Russia-Africa: From Kemi Seba to Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, the continent’s pro-Putin ‘influencers’

By Jeune Afrique
Posted on Thursday, 7 April 2022 08:03

(L-R) Kemi Seba, Nathalie Yamb, Adama Diarra and Yevgeny Prigozhin. © MONTAGE JA : SYLVAIN CHERKAOUI FOR JA ; DR ; FACEBOOK NATHALIE YAMB ; ALEXANDER ZEMLIANICHENKO/AP/SIPA

Many African political and media figures are taking advantage of the war in Ukraine and Russia's growing engagement on the continent to revive the anti-French and decolonialisation movements. Considered a disinformation expert, oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a member of Russia's President Vladimir Putin's inner circle and financier of the Wagner paramilitary network, is in the front line of the battle for hearts and minds in Africa.

He relies on associations such as the Association for Free Research and International Cooperation (AFRIC), led from Maputo by the Mozambican academic trained in psychology José Matemulane, to relay his messages. Chaired by Yulia Afanasieva, one of Prigozhin’s associates, this structure is linked to the Russian businessman’s network and allows him to carry out his media campaigns in Africa.

AFRIC maintains close links with several pan-Africanist websites, including Radio Révolution Panafricaine and Afrique Média TV, to convey pro-Russian and anti-French messages. Based in Cameroon, the latter channel belongs to the Afrique Média press group, headed by Justin B. Tagouh – who has been to Sochi twice and claims to have met Putin.

Cameroon’s Banda Kani, president of the Nouveau Mouvement Populaire party, openly defends virulent pro-Kremlin positions in the Ukrainian conflict, describing the Kyiv regime as a “criminal oligarchy” and President Volodymyr Zelensky as a “rogue”. Afrique Média TV also regularly interviews the French-Beninese activist Kemi Seba.

Kemi Seba in Moscow

In recent years, the founder of the NGO Urgence Panafricaniste has become close to the Russian nationalist Aleksandr Dugin. Dugin champions a multi-polar world and an anti-Western as well as an anti-liberal ideology, and is very influential within Putin’s entourage. Seba met with Putin in Russia in 2017 and again in early March. During this latest trip to Moscow, he also made contact with Mikhail Bogdanov, the deputy foreign minister in charge of Africa and the Middle East, before giving a lecture at the State Institute of International Relations.

On the Vox Africa channel in October 2020, Seba explained that Prigozhin had invited him to Russia, Sudan and Libya. But he says he distanced himself from the oligarch when the latter suggested that he take violent action against Western symbols, even if it meant causing collateral African damage. The anti-colonialist activist nevertheless continues to make statements in support of the Kremlin’s actions on social media.

‘Lady of Sochi’

Close to Seba, who describes her as “a big sister of struggle and heart”, Nathalie Yamb is also part of AFRIC’s universe. This Swiss woman of Cameroonian origin, who has been referring to herself as the “lady of Sochi” since her high-profile involvement in the summit of the same name in October 2019, is one of the most-followed critics of France and its allies on the continent on social media. Her stances led to her being deported from Côte d’Ivoire in December 2019.

According to a report by the NGO Free Russia Foundation, Yamb notably participated in one of the conferences that AFRIC held in Berlin in January 2020. It was co-organised by the Foundation for the Protection of National Values, a structure also linked to Prigozhin and headed by “journalist”  – who is close to the Russian intelligence services – Alexander Malkevitch. Since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, Yamb has clearly demonstrated her support for the Russian army.

Yamb is also a member of the Ivorian party Liberté et Démocratie pour la République (LIDER), whose Twitter account has regularly been relaying pro-Russian propaganda, especially since the beginning of the war. Although he has officially retired from politics and is no longer active on social media, LIDER’s founder Mamadou Koulibaly went to Bamako in mid-March to express support for the junta, which is pro-Russian.

In an interview with Vox Africa, he explained that he had responded to an invitation from a pan-Africanist youth movement and wanted to “violate the embargo and support the people and young people who are fighting to assert their sovereignty”.

Russian experts in Mali

In Mali, Adama Diarra (aka “Ben le Cerveau“) is a key Moscow backer. He is the spokesman of the Yerewolo – Debout sur les Remparts movement, a pro-Russian Malian association. In September 2021, when rumours were circulating that Wagner and the Malian state had signed a security contract, he was the first to confirm that such an agreement was indeed being negotiated between the junta and the Prigozhin network.

“Fifty Russian military experts have been in Mali for over a month. They have given an expert opinion,” said this fervent supporter of the junta and member of the Conseil National de Transition. Since late 2021, he has been in charge of organising almost all of Mali’s pro-Russian demonstrations.

Radio Kremlin in Bangui

The Prigozhin galaxy also reaches Bangui, where one of the Kremlin’s main media allies is Fred Krock, director of the very popular radio station Lengo Songo. It is said to be entirely financed by Lobaye Invest, the mining company linked to the Wagner networks in the country and initially run by Yevgeny Khodotov, who is a Prigozhin ally. Furthermore, his articles are regularly highlighted by the Russian news agency Ria Fan, the flagship of the media ecosystem run by the oligarch close to Putin.

On this radio station, quotes from the main Russian figures present in Bangui are regularly reported, whether they be those of former ambassador Vladimir Titorenko, ex-presidential adviser Valeri Zakharov, sociologist Maksim Shugaley or Aleksandr Ivanov, head of the Communauté des Officiers pour la Sécurité Internationale.

The radio station is widely used by part of Central African civil society, notably Blaise Didacien Kossimatchi, member of the Galaxie Nationale platform (which is very pro-President Faustin-Archange Touadéra), and Harouna Douamba, president of Aimons Notre Afrique, an association financed by Lobaye Invest. Both men help organise pro-Russia demonstrations in Bangui.

Although the South Africa’s governing African National Congress is very close to Moscow, social media in South Africa also widely publishes pro-Russian positions. For example, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, former president Jacob Zuma’s daughter, used her Twitter account – which has more than 200,000 followers – to popularise the #Istandwithrussia hashtag in the country. It has since been shared several hundred thousands of times. The majority of the content that she retweets criticises the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and Western imperialism.

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