Russia-France: Africa at the heart of Paris and Moscow’s war for influence

By Benjamin Roger
Posted on Monday, 5 September 2022 11:22

Photo by JA/TAR

Manipulation, false accounts, fake news... Long passive in the face of Moscow's offensive, the French authorities have decided to strike back. With a clear and assumed objective: denigrating the actions of the Russians and the Wagner Group in Central Africa, Mali and the Sahel.

When they received the images from the drone that had been perched above the Gossi camp for several hours, French military staff immediately understood that they were dealing with something “heavy”. In the video, shot at around 10 a.m. on 21 April, two days after the departure of the French army from this small town in northern Mali, a small group of white men are seen burying bodies in the sand, four kilometres from the camp. Around them, some are filming or taking photos. Two hours later, a fake Twitter account, allegedly belonging to a man called Dia Diarra, posted shocking images of half-buried black bodies with the comment: “This is what the French left behind when they left the base at Gossi. These are excerpts from a video that was taken after their departure! We can’t keep quiet about this!”

For the French military, there was no doubt about the video’s origins: it was a crude montage by mercenaries from the Russian private military company Wagner, who had arrived in Gossi the day before alongside the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa). A new “informational attack”, they said, intended to further increase anti-French sentiment in Mali and the region. Except for this time, the French military had irrefutable proof.

‘Secret’ elements made public

Very quickly, the battle was waged at the “Balardgone”, the headquarters of the army ministry in Paris. The images were viewed in a loop. The matter went up straight up to the office of the minister, Florence Parly, and even to the Élysée Palace, where Emmanuel Macron himself was informed. The decision was then taken to share the images in order to immediately defuse the Russian disinformation operation. By the end of the afternoon, a handful of leading French media outlets active on the continent – including Jeune Afrique – had been contacted for an emergency “briefing” at the ministry. On the spot, all the elements, including the drone images, were provided to the few journalists present. It was an unprecedented “transparency operation”, the antithesis of the lockdown imposed by the French army over its presumed blunders in the Sahel.

The next morning, the story of the fake mass grave in Gossi was everywhere. Behind the scenes, the French officers in charge of the case did not hide their satisfaction. In their eyes, this was their first symbolic victory over the Russians on their preferred terrain, the battle for information. If its real impact remains limited, this episode marked a real turning point in French strategy in the war for influence that Paris and Moscow have been waging daily on the continent. For the first time, the French authorities declassified and transmitted to the press elements marked as “secret defence”, a bit like what the Americans did at the outset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Video images of the fake mass grave in Gossi, northern Mali. A manipulation orchestrated by men from the Wagner group. ©French Army via AP/SIPA.

For French political and military leaders, there can be no more procrastination: from now on, they will systematically respond to any new Russian attack of this kind. “We will not hesitate to do it again,” says a military staff member. This vigilance was reinforced until the complete withdrawal of French soldiers from Mali in mid-August. Among the latter camp, the fear of a massive demonstration or a blockade of a convoy – as had been the case in Burkina Faso and Niger in late 2021 – was on everyone’s mind. “Wagner’s ability to stir up anti-French sentiment and mobilise crowds via social networks is formidable. But we are very vigilant and we will not accept any hindrance to our disengagement operation,” said a senior officer a few weeks before the final soldiers left the Gao base.

Russians with an anti-colonial  – and anti-French – streak

Before this change of tone, France had long remained passive in the face of Moscow’s lightning offensive on the continent. Was this a case of minimising the threat? French arrogance in the face of an underestimated enemy? Denial of the reality on the ground? Surely a bit of all three. First, there was the implantation of Wagner’s mercenaries in the Central African Republic at the end of 2017, without Paris becoming terribly concerned. Then their arrival in Mali, at the end of 2021, prompted the soldiers of Operation Barkhane to pack up their gear. In Paris, the serenity once displayed in the face of Russian expansionism has dissipated. From now on, French diplomats and soldiers are taking the threat very seriously. So much so that they are no longer hiding their concern for other French-speaking countries, such as Burkina Faso, Cameroon and even Senegal.

From the Central African Republic to Mali, the Russian nibbling strategy is the same. The main principle is to win the battle of public opinion by stirring up anti-French and anti-colonial sentiment. Two forces that are already very present on the continent, especially among the younger generations. For it must be said: that Russian activism is not the only cause of France’s loss of influence in Africa. Nearly a century of colonisation, decades of all kinds of dirty tricks orchestrated by obscure networks, and controversial military operations: all this has left its mark. Today, the rejection of France is deep-rooted on the continent, where Paris’ official discourse is less and less audible, with or without Russia.

Photo 3: N’Djamena: The Barkhane Joint Operations Centre at the Kossei base in Chad. ©Jacques Witt/SIPA.

In this permanent game of chess where all moves are permitted, Russian strategists have shown how well-oiled their propaganda machine is. The Russia Today television channel and the Sputnik website, both financed by the Russian state, play a significant role by being very oriented in their media coverage. Some of their content is offered free of charge to African media, which use their stories or documentaries as is. Forced to close down in Western countries since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, RT and Sputnik have seen their audiences drop and are now looking for new markets, especially in Africa. RT is working on opening an African newsroom in Nairobi, for which it has started recruiting, while Sputnik has launched its African branch, with the stated ambition of covering continental news.

The shadow of the Wagner mercenaries

But it is mainly thanks to the Wagner nebula that Moscow has skilfully advanced its pawns on the continent. This myriad of companies headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch close to Vladimir Putin, acts as the Kremlin’s armed wing abroad – although the latter formally denies any link. Known for its mercenaries and predatory mining activities in the countries where it operates, the group has also made influence operations one of its specialities. Its boss earned some notoriety in the 2010s with his Internet Research Agency (IRA), which led various disinformation campaigns to defend Russian interests in Ukraine, the United States, the United Kingdom, Syria, etc.

This shadow army is now on the front lines of the African battlefield. Every day, the “Prigozhin galaxy” produces dozens of pieces of editorial content to feed Russian propaganda. In addition to its holding company Patriot, the media branch of the group whose bridgehead is the “news agency” Ria Fan, relies on the Africa Politology team. Established in St Petersburg, Prigozhin’s stronghold and the historical headquarters of its various activities, this small editorial structure is composed of about fifteen people headed by a certain Sergei Machkevitch. “It is this team that identifies angles of attack and writes content according to the chosen narrative. These are then relayed by the group’s various media and spread on social networks,” explains a French source.

At the local level, Wagner’s strategists finance media outlets, such as Lengo Songo radio in the Central African Republic, and even pay journalists directly. The cost of an article in the Central African print media is around 10,000 CFA francs (€15.25). Russian soft power is even expressed through more unusual vectors, such as the sponsorship of the Miss Central African Republic contest in 2018 or the printing of school books. To propagate pro-Russian and anti-French discourse, the Wagner group also uses local “proxies”. In other words, personalities from civil society and/or movements who, from Bangui to Bamako via Ouagadougou, are paid to perform Russian customer service. Adama Ben Diarra, known as “Ben the Brain”, deputy to the Malian National Transitional Council (CNT) and leader of the group Yéréwolo, the main organisation supporting the Transition Authorities, is one of the most emblematic examples.

On social networks, pro-Russian ‘stars’

To serve their interests, the Russians are not content with these local figures alone. They have also established links with “star” influencers who have hundreds of thousands of followers on social networks. The two best known are undoubtedly French-Beninese Kémi Seba and Swiss-Cameroonian Nathalie Yamb. The former, after an initial, interrupted collaboration with Prigozhin in 2020, is said to be getting closer to Russian networks again. In May, he was on tour in Bamako, where he was received by President Assimi Goïta, and in Ouagadougou, where he tried to mobilise Burkinabe youth during a meeting at the People’s House. At the end of August, he paid a heartfelt tribute to Russian journalist Daria Dugin, killed a few days earlier in a car explosion. “You did for our NGO what many of my people did not. You were our friend. In Russia, our interpreter, our mini bodyguard,” he wrote on Twitter about the daughter of ultranationalist ideologue Alexander Dugin, close to Vladimir Putin, whom Seba met in December 2017. Daria Dugin was also the editor-in-chief of the media outlet United World International (UWI), owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Kémi Seba (right) with the president of the Malian transition, Assimi Goïta, in Bamako, 8 May 2022. ©Facebook / Kémi Seba.

If his links with Russia are “proven” in the eyes of French intelligence services, Seba is careful not to support Moscow too openly, unlike Nathalie Yamb. The “lady of Sochi”, as she has called herself since her participation in the eponymous 2019 summit, has participated in the activities of the AFRIC network (Association for Free Research and International Cooperation), the umpteenth body of influence set up by Prigozhin to promote his interests on the continent. From Switzerland, where she lives, she regularly posts videos or publications in which she violently attacks France, the “Barkhane scum” (sic) and its African allies, when she is not displaying her unconditional support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A lucrative business, especially since her tens of thousands of views on YouTube and other networks allow her to be paid like any other influencer. The self-proclaimed pan-African activist clearly has a certain sense of business and financial investment.

Yamb’s name is mentioned in the Pandora Papers as the owner of the shell company Hutchinson Hastings & Partners LLC, registered in the US tax haven of Delaware. She also created her own “consulting, strategy and communication” structure, Nathalie Yamb Consulting, in another tax haven: the Swiss canton of Zug. A champion of cryptocurrency, which she defends in numerous videos, Nathalie Yamb appears on a list of 142 people targeted by complaints filed in the United States and Paris by subscribers to the Liyeplimal platform and Global Investment Trading SA, a company located in Cameroon specialising in cryptocurrency investment and owned by businessman Emile Parfait Simb, who is also an advisor to President Faustin-Archange Touadéra.

Nathalie Yamb © Twitter screenshot

Seba and Yamb – along with the Cameroonian-born philosopher Franklin Nyamsi, close to Ivorian politician Guillaume Soro – all share a struggle based on a well-oiled egotistical strategy of self-promotion worthy of the Dubai influencers, where content and form are skilfully worked out. Behind these well-known figures, a whole Russophile ecosystem is developing on African social networks. Thousands of fake accounts on Twitter and Facebook that, every day, repeat the content and language dictated by the Prigozhin sphere. “You only have to look at the accounts of Kémi Seba, Nathalie Yamb and a few other ‘sub-lieutenants’ to know which theme the Russians want to focus on,” says a French source who closely monitors these networks.

Profitable business

Russian hackers have also set up “troll farms”, a sort of nursery of fake accounts that generate massive amounts of false information on social networks using algorithms or artificial intelligence systems. On the continent, the Russians also rely on subcontractors who, in exchange for $100 to $150 per month, each administer between 100 and 200 fake accounts on social networks to relay the chosen speeches. According to French intelligence services, there are at least a hundred of these little hands of Russian propaganda in Mali, where they are paid and supervised by members of the Prigozhin nebula. Others operate from the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin and Madagascar. In these countries, where Wagner is not well known, they are discreetly paid by Russian nationals, sometimes diplomats or businessmen.

“In Mali, these accounts are quite easy to spot,” explains a French source. They were opened recently, in 2021 or 2022, and have few subscribers and no real profile picture. They always use the same language, even the same text word for word. Baron Diaw, Malle Luka, Barou Sanogo… Several of these fake Malian accounts, which recently echoed the complicity between the soldiers of the Barkhane force and jihadist groups, have been identified by the French army. In particular, they practice the technique known as “fake man on the street”, which consists of creating fake accounts whose publications are taken up by others as sources in order to give them local credibility.

Reluctance of diplomats

For a long time, the French authorities have let this Russian steamroller crush everything in its path as if paralysed. Should they respond or not? And if so, how? With what methods? “We wasted a lot of time asking ourselves these questions,” says a French diplomat. “We should have reacted as early as the Sochi summit in 2019. We did not see this threat coming. The Russians are now taking advantage of our mistakes and our lack of strategy”.

At the time, it was above all at the Quai d’Orsay, the ministry of foreign affairs in Paris, that the reticence was strongest. Jealous of their own turf, unaware of the challenges of information warfare, cautious about the methods to use… For many months, some diplomats refused to get into a mud-wrestling match with the Prigozhin trolls. At the ministry of the army, the tone is more combative. “We have no choice but to respond. We can continue to hold our noses but that won’t stop the Russians. We have to understand that this hybrid war is not necessarily dirty”, says one soldier. “Times have changed. A good image team can sometimes have more impact than three infantry platoons,” says another.

At the behest of Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Yves Le Drian, who also believe that it is necessary to respond, things are finally moving. At the end of 2020, a “task force” of a handful of people was discreetly set up at the Quai d’Orsay to monitor these issues and devise a response to Russian propaganda. Sylvain Itté, former French ambassador to Angola, was appointed special envoy for public diplomacy in Africa. His mission statement includes the promotion of France’s action on the continent. The French authorities are convinced that in order to win the communication war against the Russians, they must first communicate better on what they are doing in terms of development.

The headquarters of the Cyber Defence Command (Comcyber) in Rennes, Brittany. ©Martin Bertrand/Hans Lucas via AFP

“What we are doing in this area is totally overwhelmed by our military action. As a result, when you ask young French-speaking Africans about their perception of France, they say ‘military operation’ and ‘plundering of resources’. We must succeed in changing this,” says a French diplomat. To achieve this, and to put an end to institutional communication that some consider “totally outdated”, a change of methodology has been initiated. “We have to stop taking selfies of ambassadors inaugurating a well,” says one French official. “We need to rely on networks of local personalities, who talk about everything we do in their country, but also on our diasporas, which are one of our major assets on the continent.” But, unlike Russia, France cannot count on any influential African personality on social networks – its Nathalie Yamb or its Kémi Seba – to defend its actions.

An amateurish start

For their part, the French military did not wait to take action. But the beginnings were laborious – even frankly amateurish. In December 2020, Facebook announced the closure of hundreds of fake accounts conducting disinformation operations in Africa from Russia and… France. In its report, the American firm asserted that the French network had “links with people associated with the French army”. Eighty-four accounts, six pages, nine groups on Facebook and 14 Instagram accounts were closed. A fuss was made in Paris, where the army, visibly annoyed, denied any involvement. Political leaders, for their part, did not appreciate being caught with their fingers in the jam pot.

According to our information, the operation, which was supposed to remain secret, was indeed set up by the French military on staff orders. “The Russians had been tormenting us in the Central African Republic since 2019. The decision was therefore taken to set up accounts to counter them and promote France’s actions,” says a senior officer. The network was put together in a rather crude manner until it was spotted. “We certainly made mistakes, as we can do in the field. But at least this time there was no collateral damage,” says one officer.

The Malian detonator

While the French has been busy tinkering, the Russians have been ratcheting it up a notch. In Mali, they stepped into the breach opened by Colonel Assimi Goïta’s junta. At the beginning of the second half of 2021, the yellow Post-its from the General Directorate of External Security (DGSE) that landed on Emmanuel Macron’s desk were unambiguous: Wagner was coming to Mali. In December, the first contingents of mercenaries set foot on the Bamako tarmac. “The arrival of Wagner in Mali acted as a detonator,” says a senior French official. “This time, we really realised that the Russians were not content to remain in a few blind spots but that they had a much greater ambition, that of establishing themselves in leading French-speaking countries.”

Some think it goes even further. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February, they are convinced that Moscow has a global strategy against the West, with a frontline stretching from the Donbas to Liptako-Gourma. “We have long underestimated the Russian offensive in Africa,” admits an Élysée source. But in reality, it is the same battlefield. In the Kremlin’s logic, Mali is almost as important as Ukraine. That’s why they will make long-term efforts there. In fact, Wagner has remained in Mali despite the junta’s payment delays, and the number of its mercenaries has remained stable (around 1,200 men) since January, while it has largely decreased in other countries in order to send reinforcements to Ukraine.

On the French side, it seems the subject is finally being taken seriously. In July 2021, a general convinced of the need to engage in this information war, General Thierry Burkhard, was appointed chief of staff of the armed forces by Emmanuel Macron. Three months later, the French army adopted a military doctrine for the fight against information technology and influence (L2I), in order to structure its combat resources in cyberspace. It is notably entrusted to the cyber defence command (Comcyber), based in Rennes, in Brittany, and placed under the direct authority of the army chief of staff.

French General Thierry Burkhard, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, on 15 April 2022 in Akanda, Gabon. ©Steve Jordan/AFP

On a daily basis, his men monitor social networks with specific software, track down fake accounts or trolls, and lead the response in case of a possible foreign – i.e. Russian – attack. They are also involved in offensive computer warfare, for example with denial-of-access attacks, a classic method that consists of sending millions of requests to the same server to saturate it.

Fighting back at all levels

In Paris, it is not yet time for a general mobilisation, but the ambition is now to increase inter-ministerial cooperation. “If we want to stop Russia’s rise in power in Africa, everyone will have to get involved, not just us, the military,” says one senior officer. The ministries of defence and foreign affairs have been asked to work in better synergy on these issues. Viginum, the vigilance and protection service against foreign digital interference, which is attached to the General Secretariat of Defence and National Security (SGDSN), has also been put on alert on the subject.

Military personnel from the private Russian company Wagner at the site of the fake mass grave in Gossi © French Army via AP/SIPA.

More extensive monitoring has also been undertaken. The private security companies Amarante International and Geos were recently commissioned by the ministry of the armed forces to conduct opinion polls in the Sahel. The French authorities have also not held back from intervening directly with GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft, the five web giants) to report influence operations or to push them to close down pro-Russian accounts. The same technique is used in African countries, where French embassies are now invited to systematically report any fake news or informational attacks to local regulatory authorities. This was the case in Cameroon, for example, with content from the Afrique Media TV channel, known for its very pro-Russian and anti-French positions.

With the principle of a response now established, there remains a sensitive question that French decision-makers have not yet fully resolved: how far should they allow themselves to go in this communication war? To put it plainly, should they use the same methods as the Russians in order to win? Between the Élysée, the Quai d’Orsay, the Hôtel de Brienne and the Boulevard Mortier – DGSE headquarters – opinions diverge. In spite of these ethical prevarications, all swear that there is a red line that they will never cross: that of manipulation and disinformation. “This is contrary to who we are. And in any case, even if we decided to play that card, we would still do worse than the Russians in this area,” says one diplomat.

False accounts, real information

Irreproachable, really? According to our information, the French army, which has obviously drawn conclusions from its 2020 fiasco, secretly continues to administer false accounts in the African digital universe, particularly on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. “There are always some, even if it is not our preferred modus operandi,” says one of our military sources. Again, “no question of lying”, she assures us, just of carrying out influence operations by handling real information. “In concrete terms, they make authentic content using inauthentic methods,” summarises a connoisseur of the subject. Now it’s up to them not to get caught again.

In early August, a Twitter profile caught the attention of Sahel connoisseurs. Created fairly recently, in August 2021under the name of Gauthier Pasquet and adorned with a French flag, for several weeks it has been publishing allegedly exclusive information compromising the Malian junta and favourable to French but also Ivorian interests. Although there is no indication of who is behind it, this profile has all the makings of a fake account. In his bio, Gauthier Pasquet says he is “RFMTV’s correspondent in Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso”.

Screenshot of the Twitter account of “Gauthier Pasquet”, a fake identity. ©Twitter

However, a simple internet search casts doubt on this. It is impossible to find a journalist with this name. “Pasquet’s” profile picture, generated by artificial intelligence, actually belongs to Can Dündar, a Turkish journalist living in exile in Berlin since 2017. Contacted on Twitter, he did not respond to our messages. As for RFMTV, its Wikipedia page states that it is a French music television channel, “broadcasting music videos from the 1980s-1990s and new releases, as well as musical shows”. So it is hard to imagine why they would send a correspondent to West Africa…

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