Forging US Response To Russian Soft Power And Gangster Capitalism In Africa – Analysis

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Russia is actively promoting an authoritarian world order and a re-assertion of itself as a dominant geopolitical force on the international stage. For U.S. policy in Africa, this requires a re-examination of pro-democracy and human rights strategies that have been core pillars of American policy in Africa since the end of the Cold War.

The current aggressive Russian propaganda war mocks U.S claims of upholding democratic ideals and seeks to negatively highlight any and all shortcomings in the American social fabric. The anti-American tenor of Russian propaganda can be seen from even just a quick viewing of Russian state-owned Russia Today (RT) TV. Russian diplomats are also carrying the message to African leaders that they should find their own solutions to African problems and not be forced to model themselves on the systems of non-African countries, a clear effort to encourage a rejection of liberal democratic ideals.

From a political economy perspective, this international authoritarianism rests on a bed of corruption and illegal coercive practices employed by the Russian state and its affiliated corporate interests, which we have characterized as gangster capitalism.

Sowing the seeds of distrust of western-styled democracy appears designed to promote authoritarian answers to social and economic problems confronting African societies. Alarmingly, its effort to discredit the concept of open societies also arguably lends credence to the anti-Western democracy narratives of violent jihadi extremists, thus posing challenges for communication strategies designed to counter the appeal of violent extremist organizations.

The U.S. foreign policy establishment must urgently address the challenges posed by Russian soft power aggressiveness with creative solutions. Both the definition of the problem and the elaboration of solutions must be based on a firm grasp of the extent and limitations of Russian soft power interventions. This calls for a greater investment both in researching the Russian efforts to promote this authoritarian world order and in countering it with robust public diplomacy. In addition, there needs to emerge a greater international commitment toward policing the corrupt and coercive practices of corporations that are undermining a democratic open order and that unfairly disadvantage corporations acting as good corporate citizens.

U.S. Historic Commitments to Democracy and Human Rights in Africa

With the end of the Cold War, African democracy advocates challenged the dominant system of one-party rule and its dictators. Country after country seemed poised to grasp the ideals of liberal democracy. Bereft of its Cold War geopolitical calculus, the United States became less inclined to support or tolerate strongmen like Mobutu Sese Seko of then Zaire or Kenya’s Daniel Arap Moi to counter the influence of the Soviet Union. Tolerance of apartheid South Africa too waned as the Communist threat as perceived by Washington’s Cold War strategists faded. In Angola, for instance, it became increasingly difficult to justify covert military support for the ruthless rebel leader, Jonas Savimbi, whom the Reagan administration once portrayed as a freedom fighter challenging the Marxist-Leninist Angolan government backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union. In this historic moment of change at the end of the Cold War, the American liberal democracy “brand” was arguably at an all-time high.

The idea of an emergent “new world order” was advanced by then President George H.W. Bush, and the promotion of human rights, democratic institutions, good governance and rule of law became pillars of U.S. foreign policy toward Africa. Under the first President Bush, the United States also championed the idea of nation building as way to promote international stability through rule of law and good governance. The first of these nation building efforts — that of Somalia — utterly failed with the now legendary Black Hawk Down incident that was fueled by Al Qaeda operatives.1

No doubt, U.S. action did not consistently support its pro-democracy pillars in Africa, and in conversation, African intellectuals and political figures are often quick to point out how the American brand became severely tarnished with the 2003 U.S. military intervention in Iraq, which was justified by false claims of weapons of mass destruction. Nonetheless, U.S. support for free and fair elections, respect for human rights and rule of law remained central to its official policies in Africa.

The promised democratic transition has had its shining stars – Ghana, Senegal, Benin, Cape Verde, Namibia, Botswana and others — too many to list here. Many others, however, still find themselves on an arduous path toward democracy; with a number of them that can be described as fragile democracies.

The trajectory toward consolidation of good governance, human rights and participatory democracy is far from inevitable. With Russia, a major power on the world stage, promoting authoritarianism and oligarchical business relations, the effort toward a stable, just and open world must be redoubled. The good news is that those countries that are Africa’s success stories in terms of open societies will likely be natural allies in this endeavor.

However, there is the troubling prospect that the United States Department of State is on the road to abandoning the promotion of human rights2; this is reminiscent of the realpolitik that was part of the Cold War calculus that placed short-sighted national security and economic interests over the promotion of open societies. If Washington proceeds down this road, it may very well end up supporting the type of authoritarian world order currently being advanced by Moscow. The values that make the United States a beacon of hope for people around the world must be upheld and advertised through enhanced international public diplomacy and sustained humanitarian assistance.

The Promotion of Oligarchical Relationships in Africa

U.S. policy toward Africa and Russia has to take into account the rise of African political elites susceptible to the corrupting influences and to the soft power initiatives and propaganda narratives put forth by Russian business oligarchs seeking political influence and profits.

If the U.S. does nothing to counter the Russian soft power initiatives and their anti-U.S. narratives, the U.S. runs the risk of losing its political and possibly economic influence among a substantial group of African nations. This process is clearly underway in a number of African countries.

A key question confronting U.S. policy makers is how to respond to the Russian promotion of authoritarianism. A now long-series of events including Russian support for the Syrian government to deal making with the Egyptian and Sudanese governments, make increasingly obvious the fact that President Vladimir Putin is reinforcing a more polarized world in which Russia can reclaim its former influence in the international arena.

While Russia lacks the economic prowess of China to cultivate “friends” through forthright investments in infrastructure and resource extraction and is furthered hampered in the economic realm by western sanctions, it has used the sales of military hardware, loans from state-controlled banks and other business mechanisms to corrupt local political elites. In essence, Russia buys favor with military and intelligence actors in various African countries. In exchange, these elites provide economic concessions to Russian state corporations and oligarchs.

In previous articles we have demonstrated how this practice of corruption and the granting of concessions occurs (;

In doing so, Russia is supporting autocratic regimes and promoting oligarchical economic and political structures in Africa similar to what exists within Russia. In other words, Russia is willing to support African leaders regardless of whether they adhere to democratic principles and the promotion of human rights, or not. These actions are eroding the ability of the U.S. and other Western countries to further human rights, democracy and good governance.

As noted above, in some cases, Russian business interests appear to have engaged in what we have called gangster capitalism. For instance, there is significant evidence supporting the idea that Russian business interests were behind the flow of arms into Nigeria’s petroleum-and-natural-gas-rich Niger Delta; these arms and the infusion of foreign operatives helped fuel the sabotage of pipelines and oil theft which drove the major Western oil companies out of the Niger Delta. Then, Russian-owned enterprises based in Switzerland and other West European countries forged partnerships with Nigerian “oligarchs” to bid on the abandoned holdings of the oil majors. Some of these Russian-Nigerian joint ventures and partnerships have also become vehicles for further Russian business penetration into other countries.

Another example comes from Mozambique, which was once considered an African success story after the end of its long civil war. A Russian state-bank, VTB Capital colluded with Credit Swiss to provide a $1.86 billion secret loan deal to the Mozambique government for the purpose of buying a fleet of useless tuna fishing and coastal patrol boats. The deal reportedly enriched members of Mozambique political, intelligence and military elites. The failure of the Mozambique’s government to make good on repayments led to a severe devaluation of the national currency and fueled a steep rise in essential commodities to the distress of the Mozambican population.

Russia’s Soft Power Tools

Russian strategists are well aware of the effective use of soft power especially in social media to influence public opinion and attitudes. Indeed, in 2015 during a foreign policy address to Russian diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, President Putin urged all his ambassadors to actively use new technologies to highlight Russian success stories, improve Russia’s image and defend its interests abroad, according to the Russian daily Kommersant. Putin was also quoted as saying, “It’s not enough to just crow something once. . . . We should explain our positions again and again, using various platforms and new media technologies, until they understand.”

In June 2016, in a message to the then Gambian strongman, Yahya Jammeh, President Putin reinforced the often stated narrative that Russia is supportive of African initiatives and seeks further cooperation. In his message Putin stated, “We intend to further make every effort to strengthen the relations of friendship and cooperation with African countries, as well as to continue our participation in various programs and projects aimed at assisting Africa under the auspices of the UN, G20, BRICS and other international structures.”

In August 2016, the Russian ambassador to Botswana, Victor Sibilev, offered an unusually candid critique of efforts to use international assistance to promote transparency, rule of law and good governance, as the United States does. During a meeting between officials from Botswana and Russia, which was designed to foster friendship and cooperation, the ambassador said “We share the view that problems of Africa should be solved by Africans themselves without imposing ready-made decisions from abroad or thoughtless copying of extraneous political and economic models.”

Ways Forward

In response to the challenges of Russian soft power aggressiveness and the rise of gangster capitalism in Africa, the United States should:

  • Redouble health, education and good governance assistance carried out by United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and publicize the difference this assistance is making in the lives of real people across the African continent. In other words, an effort should be made to go beyond USAID’s impact in terms of money spent to illustrating the human impact of this assistance. Improvements in health and education are also critical to the emergence and sustaining of open societies.
  • Strengthen the public diplomacy outreach of the U.S. government to counter the anti-American, anti-democratic narratives promoted by Russian propaganda. During the Cold War, the now defunct United States Information Agency used to play this role, and a similar organization should be created to present an alternative narrative of the United States to the world. In this sense, we are in full agreement with former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, who has called for establishment of “USIA on steroids.”
  • Revitalize the Fulbright Hays program to increase research and teaching opportunities for American and African professors and students; provide generous scholarship to African students with a stress on providing opportunities based on merit rather than focusing on the children of the elites.
  • Create a Voice of Africa dedicated to the promotion of open societies; this new media outlets should have a strong social media and television presence
  • Strengthen the National Endowment for Democracy in its efforts to promote good governance and expose corruption
  • Through strengthened international agreements and investigative authorities, increase accountability for Russian state-owned corporations, businesses of oligarchs and their second-country subsidiaries that engage in illegal activities and violate international norms of ethical business behavior
  • Fund research to understand the extent and nuance of Russian soft power initiatives with the objective of countering its anti-American and anti-democratic narratives.

*About the authors:
Gregory Alonso Pirio
directs EC Associates including its research unit, Africa Analytica. Dr. Pirio is a senior Africanist, an accomplished researcher and a leader in global health communication. He is also affiliate faculty at the Center for Narrative and Conflict Resolution, School of Conflict Resolution and Analysis, George Mason University.

Dr Pirio is notably author of The African Jihad: Bin Laden’s Quest for the Horn of Africa (Trenton: Red Sea Press, 2008). Dr. Pirio is also editor of Rebuilding Shattered Nations and Lives: Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development in Africa (UNHCR, 2009), for which he wrote the introduction, “African Conflicts in Historical Perspective.”

Dr. Pirio consecutively held the positions of Director of the Portuguese-to-Africa and Director of the English-to-Africa Services of the Voice of America. There, he was the architect of special radio, TV and media training initiatives in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe and Latin America on conflict resolution and public health issues, including youth media projects in conflict zones. He has been executive producer of several award-winning radio and TV documentaries. He holds a M.A. in African Studies and a Ph.D. in African History from UCLA.

Robert C. Pittelli is lead analyst at Africa Analytica. He previously served as an intelligence analyst focusing primarily on African and Middle Eastern issues for the U.S. Department of Defense. He possesses an in-depth understanding of military affairs in Africa, including the history of Cold-War-era rivalries and post-Cold-War geo-strategic trends in Africa. He has also studied the complex social and economic environments that have contributed to the rise of various violent extremist organizations (VEOs) operating in Africa as well as challenges in countering the VEO narratives that fuel recruitment.

Mr. Pittelli received a M.A. in Personnel Management and Administration from Central Michigan University and a B.A. degree in Psychology, with a minor in Cultural Anthropology from Long Island University. He also earned a Graduate Diploma in Strategic Intelligence from the U.S. Defense Intelligence College (currently known as the Joint Military Intelligence College).

1. Gregory Alonso Pirio, The African Jihad: Bin Laden’s Quest for the Horn of Africa (Red Sea Press, 2007)
2. See Paul McLeary, “SitRep: Turkey Threatens U.S. Troops in Syria; Tillerson Tosses Human Rights; Russia’s Race to The Arctic,”

Gregory Pirio

Gregory Pirio has a doctorate in African History. Dr. Pirio has been a global leader in the use of communications for constructive social change. Dr. Pirio has been the architect of numerous radio, TV and media training initiatives in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe and Latin America with a focus on peacebuilding, conflict resolution and public health, including youth media projects in conflict and post conflict societies. He authored The African Jihad: Bin Laden’s Quest for the Horn of Africa and was editor of Rebuilding Shattered Nations and Lives: Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Development in Africa (UNHCR), for which he wrote the introduction, “African Conflicts in Historical Perspective.”

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