Russian Disinformation In Africa: No Door On This Barn – Analysis


By Dan Whitman

(FPRI) — In 2018, Yale scholar Timothy Snyder called Russian information operations in the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, “the most sophisticated propaganda campaign in the history of warfare.”

Likewise, recent advances of Russian disinformation in Africa have resulted in some of the swiftest successes in the history of propaganda. They lie mainly unopposed by any country, Western or otherwise. 

Addressing the challenge at this late stage would not be “closing the barn door after the horse escaped.” There was hardly ever a barn door to begin with. Alarm bells blare as we slumber. This need not be the outcome if we catch ourselves in time.

Two weeks before his death or disappearance on August 23, Yevgeny Prigozhin was photographed at a desert site, very likely in Africa. With the partial unraveling of the Wagner Group in late June, Wagner forces were largely removed from Bakhmut and other Ukraine sites and redeployed to the African continent. This is partly a strategic maneuver, partly a workaround of Article 357 of the Russia Criminal Code outlawing mercenary activities in Russia. According to bizarre Kremlin logic, the Donbas, Bakhmut, and Crimea “are” Russia—ergo, Wagner’s departure from those areas to operate elsewhere. Dramatic advances in the Sahel are nothing new, but a deepening of a presence established earlier. Prigozhin’s death or disappearance will not slow these advances, but only require tweaks in personnel and leadership, and perhaps a bit of rebranding if the “Wagner” moniker disappears.

The lines distinguishing between coordinated Kremlin propaganda and aggressive military actions abroad have been blurred from the start. The Central African Republic is largely already a Russian vassal state. (The UN Security Council in fact approved Russian military “training” to stabilize CAR in 2017, not quite imagining what it would turn into.) Now Russian operatives work openly in Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and have established physical disinformation infrastructures in South Africa (soon also in Kenya). Like stockholders “balancing” their portfolios, Russians support bothsides of the current Sudan conflict.

The process is clear enough: Sahelian and other African countries abound in mineral wealth, all too rarely benefiting the populations sitting on top of them. Wagner (or perhaps soon a substitute entity) “protects” military regimes from their own people, then in a diabolical quid pro quo, gains access to precious metals—gold in the case of the Sahel. These resources sustain Russian objectives in other conflicts (read: Ukraine). Gold from the Sahel gives Russia cash to buy military materiel from international weapons markets, and then some. Overlapping elements of disinformation and hard military power work closely together—sometimes in disciplined coordination, sometimes through random actions that feed each other’s goals. Nothing original here: Military interference, active measures, disinformation—all have been used in tandem since they were invented. Relying on sanctions and on something called “history” to bring down the Russian regime in due time is magical thinking. This is hardly a strategy.

The damage done by disinformation may have longer-lasting and more pernicious effects than ephemeral military mischief. “Credit” where it is due: Building on centuries of practice, Russia has worked the disinformation system well enough to outflank Western governments’ efforts to counter them. Russia has long been a world leader in active measures stretching from the Cold War to antecedents as far back as Tsarist times. Western responses have been feeble at best.

Russian adventures in Africa build on a solid foundation of interference in countries we keep closer track of, like the United Kingdom and Brexit, the US 2016 elections, and efforts at fragmenting Western Europe through actions—some clandestine, some quite visible—favoring separatist movements in Catalonia, Basque Country, Scotland, Wales, Veneto, Sicily, and Vojvodina. Moscow also keeps the pot boiling in conflict areas with Russian minorities: Transnistria in Moldova and South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. The pattern is well established, and the record of success is remarkable: Destabilize where possible, for fun and profit.

Russian Inroads in Africa

In Africa, Russia gets an extra advantage in its destabilization programs: military dictatorships warmly welcome their military materiel and brutal tactics in putting down civic unrest; democracies are unstable to begin with and easily undermined; resentment of colonial history, especially of the French in the francophone Sahel and Central Africa, are now more apparent than ever; and the West’s inability to challenge these encroachments of civic space. Western governments cite “efforts” to reverse this process, but search in vain for a method of doing so. 

Recent expansion of the BRICS club on August 24—now to include Egypt and Ethiopia as well as South Africa—shows understandable new African policies to “decouple” from Western alliances and friendships. The policies have logic but create space where Russia can move in easily. African leaders are suckered into believing the anachronism that Soviet assistance for independence movements during the Cold War somehow relates to the Russian Federation of today, which in fact has largely abandoned Soviet objectives and values. 

There is no mystery to how Russian disinformation themes and memes move vigorously into this newly opened space. Effective propaganda cites arguments that have some basis in truth. The outright lie is more persuasive when mixed with exaggerated truths. True, the Soviet Union supported insurgencies in colonial Africa and it’s true that the colonizing countries exploited their African “possessions.” Beyond that, outright lies state that the United States is destabilizing food supplies and America and NATO are provoking conflict with Russia. Russian disinformation masters are not fools. Current Kremlin narratives ably spark subliminal overtones matching Pan-African and anti-colonial sentiments of the 1960s and 1970s. These intentionally distorted parallels are further outsourced to social media influencers like pro-Putin Kemi Sebaand anti-French Nathalie Yamb.

We know that Russia is not the Soviet Union. But who in Africa cares? South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa now engages in joint military exercises with the Russian military and gives a pass to Russia’s malicious policies elsewhere. Ramaphosa’s dust-up on May 11 with US Ambassador Reuben Brigety, who spoke of South African weapons shipments to Russia, has left South Africans in doubt and some in disbelief. Some observers in South Africa found Brigety’s assertions credible and are now putting Ramaphosa’s government under increased scrutiny. That said, subliminal gratitude to the Soviet Union for its support of the African National Congress during South Africa’s apartheid period may be apples and oranges. This history now has elements of obsolescence, but still has teeth. 

If you care about conflict in Eastern Europe and are willing to overlook challenges in Africa, know this: UN General Assembly (UNGA) votes to condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine are wobbly in Africa. Of abstentions and “No” votes condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine February 24, 2022, half were African, or seventeen out of thirty-two. These numbers may seem fleeting in an international body of 193 members, but African resolve wanes with each succeeding vote. This is not a promising trendline and reflects enlightened self-interest, collusion in some cases, and a growing sense in Africa that European wars are not in their bailiwick. Too often Africans were dragged into them during colonial and Cold War times, and they will have it no more. If a UNGA vote ever falls short of a majority asking the secretary-general to establish a war crimes tribunal, then Russia gets a free pass for its crimes in Ukraine and elsewhere. Alarm bells should be going off while we slumber.

Add coercion as a motive for African leaders, in private conversations we can well imagine: “We can help you greatly for a No vote, punish you hurtfully if you vote Yes, and will be watching abstentions closely.” Military juntas in the Sahel and others calculate their interests reasonably: Kowtow to a nuclear power that accounts for less than one percent of their bilateral trade? Perhaps today yes, though maybe not forever. African leaders, too, are strategic thinkers.

You may remember when short-wave and local radios were the main source of international news in Africa. No longer: Now virtually all Africans have local cell phone coverage, and 384 million are on social media regularly—a number comparable to the total of Voice of America (VOA) listeners worldwide. Civil society is booming in Africa, and with it, susceptibility to any source that reaches them. Russia Today (RT) and its many trolls now physically inhabit the African space, with RT establishing an office and broadcasting entity in South Africa and another on its way to Kenya. African civil society is not all that gullible, but the information they receive from Kremlin outlets currently drowns out other voices. VOA, BBC, and Deutsche Welle are increasingly seen as fuddy-duddy or outdated, never mind those broadcasters’ scrupulous journalistic fact-checking. In addition, Wagner feeds off poorer countries where education levels and press funding are lacking. This leaves fertile ground for disinformation.

Younger, more savvy voices within Western governments have been pointing out this unchallenged aggression in recent years. The higher-ups in those governments have been unable or unwilling to respond to the call or to create effective mechanisms of response.

Russia knows what it is doing. So do Western countries, sort of. The difference is that the latter merely examine, chart, diagram, monitor, decipher, study, write papers, and hold lectures. They do little to enter the civic and information space where the information war is taking place. Lacking players on the field, you’ll never win the game. Security protocols alone on US government internet systems hamstring official efforts, even with inspired and inventive approaches from dedicated individuals. Understandably, the US government must keep its internal internet connections secure. This is well and good but limits the ability to enter social media platforms boldly. There is wisdom in outsourcing these activities to private and independent organizations which are free of such constraints. This arrangement is growing, and properly so since non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can say and do things that governments can’t. The trick is to maintain transparency while doing so and engage with “under the radar” programs that often backfire.

Perilous understaffing in US embassies in Africa—especially in public diplomacy staff—also limits the US government’s “bandwidth” in confronting the problem.

For an Alice-in-Wonderland romp, check out the March 31, 2023 “Concept” of the Russian Federation’s Foreign Policy. It reads like a US National Security Strategy and touts virtues like “multilateral institutions” (UN?) which serve as “platforms for harmonizing the interest of the leading powers,” and characterizes the rules-based world order as an “imposition of rules, standards and norms that have been developed without equitable participation of all interested states.” 

On Africa in particular, the Concept calls for “a more equitable polycentric world and elimination of social and economic inequality, which is growing due to the sophisticated neo-colonial policies of some developed states towards Africa.”

One wonders if lucrative weapons exports serve the Concept’s purpose of “promoting and developing links in the humanitarian sphere, including scientific cooperation, training of national personnel, strengthening health systems, providing other assistance, promoting intercultural dialogue, protecting traditional spiritual and moral values, and the right to freedom of religion.”

For Mali alone, massacres in Moura, hidden graves in Diabali, and killings in Mopti, divide rhetoric from reality. Russian objectives are pretty simple: kill opponents to regimes in countries with military juntas or authoritarian leaders and get gold in return from terrified heads of state all too willing to hand it over. Russia’s (Wagner’s until now) “successes” in confronting extremist groups like Jama-at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (or NJIM) bolster their claims of assistance to beleaguered regimes and civil societies. This gives Russia a foot in the door.

Public pronouncements of admiration and support from Russia’s friends in South Africa, Burkina Faso, recently Niger, and other regimes, adds weight to the boots on their opposition’s necks. 

Not all African voices follow or accept this logic. In his March 22, 2023, posting on Inkstick, Olatunji Olaigbe tracks the cost of disinformation in Africa’s largest democracy, Nigeria, in its March elections. While he does not directly trace these instances to Russian sources, the process comes clear enough to the perceptive eye.

Africa watcher Mohamed Keita of the Human Rights Foundation sees clearly the Ukraine and Africa connection in Russia’s connivances in his “Champion of Solidarity: African Democracy Defenders Standing with Ukraine,” January 25, 2023.

Young Ukrainians clearly see their own high stakes in this one-sided onslaught. Mariia Maksimenko notes the connection in “The dangers of Russian disinformation in Russia, Ukraine, and Africa.” Juliia Datsenko, Ilya Snigur, and Yuliia Hrechukha also describe the overlap in their November 2022 paper, “Countering Russian Disinformation.” 

Old-Think and New-Think

What’s a democracy to do? During the Cold War, my colleagues and I in the Foreign Service believed that employing the tactics of the other (i.e., the Soviet Union) only makes us resemble them. This remains true, but transparent new measures become urgent. And of course, there can and must be some. Between silence and resignation on the one hand, and lies on the other, surely there is a vast reservoir of alternatives. When the great Todd Leventhal collected instances of Soviet active measures in the 1970s and 1980s, the practice was to “refute” distortions through conventional media outlets. False assertion: AIDS was developed by the United States military to reduce the number of African Americans. Response: Put out an op-ed, denounce through press releases, and demand retractions from KGB-funded outlets in Delhi, Scandinavia, and elsewhere. False assertion: Organ harvesting of poor Latin Americans is used for ruthless and rich North Americans in need. Response: Broadcast an editorial over VOA or set the record straight with items in the US government’s US Information Agency Wireless File in all world capitals. The loss of the File in recent years, from budget cutbacks, has removed a free source of news to needy and grateful radio and newspapers in the Global South. Now RT and, by the wayXinhua, stand ready to fill the gap. 

However, now in 2023 daily messages go out from the US government “correcting the record,” providing “answers” to false Russian narratives. (“The truth of the matter is…”) But who listens to these missives? Süddeutsche ZeitungLe MondeMail and Guardian? Crickets. African civil society doesn’t much come into contact with conventional sources. Nor, for that matter, do young Americans and others get their news from gossip sources online. 

This is horse-and-buggy stuff. Your ill-wisher has moved on to internal combustion. Do likewise or accept defeat.

Western governments are understandably reluctant to get into the troll game; it would damage their credibility as transparent and principled news sources. VOA, for example, has its strict journalistic code instilled in its reporters, and rightfully so: “VOA news and programming must be rigorously sourced and verified … VOA is alert to, and rejects, efforts by special interest groups, foreign or domestic, to use its broadcasts as a platform for their own views.”

Good on VOA and other government information sources for maintaining these standards. However, this leaves a chasm in reaching civil societies and governments in the global South.

Other government entities, including the US Department of Defense, have developed “low footprint” news sources over the decades, putting up websites that pass as independent. This practice has led to negative consequences and blowback. These used to be called “grey psychological operations,” now “military information support operations,” or “MISO.” Example: the website “ (sic)”—launched by the Pentagon’s European Command in 2004 to provide news about North Africa, paying locally employed journalists with Arabic names to publish positive articles about the United States. The site was not totally opaque but was flat-footed enough to erode US credibility in the Maghreb. Trust is built over decades, and trashed in an instant. This lame effort at opacity was uncovered easily enough by CNN a year after it was created. Congress took its time dealing with the debacle, but in 2011 defunded and shut it down. Too late: Who in the Maghreb would ever listen to us again?  

“Clandestine public diplomacy,” certainly sounds like an oxymoron and can do more harm than good. Moreover, it is likely to discredit its sources and ruin the careers of outsourced local writers shunned—killed, even—by those who bear will ill toward the United States. Some terrorists are fools, but many are not.

Greater transparency from US government sources is not much better. Observers equate US messages with Russian ones in the “equivalency” game. “Russia blankets us with disinformation; the United States responds with its own. It’s all propaganda, and to hell with it.” This is the entirely successful outcome of Vladimir Putin’s rigorous methodology over the past twenty years. Who lifted a finger against it?

How, then, to respond to trash coming from Russian trolls and Kremlin-backed media in Africa, which is already resulting in Russian advances up to and including the UN General Assembly? As one wily Soviet strategist once put it, “What is to be done?”

What Is to Be Done?

Plenty of hard-working US government employees apply themselves to this issue. Enlightened NGOs like the German Marshall Fund also have outstanding programs highlighting, analyzing, charting, interpreting, and locating the sources of Russian disinformation in Africa and elsewhere. American reticence to enter the propaganda space is precious and should be preserved. Credibility depends on it.

The Global Engagement Center (GEC) at the Department of State does rigorous analysis, but correctly stops short of adding much to an already polluted information space, especially in Africa. Its strength is in outsourcing social media actions to private organizations.

One US government site, “This is a Warning,” was an inspired format for setting the record straight. It was dramatic, visceral, and utilized the elements of Aristotelian rhetoric (Ethos, Logos, Pathos). All praise to those who devised it. However, we have no way of knowing if these messages reached or convinced the African public. In addition, “This is a Warning” seems to have gone the way of the dodo, due to budget cutbacks. Our government, our NGOs can measure clicks, but not opinions. Funding from Congress, like water, succumbs to gravity and seeks lower grounds.

Guru Thomas Kent, former director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, reveals the process and imperative of finding effective responses. His 2020 book Striking Back, is a must-read for anyone attempting to find solutions. It presents the agony of choice, especially in its recommendations. Interdict? Recognize strengths and weaknesses? Create regional “backshops”? “Block or not?” “Attack or soothe?” Defund or degrade disinformation outlets? Segment the audience? Prepare for Kremlin efforts to block communications to its citizens? Utilize or minimize covert activities? Seek exposure? Kent made these points presciently, two years before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He recommended an array of choices for consideration by those trying to counter disinformation. However, good questions have no easy answers, and the dilemmas remain. 

NGOs and Private Voluntary Organizations

Governments have money but an understandable inflexibility in clearance processes, and in maintaining “clean” internal software. NGOs and independent citizen organizations have skills and limited money. What about putting the two elements together? Combining the relative strengths of each could produce results.

DebunkEU, based in Lithuania, is such an NGO. It can speak freely, enters the information space without the limits and drawbacks of official imprimatur, and has a track record of conveying effective messaging to audiences now subject to Russian disinformation. Established to reach information-starved Russians in the Russian Federation, and knowing Russian advances in Africa will directly go against Baltic interests, it recently added Africa to its agenda. The US and other governments should openly and transparently support it with modest financial resources to enlarge its audience. If governments can and should not get into the back-and-forth of lies vs. truth in the public information space—for good reasons—then outsource the effort and do so transparently. Debunk makes no secret of its methodology, which may be the most inventive to date.

Another is Open Minds Institute (OMI). OMI already partners with Harvard and the Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation to find ways of penetrating closed media spaces in authoritarian states, especially Russia.

Of course, Ukrainians know that Africa is crucial to them as well. Scrappy citizens’ organizations, more than governments, are now at the cutting edge of technology and messaging. All glory to US government employees, but they work under constraints and protocols of internal clearance processes and IT systems hampered by government security mechanisms. 


In what is now an existential challenge to Africa by Russian disinformation, there’s a delicate balance between fancy-pants Robert’s Rules of Order, and playing hardball with an opponent who uses battleaxes and sledgehammers. We no longer have the luxury even to differentiate between challenges to Africa and the rest of us. 

Probably the best attempt at reconciling these two extremes comes from Tom Kent, “In the global meme wars, it’s time to side with the elves against the trolls.”  

We must recognize not only that the horse is out of the barn, but that the barn never had much of a door to begin with. The game may seem nearly over but is not yet lost if we grab hold of ourselves. As with global warming, you might say we botched our chances, missed the deadline. But a late start is imperative, and better by far than none. Plus, other than resignation and guaranteed defeat, there is no other option.

In the words of one inspired colleague: “First do no harm. But do something.”

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities. The views expressed in this article also do not necessarily reflect the position of the United States Government.

About the author: Dan Whitman is a 2023 Templeton Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) and a former Foreign Service Officer

Source: This article was published by FPRI

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI ( is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

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