartoon available on YouTube and which tells the story of a Russian bear who comes to the savannah to rescue animals that have been attacked by hyenas.

It is clear that Moscow is using a combination of Russian soft power and Wagner’s tough guy stance to establish itself on the continent. At the heart of this strategy is spreading of propaganda on social media. And Prigozhin is still at the helm of this effort.

In the early 2010s, he founded the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a disinformation factory that produces fake news and conspiracy theories in Saint Petersburg. This agency is not (officially) linked to the Kremlin.

Its mission is to run pro-Russian internet propaganda campaigns, thereby defending Moscow and its allies’ interests around the world. In 2014, during the war in Ukraine, the IRA purposefully promoted more coverage that favoured Putin’s aggressive policy.

Two years later, it contributed to Donald Trump’s accession to the White House and made headlines in US media. These manipulative actions led to Prigozhin being indicted by the US justice system. The IRA trolls have been responsible for increasing support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria and spreading lies in favour of Brexit. In short, they spread whatever messages their boss wants them to.

Russian manipulation networks

In recent years, Prigozhin and other oligarchs have become increasingly attracted to the continent. “Their motivation is primarily financial. They see Africa as a place to make money and explore new horizons. These influencers are acting primarily in their own interests, to make their capital grow, while accompanying Russia’s return to this part of the world,” says Kevin Limonier, a lecturer in geopolitics and specialist in Russian-speaking cyberspace.

The Russians sell a decolonial narrative to the continent by presenting themselves as an alternative to France. The Chinese never try to do this – at least not directly. They do so by suggesting that ‘we are bringing you a second decolonisation’.

Establishing themselves in Africa also allows them to accomplish their ambitions in Moscow, where competition between businessmen is fierce. All this is done under the benevolent, even complicit, eye of the authorities, who – officially – have nothing to do with their activities. “The Russian state does not necessarily have the means to fulfil its political ambitions in Africa. It therefore relies on these networks that use unconventional methods and deny their involvement, should a problem arise,” says the researcher.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin meets with Angola’s President Joao Lourenco on the sidelines of the Russia–Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia October 24, 2019. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS

In October 2019, Russia used the Sochi summit, which took place on the shores of the Black Sea, as an opportunity to demonstrate its power in Africa. Once the summit ended, Facebook announced that it would be dismantling Russian-based networks that had conducted manipulation campaigns – particularly during elections – in eight African countries: the CAR, DRC, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Madagascar, Libya, Mozambique and Sudan.

The social network pointed the finger at Prigozhin’s IRA. The system was well oiled. Hackers, with the help of locally recruited users, disseminated pro-Russian publications in a coordinated manner, taking care not to be identified. In all, these campaigns were seen by dozens of accounts, pages and groups made up of more than 750,000 users.

“They typically posted global and local political information, including topics such as Russian politics in Africa, elections in Madagascar and Mozambique, election monitoring by a local non-governmental organisation and criticism of French and US politics,” Facebook’s security department said in a statement.

It happened again in December 2020. Once again, the Palo Alto firm announced that it had dismantled Russian – and French – manipulation networks that were active in several African countries, in particular the CAR. This time, the topics were the Covid-19 pandemic, CAR’s upcoming elections and the French policy in Africa.

One of the main targets of the pro-Russian hackers is France, as they want to fuel anti-French sentiment, which is not hard to do given that Africa has been criticising the former colonial power for decades. “The Russians sell a decolonial narrative to the continent by presenting themselves as an alternative to France. The Chinese never try to do this – at least not directly. They do so by suggesting that ‘we are bringing you a second decolonisation’,” says a highly placed source in Paris. This Russian anti-French discourse in Africa is purely opportunistic and is, above all, a way to make themselves appear attractive. It worked in the CAR, but it may not produce the desired result in other countries.

Attack Western symbols

Prigozhin and his lieutenants rely on anti-imperialist activists, some of whom are well-known, to feed this anti-French discourse. “They identify influencers in the countries they are interested in and pay them off,” says a French diplomat. Kemi Seba, a French-Beninese activist and founder of the NGO Urgences Panafricanistes, is just one of many people who has collaborated with the Russians.

The person concerned, who refused to answer our questions, spoke about this working relationship on a programme on the Vox Africa channel in October 2020. He told us that he had seen Prigozhin several times.

“I met him in Russia, Sudan and Libya. We saw each other a year after the extraordinary campaign that we had led against the CFA franc, and he told me: ‘You have the ability to reach African youth in a way that very few people are able to do. I want to support you. Those who are against our enemies are our friends.’”

Seba agreed to work with Prigozhin under one condition: “If and only if Prigozhin never tells us what to do.” According to him, their “companionship” lasted about 10 months. Seba decided to end it after Prigozhin – during a meeting in St. Petersburg – suggested that he attack Western symbols, even if it meant inflicting collateral damage in Africa.

Kemi Seba burning a 5,000 CFA franc note during a rally on 19 August 2017 in Dakar © Clement Tardif for JA

The Swiss-Cameroonian Nathalie Yamb is also linked to Russian networks. She has been calling herself the ‘Lady of Sochi’ ever since she participated in the Sochi summit in October 2019. Yamb is also one of the most prominent critics of France and its allies on the continent – a stance that led to her expulsion from Côte d’Ivoire in December 2019.

According to a report by the NGO Free Russia Foundation, she participates in the AFRIC network (Association for Free Research and International Cooperation), a kind of influential body that Prigozhin set up to protect and promote his interests on the continent.

According to the report, Yamb attended one of the network’s conferences – which was co-organised with the Foundation for the Protection of National Values, a similar structure also linked to Prigozhin and headed by journalist Alexander Malkevich – at a palace in Berlin in January 2020. She did not wish to answer our questions about her links with the Russian influencers.

The Russians also rely on anti-Western activists in Mali, which has been plagued by insecurity and has seen two coups in nine months. France is widely held responsible for this country’s precarious situation. Mired in a Sahelian quagmire from which many struggle to see how they will manage to emerge without losing face, the French authorities have announced the end of Operation Barkhane and a reduction of their military presence in the region. Moscow is now trying to fill the gap.

According to French intelligence, Russian emissaries have approached Adama Ben Diarra, leader of the Yerewolo movement and member of the Conseil National de Transition (CNT) – the transition government’s legislative body. At the end of May, Ben Diarra organised several demonstrations in Bamako, including in front of the Russian embassy, to demand the departure of France and that Russia break the deadlock in Mali. He denies receiving any external financing.

“I have never had any contact with a Russian. Not a diplomat, not a businessman, not a soldier, not even a journalist. All our actions are financed by membership fees. There is no external funding, except for money sent by the diaspora. Everything that is organised by Yerewolo is financed by Yerewolo,” says Ben Diarra.

Opacity always

The Russians also rely, like other world powers, on traditional media to win hearts and minds. Russia Today and Sputnik’s French editorial offices, which are based in Paris, are responsible for covering news in French-speaking Africa. Neither of them has offices on the ground, only a handful of correspondents. According to various internal sources, there is no desire – for the time being – to put more editorial resources into developing their African coverage.

At the same time, Moscow can count on a few very pro-Russian African channels, the most important of which is Afrique Media TV, based in Cameroon. Before getting into business with the Russians, its promoter, Justin B. Tagouh, had developed his channel with support from Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo and Idriss Déby Itno.

Tagouh was on the outs with Paris, while his son and putative successor, Teodorín Nguema Obiang Mangue, was being prosecuted within the context of the ill-gotten gains affair. Itno, for his part, saw the channel as a means of fanning the embers of Francophobia and to demonstrate to Paris that he was an indispensable resource in the fight against terrorism.

The company does not rely on hypothetical advertising revenues but rather on contracts negotiated with heads of state. Except that, since 2014, the oil crisis has dried up public finances of these two sources of revenue. In search of funding, Tagouh contacted the Russians through Luc Michel, his intermediary and friend. This Belgian consultant, who is linked to extreme right-wing networks in Europe and known to Afrique Media TV viewers for his anti-colonialist columns, is popular in Moscow.

Thanks to his support, Tagouh went to Sochi twice and claimed to have met Putin, even though no one in his entourage could confirm this. On the other hand, he does have photo evidence that he met with Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign affairs minister.

“The Russians asked us to accompany them but never told us to denigrate France,” said a journalist from Afrique Media. No details are available on the financial arrangements or on the amounts made available to the channel.

The same opacity surrounds the pan-African radio project that was financed by Russia and  announced in 2020 by Tagouh. “12 countries have already given their authorisation. We hope to wrap this dossier up quickly so that we can [move] to production,” says a source close to the discussions. Moscow feels that Afrique Media TV’s stance restores a kind of balance to the Francophone space, where the narratives have always been favourable to the West.

Tagouh also helped create the Conseil Africain des Médias in 2013 in Malabo, under the auspices of Obiang Nguema – who provided $1m in funding to this institution, whose mission is to ‘promote the image of a positive Africa’. Clearly, under Tagouh’s leadership, it is also going to get closer to his Russian partners.

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