The Kremlin is targeting African newsrooms. It’s working
In early December, a senior editor in a major Kenyan newsroom received an email from Moscow. It came with an attachment, an op-ed penned by Oleg Ozerov, the ambassador-at-large and head of the secretariat of the Russia-Africa Partnership Forum.
The piece attacked European policies in Africa and Europe’s position on Ukraine. The gist of Ozerov’s piece was sensible: African countries had a “sovereign right to choose partners,” it argued. But the tone of the actual pitch was counterproductive. “Our side requests to publish it in full without any edits, or cuts, at the earliest opportunity,” the email demanded.
The newsroom turned down Ozerov’s offer, knowing full well that it was a matter of time before another op-ed from a Russian official landed in their inbox.
“Opinion pieces like this come almost every day,” the Kenyan editor told a group of journalists, myself included, when we visited his newsroom in Nairobi last week. “Some come from the embassy in Nairobi, but also directly from Moscow.” How many Ukrainian op-eds had the newsroom received? I asked. The answer: just one since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine ten months ago.
From op-eds regularly sent to African newsrooms to private Russian militias gaining influence across the continent to high level visits by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to influencers spreading the Kremlin’s message across the continent, Moscow has been working hard on winning the hearts and minds of Africans since February 2022.
I spent the past week in Nairobi, meeting journalists and senior editors from across the continent to understand whether the Kremlin’s soft power and disinformation efforts in Africa are working. Spoiler: they are.
RUSSIAN MESSAGES “LAND SOFTLY”
Our relatively small gathering — which brought together a dozen or so senior editors and publishers from across the continent, a Ukrainian journalist, an exiled Russian editor and myself — was hosted by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a German foundation affiliated with the country’s center-right Christian Democratic Union. The foundation, which despite its association is independent from CDU, is a big player in media development in Africa. And it was concerned about the growing spread of Russian narratives across the continent, which prompted them to organize the conversation.
In the room in Nairobi, there was plenty of sympathy towards Ukraine and plenty of concern about clearly malicious disinformation campaigns undertaken by influencers across Africa, but there were also compelling explanations as to why Africa is currently finding Moscow’s messages more persuasive than those being pushed by the West.
First, it’s history. Russia has successfully positioned itself as the successor to the Soviet Union, and the Soviet legacy of support for anti-colonial movements is soft power currency that the Kremlin finds easy to convert.
At our gathering in Kenya, Mondli Makhanya, a veteran South African editor, hummed the favorite drinking song of his apartheid-era youth: “Soviet people, lovely people, we are far away from home. We shall love you, we’ll respect you for the things you’ve done for us…”
Although he says he has long parted with any illusions of a socialist utopia and is deeply sympathetic towards Ukrainians, the way the West advocates for Kyiv has been counterproductive. “There has been a lot of preaching,” Makhanya said.
The Western push for an international “rules-based order” is meeting resistance because of a lack of reckoning and accountability for NATO wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. “You may call it whataboutism, but it is grounded in real questions that no one has answered,” one African editor said.
Russia’s message, on the other hand, “lands well and softly,” according to Nwabisa Makunga, an editor of the Sowetan in Johannesburg. The challenge for her team is to objectively navigate an overwhelmingly pro-Russian public sentiment and a widespread belief that Ukraine and its Western allies provoked the invasion.
“There is a real vacuum of analysis and understanding of what the war means, and now our audience is less and less interested,” said Makunga.
Without resources to send their own correspondents to Ukraine, many African newsrooms rely on Western wire services like Reuters and Associated Press to tell the story of the war in Ukraine to their audiences. But many have noticed a backlash against perceived Western bias of the resulting coverage. Editors from Uganda, Kenya and South Africa all agreed that audiences who are distrustful of pro-Kyiv narratives are looking for alternative sources of news to confirm their bias. These alternatives include Russian-funded channels such as RT and Sputnik.
RT is also popular because, as a channel, it appears to be more present and more invested in covering Africa than most Western newsrooms. “RT is the only one that has a bureau in Addis Ababa,” said the editor of a major Ethiopian newspaper. The editor in Nairobi who turned down Ozerov’s op-ed admitted that for him “RT was the main source of news on the war.”
In our discussions, it emerged that the reporting of discrimination against African students looking to leave Ukraine in the early weeks of the war had a damaging impact.
“It was a story Africans couldn’t ignore,” said a Kenyan editor. “It really sent all the wrong signals and then the very effective Russian propaganda machine kicked in and built on that initial, anti-Ukrainian sentiment.”
THE CONNECTIVE TISSUE OF COLONIALISM
Ukraine knows that Africa is important, and Kyiv has tried to counter Moscow’s message on the continent. Zelensky has addressed the leaders of the African Union and sent Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba on an unprecedented tour of the continent. But Ukraine is busy fighting for survival and its bandwidth for diplomacy is limited. Kuleba had to cut the trip short and rush to deal with an emergency back in Ukraine.
Moscow’s messaging, on the other hand, has been relentless. In another unpublished op-ed that was shared with me, the Russian Ambassador in Nairobi Dmitry Maskimychev wrote: “If you look at the leaders of the Soviet Union, you will find two Russians (Lenin, Gorbachev), a Georgian (Stalin), and three (!) Ukrainians (Brezhnev, Khruschev, Chernenko). Some colonialist empire! Can you imagine a Kenyan sitting on the British throne? Make no mistake, what is currently happening in the Ukraine is not a manifestation of Russian ‘imperialism’ but a ‘hybrid’ clash with NATO.”
It may be an effective message. But it is also a lie. While there were differences in the way the Russians and the Europeans ran their empires, the result was the same: violence, redrawn borders, repression of cultures and languages and annihilation of entire communities.
Ukraine’s line of argument in Africa can in fact be extremely compelling. Despite Russia’s pretenses to the contrary, Ukraine is fighting an anti-colonial war and, just as African countries have the sovereign right to make their own alliances, Ukraine too has the right to choose its future independently from its historic oppressor.
But this is a story only Russia’s former colonies can tell Africans because when Africans hear this argument from the West, they instinctively distrust it. Perceptions of Western hypocrisy are a gift to the Kremlin.
“If Russians are telling people in Africa that they have not colonized them, it is hard for people in the West to make the same argument,” said Daniel Kalinaki, the general manager for Nation Media Group in Uganda. “So the question of whether or not Ukraine is a colonial conflict gets lost.”
African people, he added, “are sympathetic to the plight of Ukrainians. But this war feels sufficiently removed, sufficiently complex so that no one is really interested in drilling down, in figuring out who is guilty.”