The battle for public opinion in Africa about the war in Ukraine is far from won.
A combination of complex geopolitical circumstances, genuine historical grievances against former colonial powers in the West, and an expansive web of pro-Russian information networks across the continent have created a situation in which many African nations are unwilling to directly oppose Putin’s war. Others are tacitly in support of Russia’s actions.
A particularly interesting example is the Central African Republic (CAR). CAR has been enmeshed in varying degrees of civil conflict for over twenty years. Since 2017 Russia has been assisting the current President Faustin-Archange Touadéra in his battle against multiple rebel factions by providing weapons and military instructors.
It is also widely reported that private military contractors from Russia’s infamous Wagner Group are present in CAR, where they are reportedly protecting Russian interests in gold mines and other minerals. They have been accused of perpetrating a multitude of human rights abuses.
Creator: NACER TALEL | Credit: Anadolu Agency via AFP
Since 2017 there have also been multiple reports and investigations into coordinated operations promoting Russian propaganda and disinformation in the Central African Republic.
Facebook has asserted that at least some of the accounts involved were linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian organisation sometimes described as a “troll farm.” It is linked to Russian oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin, who is also connected to the Wagner Group. Both Prigozhin and the Internet Research Agency are subject to US sanctions over attempts to covertly influence the US 2016 Presidential elections.
In 2022, these well-established Russian influence networks in CAR have provided the infrastructure for swiftly advancing Russia’s false narratives about the war in Ukraine. As I reported in an investigation for The Daily Beast in 2019, however, Russian social media influence in CAR has always been a more complex picture than the simplistic descriptions of “troll farms” might suggest.
It does appear that, as in 2019, there continues to be a level of relatively crude “astro-turfing”. For example, recently created Facebook ‘news’ pages which share only positive content about Russia and negative content about Ukraine and the West. Content from these pages is then shared in a systematic fashion into local CAR discussion groups.
The page ‘Russenews Centrafrique’, for example, was created on March 16th 2022. It has posted nothing but positive content about Russia, Vladimir Putin and the Russian Embassy in CAR. Some posts on the page have been shared into 16 separate CAR discussion groups within a few minutes by the same individual, presumably the person who created and operates the page. It is of course possible that this person is just a huge fan of Russia – but a more likely explanation may be that they are being paid for their efforts.
Figure 1: Screenshots of the same Facebook user sharing a post from the Russenews Centrafrique page about a local protest in support of Russian actions in Ukraine into multiple CAR Facebook groups. Astro-turfing protests in support of Russian interests and then promoting them online has been a repeated feature of Russian influence in CAR.
Beyond this rudimentary tactic, however, there are also more nuanced approaches that are both harder to detect and likely harder to address.
According to local reports, one of the main ways in which Russian influence networks operate in CAR is through paying local journalists, bloggers, and journalism students to write pieces with a pro-Russian slant. Others manage Facebook pages that, pose as news sites, NGOs, or general Russia fan groups. 2015,
In 2019, I identified a number of key individuals including journalists and communications professionals with political connections. They appeared to operate as part of a loose network to consistently push pro-Russian content, on a sliding scale from propaganda to outright disinformation, into CAR Facebook groups. In 2022 most of them are still at it, pumping a steady stream of pro-Russian, anti-Ukrainian, and anti-Western content into CAR groups.
It is unclear how many of this loose network may be focused on promoting pro-Russian content for its own sake, versus how many are engaged in promoting pro-Touadéra content, and so support Russia because Touadéra does. Much of the content is also anti-French (in the context of the competition for influence between France and Russia in CAR) and in some cases also pro-China and anti-American.
This highlights the complexity of the information ecosystem in CAR, in which local contexts, political propaganda, and disinformation networks weave in multiple levels of domestic and international agendas for an array of purposes. This web is difficult to untangle. Yet one thing is clear: domestic actors have agency, and are not simply passive mouthpieces for larger powers as they are sometimes portrayed to be.
Figure 2: Screenshot of a post from a loose pro-Russian, pro-Touadéra network. The post claims that France and Germany will soon exit NATO; that the US dollar is about to fail against the Chinese yuan as a result of Russia’s success in resisting US sanctions over the war in Ukraine and a clever ploy by the BRICS nations; and that Africa is eagerly awaiting a Russian victory in Ukraine.
Another avenue of Russian influence is through university students. Only a small fraction of young people are able to access university education in CAR. Those who do are disproportionately the children of the elite. This makes universities a useful place to exercise influence over both current and likely future people in positions of power in the country.
Russia has built significant connections with CAR universities. In 2021, President Touadéra even announced that Russian language would become a compulsory subject for university students from this year. A relatively small number of CAR students have also travelled to study in Russia itself. At least some of those subsequently begun promoting Russian propaganda back to their peers in CAR.
For example, this is a student who travelled to Russia to study at a university in the Altai Region. They since moved to Vladivostok where, according to his LinkedIn profile and Facebook posts, he operates a web development company.
Figure 3: A student from CAR who studied in Vladivostok produced pro-Russian Facebook pages
However, he also appears to be setting up a sideline in pro-Russian propaganda. This individual is running at least two Facebook pages, 'Wamossoro Wangapu' and 'BeAfrika', and an associated Twitter account which connects the two. The Wamossoro Wangapu page features his own photo, and appears to be intended to position himself as a public figure for commentary on political issues. BeAfrika’s Facebook page description describes it as seeking to boost commercial, cultural and technological exchanges between Africa and Russia.
The two Facebook pages, as well as his personal Facebook profile, are being used to systematically promote pro-Russian propaganda and disinformation to dozens of Facebook groups in CAR as well as groups from Mali, Congo, Cameroon and wider pan-African groups.
Figure 4: Screenshots of Facebook pages run by a former CAR international student and now Russian resident, promoting pro-Russian content back to CAR audiences.
Figure 5: Screenshots of systematic sharing patterns targeting groups in multiple African countries.
It is not possible to know from open sources what is motivating this individual. We can speculate he received an incentive from state-linked Russian actors to promote pro-Russian content to CAR and wider African communities. It is also possible, however, that he is genuinely a strong supporter of Russia and is driven by personal and commercial motives to try to build a public profile for himself.
Russia has a long history dating back to the Soviet era of using higher education programs for international students as a tool for political influence. A 2015 draft decree by the Russian Ministry of Education and Science, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Rossotrudnichestvo to increase the quota for international students in Russian universities in 2015 noted that educating foreigners in Russia was valuable for the "formation of pro-Russian national elites" who will be able to "more effectively promote Russian interests, including those of a long-term nature."
As the kinetic war plays out in the fields and in the streets of Ukraine, the shadow war for control of the global narrative is taking place across the screens and in the minds of people around the world.
While this piece has focused on the unique and particularly fraught example of CAR, broadly similar dynamics are likely to be at play in many countries across Africa, particularly those with strong political, educational, military or economic ties to Russia.
Addressing the international impact of Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine requires an understanding of the complex ways in which it operates at domestic and local levels. Beyond simplistic visions of “troll farms”, it is essential to recognise the agency of local political actors and the role of established domestic influence networks in propagating pro-Russian narratives about the war.