Russia is using African influencers to spread its lies on Twitter
In late October the curtain came up on the second “Russia-Africa: What’s Next?” youth forum at the Moscow State Institute on International Relations on the edge of the Russian capital.
“We are united by the rejection of the so-called ‘rules-based order’ that the former colonial powers are imposing on the world,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the audience via video message. “Russia greatly appreciates the fact that despite unprecedented and crude pressure, our African friends, like the overwhelming majority of the international community, have not joined the anti-Russia sanctions but continue developing dialogue and cooperation with us.”
Lavrov was warming the small crowd up for the event’s headline attendee Kemi Seba, who took to the stage for 20 minutes to condemn the West and wax lyrical about the benefits of Russian influence across the African continent.
Seba is part of a growing network of self-styled pan-African influencers who enjoy a close relationship with the Kremlin in return for spreading Russian disinformation. Ranging from disseminating anti-French rhetoric to extolling the virtues of sanctioned oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group mercenaries, these diligent mouthpieces have also justified Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Just hours after the Russian invasion on February 24, Seba took to Facebook to argue that Moscow was “trying to reconquer Russian lands.” Another well known influencer, the Swiss-Cameroonian Nathalie Yamb, commented that Ukraine is “full of neo-Nazis” and suggested that Kyiv is responsible for causing the conflict. The ferocity and reach of this disinformation has become so widespread that in early November the U.S. State Department issued an extraordinary statement that lambasted both Seba and Yamb and drew strong correlations between them and Prigozhin. “Understanding and exposing the role of disinformation in the Kremlin’s Africa strategy,” the State Department told us in response to written questions, “is a key step toward limiting its potential impact on the continent.”
French–Beninese Seba has amassed 1.1 million followers on Facebook and almost a quarter of a million subscribers on YouTube. The former head of the Russian-backed Afrique Media, the 40 year-old has crafted a reputation for spreading visceral anti-French rhetoric and claiming the West is on a mission to “destroy Vladimir Putin, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East.” He is also the head of the organization Urgence Panafricaniste and the clout behind the relaunched media outlet Afrique Résurrection.
Seba’s closest confidant is Yamb, whom he has described as “my blood.” Powered by 233,000 subscribers on YouTube, the 53-year-old has styled herself as “La Dame de Sochi” after attending Putin’s Russia-Africa Summit in 2019. Her repeated verbal attacks on Franco-African relations led to the French Minister of the Interior banning her from French territory in January for “incitement to hatred and violence.”
“Some of these influencers have gained quite a following recently, but the way to think about them is that they are just part of a broader disinformation system that Russia is deploying in Africa through Wagner,” said Mark Duerksen, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, an academic institution within the U.S. Department of Defense. “[They are monetizing their work] through YouTube ad revenue, speaking engagements at universities in Russia, or paid attendance at conferences in Russia. They fashion themselves as pseudo intellectuals adopting tropes from a deep history of Pan-Africanism to their purposes,” Duerksen said.
Pan-Africanism, in its modern form, was established in the early 20th century in response to the enduring legacy of European slavery and imperialism. Supported by intellectuals such as the American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois, Pan-Africanism, in its broadest form, seeks to unify all people of African heritage against racism and colonialism. Today, Russia has latched onto some elements of this anti-colonial feeling to generate support for the war in Ukraine. Using historical narratives that focus on Soviet Russia’s engagement with African nations and Cold War support for resistance groups in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau, Moscow has successfully argued that, unlike its 21st century rivals in the West, it doesn’t have a colonialist past or attitude.
It is an argument that has popular resonance across much of Africa. According to the Zimbabwean writer and editor Percy Zvomuya, “in the minds of some people in southern Africa, Russia, not Ukraine, is the direct successor of the USSR, the state that supported us during our own struggles against colonialism and apartheid.” And, he said, “that Ukraine receives much of its weaponry and diplomatic support from Britain and America makes it easy for Russia to say ‘but, look, these are the people who oppressed you yesterday.’”
The West’s manner in dealing with Africa continues to grate. Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation, complained in August about “patronizing bullying” by European countries over the war in Ukraine. Both she and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa took aim at the United States over a bill overwhelmingly passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, titled “Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa.” They said the bill would punish the economic aspirations of Africans for doing essential business with Russia. The bill, reports suggest, is highly unlikely to become law but the language rankled. Pandor described it as “offensive” and disrespectful of African sovereignty.
In reality, though, it’s not clear that the Kremlin is any more respectful of African sovereignty. In many areas that have a high concentration of Russian disinformation, the Wagner Group is operating in the background. Reported to have been founded around 2014, Wagner is a Kremlin-backed private military organization that helps undemocratic leaders hold onto power in return for access to natural resources or strategic locations. A key factor in ensuring their (and the Kremlin’s) foothold in a country is a vast sea of disinformation that spews from social media influencers and Russia-backed organizations such as the Association for Free Research and International Cooperation, which supports many small African media outlets.
This network of positive coverage has allowed Wagner to destabilize entire regions of the African continent. In the western Sahel region, Mali’s ruling junta has moved from traditional assistance from France to support from Russia. In December 2021, Wagner mercenaries arrived in the country. Under the guise of tackling the landlocked nation’s warring militant groups, Wagner’s presence has resulted in alleged human rights abuses and shored up support for the country’s leadership.
“The [Russian] disinformation campaign in the region began long before the war in Ukraine. It really started when the Malian government had tensions with France and made an agreement with the Wagner Group,” Rida Lyammouri, from the Policy Center for the New South, a Morocco-based think tank, told us. “We know one of Wagner’s objectives is natural resources and Mali is rich in gold, but there is no evidence yet that that’s what they’re looking for.”
At the three-day US-Africa Leaders summit, which concluded on December 15, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo alleged that Burkina Faso, one of the largest gold producers on the continent, had paid the Wagner Group with a mine to come into the country to contain insurgent violence. There have been two coups in Burkina Faso this year alone, the latest on September 30. Earlier this month, the recently appointed prime minister flew to Moscow on a Malian jet; his visit was reportedly “private.”
Back online the depth of Russian influence over social media users does not just extend to top-tier influencers who have well-established links to Moscow. Other individuals are also jumping in on the game, especially on the issue of the war in Ukraine. Pointing to hypocrisy in Western criticisms of the Russian invasion, “whataboutism” has become a typical rhetorical strategy for those eager to parrot a pro-Russia line.
General Muhoozi Kainerugaba, the son of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and arguably the country’s tweeter-in-chief, said on February 28 that “the majority of mankind (that are non-white) support Russia’s stand in Ukraine.” Kampala has been drifting towards Moscow as the East African nation becomes increasingly authoritarian. In Nigeria, the burgeoning influencer Joseph C. Okechukwu has taken to Twitter almost daily to update his 38,000 followers on the war in Ukraine where he regularly alludes to Ukrainian soliders having Nazi sympathies. The Cameroonian influencer Franklin Nyamsi has railed against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, while praising Russia for supplying weapons to Mali.
Some analysts argue, however, that the collective bark of these influencers is worse than their bite. Two reports by the Brookings Institution, a U.S. think tank, suggest that although Russia has targeted the African continent’s information sphere to shore up support for its war in Ukraine, Russian disinformation does not “gain the same traction or attention on Twitter” as narratives closer to the hearts of African audiences.
“The same messages are being spread on Facebook and Youtube, but what we learned from our research on Twitter is that the disinformation about the war, even disinformation about grain, is not getting as much engagement as established grievances,” said Mary Blankenship, the author of the report alongside Aloysius Uche Ordu. “What I also found interesting was that it’s official channels that have the most effect, such as a tweet from the Russian Embassy, rather than accounts with a significant following.”
It is unlikely that Moscow’s interest in the African continent will end anytime soon. Since 2020, Russia has been Africa’s biggest supplier of arms. Long before the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has been driving Russian foreign policy to engage more with African states, to piggyback on Chinese investments and to diminish Western dominance over the continent. However, even with Wagner’s malign influence, it is unclear if the Kremlin’s concentrated appeal to African anti-colonial sentiments, and pledges of support outside human rights frameworks, is actually yielding a return on both geopolitical and financial levels. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, it is also not known if Russian influence across the continent will create a Russian power base that will “expand its influence in the years to come.”
Towards the end of his speech at the “Russia-Africa: What’s Next?” youth forum in October, Lavrov made sure to reference the second edition of the Russia-Africa Summit and Economic Forum due to take place in St. Petersburg next summer and to promote “peace, security and development.” There is little doubt that sitting in the audience will be Prigozhin’s influencers dutifully taking notes for their audiences back home.
A quotation from Mark Duerksen has been changed post-publication to reflect his intended meaning.
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