Russia Uses Local Voices to Spread Propaganda
Russian flags have become a fixture of rallies and public protests in Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic and Mali — an indication of the way Russia is pushing its propaganda and disinformation by filtering it through local influencers.
One of those influencers, Kemi Seba, a French-Beninese social media figure with more than 1 million Facebook followers, was invited to speak at the Moscow Institute in Russia. During his presentation, he defended Moscow’s actions across the region, particularly those of the mercenaries of the Wagner Group, who have become Russia’s military proxies in many countries.
Other pro-Moscow influencers in the region include Nathalie Yamb, known as “the lady of Sochi” for her pro-Russian comments at the 2019 Russia-Africa Summit, and Adama Ben Diarra, who goes by the name “Ben the Brain” on social media.
Diarra has been particularly active in encouraging Malians to welcome the Wagner Group to the country.
In many ways, analysts say, Russia and Wagner are exploiting historical ties between some African nations and the Soviet Union while also pushing the notion that Russia has no colonial history on the continent.
“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,” Mark Duerksen, a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, told the website Coda. “They fashion themselves as pseudointellectuals adopting tropes from a deep history of Pan-Africanism to their purposes.”
Wagner has been present in the CAR since 2017. In the years since, mercenaries have served as the presidential guard and national security advisors while their affiliated companies mine the country’s gold and diamonds for their own benefit and to finance the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The mercenary group has even taken over the CAR’s customs system.
Wagner’s expanding presence in the country includes a Russian-sponsored radio station, a pro-Russian statue in the center of Bangui, and free public screenings of a pro-Russian film, “Le Touriste.”
“Russian propaganda makes them seem like they’re friends of the region,” BBC analyst Howard Gethin commented during a recent podcast.
Wagner’s heavy-handed operations in African countries are producing results that are the opposite of what their clients hope to achieve, further destabilizing the countries. In Mali, for example, al-Qaida has used Wagner’s participation in events such as the brutal 2022 Moura massacre to justify their own presence to defend Malians.
“Russia is a disruptor,” BBC analyst Beverly Ochieng said in a podcast. “The Russian influence operations have worsened the sense of stability that Mali was hoping to achieve. Wagner appears to be there to enable the junta to stay in power.”