Russian Propaganda in Africa: How Has Kremlin Messages Changed in 2023?

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In 2022, the Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security, in order to find out what African online media wrote about the Russian war against Ukraine and how this was affected by Russian propaganda, analyzed in detail the media landscape of four African countries — Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, and the Republic of South Africa, based on the monitoring conducted by the Ukrainian social startup LetsData in June and July.

This year, the Centre, in collaboration with LetsData, continued to track the media landscape of five African countries — Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, and Ghana in January and February, in order to record the main trends and changes in the spread of Russian narratives.

Methodology: using machine learning, publications were collected with at least one mention of Ukraine and/or the war in Ukraine in the online media of the countries studied. For each country, the most visited online media sites (also considering those that share pro-Russian rhetoric), TV channels, and newspapers that have an online version were selected. Data collection and analysis were conducted in the original language. Preparation and processing of data was conducted in the Python programming language. Text processing was based on content analysis.

The study presents only those narratives and messages that reproduce Russian propaganda, which does not exclude the presence of productive and neutral narratives in the media of the analyzed countries.

Russian Messages on Military Aid to Ukraine

The analysis of the information landscape in 2023 shows that African online media continue to spread, as well as intensify, new messages on military assistance to Ukraine.

For example, in the 2022 study, the Centre for Strategic Communication noted such messages as: “The conflict is fuelled by a large supply of weapons to Ukraine from the West,” “Western support will not continue, weapons stocks are running out,” and “Western weapons threaten to shell Russian territory.” At the beginning of 2023, the following messages were spread: “countries refuse to provide military assistance to Ukraine,” “the supply of weapons prolongs the suffering of Ukrainians,” and “the supply of weapons to Ukraine weakens the countries that provide it.” 

In addition, the messages intimidating the audience with the prospect of “the use of nuclear weapons by Russia in the event of a continued supply of weapons to Ukraine” intensified. In such messages, it was predicted that “Europe will turn into a radioactive cemetery,” and the consequences for the West from supplying weapons to Ukraine were described as “global catastrophe,” “apocalypse,” and “World War III.” 

For example: “new weapons for Kyiv will lead to a global catastrophe”; “the support of Ukraine with tanks will turn Europe into a radioactive cemetery”; “the supply of tanks to Ukraine will provoke World War III, which will turn the world to ashes”; “Putin threatens an apocalypse if the West continues to send weapons to Ukraine,” and “if the Ukrainian army receives weapons capable of striking deep into Russia, the Russian side will use weapons that have not been used before.”

The trend of spreading simultaneously contradictory messages on military assistance to Ukraine, as in 2022, is still preserved in the online media of African countries. For example, the spread of messages, on the one hand, about the alleged “cessation of providing weapons to Ukraine by the West,” and on the other — intimidation and blackmail due to the continuation of its supply.

READ MORE: Latin America under Influence of Russian Propaganda: Kremlin Messages in Online Media of Argentina and Brazil

Russian Messages on Nuclear Weapons and “Ukraine’s Provocations”

Messages about the use of nuclear weapons were also controversial — threats on the part of Russia to use nuclear weapons and the simultaneous accusation of the United States of allegedly “planning to test nuclear weapons.” For example, “Medvedev: a nuclear strike is inevitable if Russia is defeated in Ukraine” and “Putin: the United States is thinking about testing nuclear weapons.”

The narrative that “Ukraine / US is creating / planning provocations against Russia” was actively spread. 

In Africa, for example, the following messages of the “provocations” narrative were noted: “Kyiv troops are preparing to blow up grain storage facilities in Kharkiv to make a provocation against Moscow,” “The United States is preparing a provocative attack with poison in Ukraine to blame Russia,” and “Ukraine is preparing a provocation against Russia to attract the attention of the world community and accelerate the supply of long-range missiles to strike Russia.”

Russian Narratives about NATO and the United States and Their “Role” in the War

Mentions of NATO and the United States in the online media of African countries are found in the already familiar Kremlin narratives and messages.

For example, reports of NATO’s “eastward expansion” were once again circulating: “The alliance should have heeded the warnings that its eastward expansion would exacerbate instability in the region.”

In addition, NATO and the United States were mentioned as “partners in the crimes of Kyiv,” such as: “Washington indirectly fought with Moscow because Kyiv fought with American weapons and equipment” and “NATO actually got involved in a military confrontation with Russia, supplying its weapons to Ukraine.”

Moreover, the promotion of “statements” about the alleged “control” of Ukraine by the United States persisted. For example, “Washington uses Ukrainians to serve the interests of its military-industrial complex,” “the intensification of US participation in the events in Ukraine is associated with the fear of losing its colony and the fact that Washington and NATO use Ukraine as a testing ground.”

In addition, messages about “American biolaboratories in Ukraine” were spread.

Other Kremlin Narratives and Messages in Africa

Among other topics that Russia manipulates in Africa are the following: religion, peace talks, fictional victories of the Russian army, “the split between the EU countries,” and the alleged “shelling of the civilian population by the Ukrainian military.”

The topic of religion, in particular, spread the messages that, allegedly, “the Ukrainian authorities are persecuting religious institutions.”

Russian messages accused the West of “disrupting” the peace talks, such as: “Russia was ready to quickly conclude a peace agreement with Ukraine, but the West disrupted it and prevented Ukraine from concluding peace” and “The West ordered Zelenskyy – no peace agreements.”

In addition, the African audience was convinced that Russia “achieved significant success in Ukraine in the second half of 2022, and now has gained momentum and is making gradual progress in the east of Ukraine.”

Russian narratives about the alleged “split and quarrels within the West” were also promoted. For example: “the Ukrainian crisis causes tension in relations between Washington and Berlin” and “European states must confront the aggressive Poland and the Baltic States, which are doing everything possible to provoke further confrontation with Russia.”

Like last year, in 2023, the online media of African countries continue to spread messages that, allegedly, “Ukraine is shelling its own cities and civilians.” In addition, among these messages, the following intensified: “Ukraine threatens the cities of Donbas with American weapons” and “Ukraine threatens civilians: Ukrainian troops fired NATO missiles at Makiivka and Donetsk.”

Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security

Expert commentary

Of course, the spread of all the above narratives and statements in the information space of Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt, and Ghana takes place. This is especially vividly represented in Egypt, where even some Russian “experts” are included on the air of local TV channels.

However, it is important to understand that the main focus of Russian propaganda in these countries is on the “European context,” exploiting the colonial past and deliberately fuelling the anti-European sentiments of the local population. Egypt also stands out in this matter, as Russian propaganda in this country is trying to work on the “American topic” to undermine informationally the cooperation between Cairo and Washington.

The narratives on the nuclear threat and nuclear confrontation are, in fact, no different from those propagated by Russia in Europe. In general, the topic of nuclear weapons is naturally relevant to the information space of almost any country in the world. Therefore, Russian attempts in this matter are rather inertial.

An important Russian narrative, which is spreading in Egypt and, to a lesser extent, in Ghana and Kenya, is the “disruption of grain supplies by the Ukrainian, not the Russian side.” It should be understood that by blockading ships with grain, Russia pursues the goal of inflicting not so much financial as reputational damage on Ukraine. The reflection of this can be seen in the results of voting for any pro-Ukrainian resolution of the UN General Assembly.

The message “American biolaboratories in Ukraine” should be mentioned separately. It has become especially widespread in Nigeria, since the population of this country is more sensitive to medical, pharmaceutical, and other similar topics (scandals with counterfeit medicines, viral diseases, etc.). As an example, last year, Russia contributed to spreading the message about “American biolaboratories in Nigeria.”

Summing up, it is worth noting that Russia, for the most part, is trying to transfer information practices from the European to the African continent. Sometimes it considers local specifics and focuses its attention on specific events, as in Egypt, Nigeria, or South Africa. However, in general, Russian propaganda in the studied countries is based on rather primitive points, which, with an appropriate level of opposition, can in most cases be neutralized.

Andrii Rudyk, analyst of the Centre of African Studies

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