How the Kremlin spreads disinformation in Africa
When the Kremlin wants to gain influence in Africa or prop up an unchecked repressive ruler, it often works with key oligarchs aligned with Russian President Vladimir Putin. A Kremlin favorite is Yevgeniy Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s chef” due to his numerous catering contracts with the Kremlin.
Prigozhin is best known for funding the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a troll farm known for spread disinformation worldwide. A State Department report described Prigozhin as the “manager and financier” of the Wagner Group, which he described as the Kremlin’s proxy for “to conduct covert and armed operations abroad.”
The State Department report indicates that Prigozhin attempted to influence African policy in favor of Russia by:
- Companies that exploit Africa’s natural resources.
- Political agents who undermine democratic actors.
- Front companies pretending to be NGOs.
- Manipulation and disinformation campaigns on social networks.
The US government has sanctioned some of Prigozhin’s companies for what it calls “Bad political and economic influence around the world.”
Examples of this malevolent influence include sponsorship fake election observation missions in Zimbabwe, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Africa and Mozambique, according to the US Treasury Department.
Besides the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom have also sanctioned Prigozhin for spreading disinformation and other activities that threaten countries’ security.
Private companies like Facebook (now known as Meta) and Twitter have also taken action against Prigozhin’s Internet operations in Africa, including:
- Facebook in 2020 removed fake accounts linked to Prigozhin which promoted Russian policy and mainly targeted the Central African Republic and, to a lesser extent, Madagascar, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique and South Africa.
- Twitter in 2021 removed Prigozhin-linked accounts that relied on a mix of inauthentic and real accounts to introduce a pro-Russian point of view in the Central African Republic.
- Earlier this year, Facebook removed Prigozhin-linked accounts in Nigeria, Cameroon, Gambia, Zimbabwe and DRC that attempted to deceive local journalists by writing favorable stories about Russia.
Turn to the Wagner Group
In parts of Africa, the Russian government has turned to the Wagner Group, which Prigozhin helps fund, to help achieve Putin’s foreign policy goals. Wagner is often associated with a deluge of targeted disinformation.
Despite its name, the Wagner Group is not a single unified organization. Kevin Limonier, a specialist in the Wagner group who teaches geopolitics at the University of Paris 8, described the group as “a galaxy of organizations with different names which are difficult to trace.”
A 2019 report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says: “Wagner is a vehicle used by the Kremlin recruit, train and deploy mercenaries, either to wage wars or to provide security and training to friendly regimes”.
Wagner Group forces have been deployed in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Central African Republic, mozambique and, more recently, Mali.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov admitted in May that Wagner was in Mali, but only on a “commercial basis.” In March, local officials in the town of Moura told Human Rights Watch that a group of Russian-speaking and Malian forces executed at least 300 civilians. The Center for Strategic and International Studies identified Wagner’s forces as involved and called the attack ” worst atrocity in the decade-long conflict in Mali.
For other examples and more details on Kremlin-funded disinformation, see: