Africa is the fastest-growing continent in the world, where 1.2 billion people live. How do people react in African countries to the Russian-Ukrainian war, where Russia has been working on its influence for years? What kind of propaganda narratives are being spread there and who does it? “The Ukrainian Review” has spoken with an independent researcher of Africa Marta Oliynyk-D’omochko and disinformation expert at UNLV Mary Blankenship, who analyzes the prevalence of pro-Russian disinformation on Twitter accounts based in Africa.
What is the reaction of African countries to the Russian-Ukrainian war?
M.O.-D.: The reaction of African countries is evidenced the best by voting for the resolutions of the UN General Assembly (detailed information about voting you can find here, — author’s note).
For example, when voting for the UN General Assembly resolution of March 2, 2022, which condemned the Russian war and demanded its immediate end, a third of African countries abstained (31% or 17 countries), Eritrea voted against and eight African countries were not present.
During the voting on October 12, 2022, the situation was already a little different, which was a consequence of the Ukrainian actions on the African continent. For example, no country voted against it. Angola, Madagascar, and Senegal changed their position, voting in favour of Ukraine. Nevertheless, a significant share of the countries — in this case, 19 — abstained (6 were absent).
The war challenges Africa primarily with food, the threat of famine, the rise in prices of fuel, wheat, and oil (in some countries the rise in prices for these goods reached 50%), ferrous metals (that, in particular, affected the construction industry in Senegal).
The war also tests the foreign policy orientation of African countries. Some countries see this war in the global dimension as a new Cold War, where African countries are forced to choose a side.
Why is Africa important for Russia?
M.B.: It is no secret that Russia has for a long time been trying to gain its stake within Africa whether it is for its natural resources or strategic naval ports and so on. Especially nowadays when they become increasingly isolated from the world. They have been trying to pivot to places like China, Africa, the Middle East. So Africa and in a sense specific African nations are very crucial for Russia.
M.O.-D.: The importance of Africa is determined by several factors: political capital within international organizations (already mentioned votes in the UN General Assembly), economic potential and related projects in the future, resources, control over the routes of illegal migration and drug trafficking (especially in the Sahel region (more detailed about Sahel here, — author’s note), which can then be used as a tool of pressure on the EU).
For Russia, Africa is a component of strengthening its influence in the Global South. That is, Russia is haunted by its dream of an anti-American pole of world politics. And this is how, in fact, Russia positions itself in Africa as an international player alternative to the Western world, which, as it claims, does not interfere in the «internal affairs» of the states. Although we know that this is not really the case.
If we talk about the influence of Russia, then here we can single out the political influence (direct close cooperation with the leaders and elites of countries such as Mali, Sudan, Uganda, CAR, and a number of other countries), economic influence, which consists of close economic cooperation, informational influence, in particular through mass media and bot farms.
What are the main narratives about the Russian-Ukrainian war in Africa?
M.B.: Russian propaganda in general has several main objectives. The first one is to delegitimize Ukraine and its allies as well. Especially the USA, Germany, the EU, or Great Britain. That is the main goal. The second goal is to create division within Ukraine’s allies as well. And what happens is that one of the biggest effects of disinformation is that the conversation pivots to the disinformation instead of actually discussing what issues are or deliberating what to do. So that will be the second objective. I would say not as successful one because as you can say Ukrainian allies have been able to move forward and support Ukraine despite the different claims and disinformation that have been spreading around.
And specifically for Africa, it is really to sway different African nations away from Europe, away from Ukraine towards Russian influences.
M.O.-D.: Russian propaganda in Africa has several directions: discrediting Ukraine, negative narratives about the West, speculation on the ties between the USSR and African countries.
In particular, with regard to Ukraine, often speculations are based on the food crisis, saying that Kyiv is to blame for hunger and rising prices; every Ukrainian grain goes only to «rich» countries. The Russian Federation hyped up the situation that happened during the evacuation of students at the beginning of the full-scale invasion (more detailed about this here, — author’s note): using huge bot farms on Twitter, the narrative about racism in Ukraine was spread. In the same way, theses were spread that Ukraine diverts attention from the problems of African countries.
Russia operates in the information sphere not only through social networks, but also through traditional media, public organizations, and activists, whom it actually «buys».
M.B.: As for narratives, the biggest one is called “whataboutism”. It is when you are being asked “Why focusing on this? What about this issue?” That pivots the conversation and tries to refocus on domestic issues that African nations have. The one narrative that I see most outright are all the conflicts going on in Ethiopia, especially in the Tigray Region (more detailed about this here, — author’s note). There are a lot of accounts on Twitter and online, there are activists’ accounts that are saying: “Why are we even focusing on Ukraine, are children there starving?”. That is the biggest one.
Russian narratives have the greatest success when they exploit existing tensions or grievances that certain countries and groups within these counties may have. And of course, you have anti-NATO, anti-EU, anti-Ukrainian narratives. And what was really popular, but at the beginning of the war (by the end of 2022 popularity of that really decreased), one of the biggest focuses that the African audiences online was African students and just African people, in general, trying to flee Ukraine. And the racism that they encountered in Poland for example. There was a lot of outrage about that. After that ended when most students were able to get out I think a lot of the African attention also kind of dwindled.
And then you have disinformation. You have “Ukrainians are nazis”, “They are puppets of the USA”. As you know, Russia has been blocking the ports in Ukraine, like in Odesa for example. And that actually has the most focus from African audiences. Because food insecurity is such a huge issue in Africa. And what Russian propaganda, a lot of politicians, and even embassies were trying to push with this: this is the fault of sanctions, not the blockades.
And I think there is actually some good news in this case. Because most Africans were discussing this on Twitter and blamed Russia. So they don’t fall into this disinformation and propaganda.
Are there some differences between countries in spreading Russian propaganda?
M.B.: Well, it is going to be based on the different issues that each country has been going through. So, for example, in Ethiopia, you have a lot of focus on what is going on in the Tigray Region. For example, in South Africa, there is a different focus on their issues as well. And some nations are also not as responsive because they don’t have as much access to the Internet and social media. So that is something you have to consider.
The biggest country that does have a lot of propaganda is South Africa. It is partly because this country has the biggest social media usage on the continent. But then there is also the Russian embassy in South Africa and various politicians there that continue to promote different Russian propaganda points.
The most common way Russia spreads its propaganda is through Russian officials and Russian embassy accounts. And then any time you have Russian officials like Sergey Lavrov who visits various African countries (he actually did a tour of Africa) like Senegal and Egypt for example, any time he made a statement in his visits there were “peaks” of disinformation. It is being spread around because people are talking about his statements, which of course are going to be propaganda and not true.
And also specifically for social media, there are anonymous conspiracy accounts. These are accounts that you don’t know the identity of. They spread different conspiracy theories whether it is about election fraud or Covid-19. They pivot to different topics. Since the war in Ukraine started, they have been focusing on spreading conspiracy theories about the war in Ukraine, various ones. Among them are “Ukrainians are racists” or “Ukrainians are nazis”, they really shift and perpetuate everything. And these accounts have hundreds of thousands and some of them even millions of followers on Twitter. They have the most saying and direction in the conversation.
And then of course you have Russian media sites, like Russia Today, which is the biggest one. Although it is banned in Europe, it is not banned in Africa. Yet there are still people discussing it. Although not as much. I would say Russian embassies and politicians, then conspiracy accounts, and then Russian media sites like RT are the sources of propaganda in Africa ordered by their influence.
African economic intelligence firm Concerto estimates that Russian and Ukrainian imports account for 30 percent of all African wheat consumption, writes Martin Armstrong for Statista. According to the Statista data, Russia had the biggest value of wheat import into Africa in 2020 ($3,563 millions), Ukraine was at the third place ($1,453 millions).
“The Ukraine crisis has had this ongoing negative impact on world food prices and added even more volatility,” said Abby Maxman, CEO of Oxfam America, writes CNN. “The supply chains and how they flow to places like East Africa and the Horn of Africa are taking big hits.”
According to the Food Price Index, food prices rose more than 14% in 2022 compared to 2021.
It is worth adding, Africa produces food by itself as well, for example oil and cocoa. At the same time, the staple crops of the African diet, wheat, and rice, mainly come from outside of the continent, Deutsche Welle claims.