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How the Wagner Group and others spread propaganda in Africa


Beauty pageants financed by subsidiary companies of the Wagner Group, radio stations that echo the Kremlin's propaganda, films about allegedly honourable Russians who rescue African villages, monuments erected to the 'boys of Prigozhin' and even Russian vodka effectively replacing French beer—regardless of whether one considers Russian expansion in Niger, Mali, the Central African Republic (CAR) or Sudan, the importance of the Wagner Group's 'soft power' cannot be overlooked. Nor the susceptibility to it.


The Wagner Group is a Russian state-funded private military company controlled until 2023 by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former close ally of Russia's president Vladimir Putin.

The influence of the Wagner Group and its activities are considered to be strongest in the four African countries of Sudan, Mali, Libya and CAR. The mechanism is simple—Wagner mercenaries secure the interests of African autocrats, suppress uprisings and train local armies in return for mining contracts for rare earth metals, gold and diamonds. In recent years, thanks to these trades, the Wagner Group has not only ammassed a fortune but systematically pushed the influence of Western countries out of Africa, thus implementing the geostrategic goals of the Russian Federation. The Group has also swayed the local populations through a network of Russian propaganda.

The Russian attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022, has numbed the West to Russia's activities on the African continent, and the longer the war continues, the more often the topic of the West's active return to Africa resurfaces. The recent coup in Niger, which resulted in the overthrow of the democratically elected and pro-Western president, Mohamed Bazoum, has reopened the discussion about the need to rethink the model of Western engagement on the African continent. Niger is the last Sahel state linked to the West. Over 1,100 US and 1,500 French troops are stationed there. Niger's 'putschists' have been condemned by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and urged to surrender power to the ousted president. Meanwhile, the 'putschists' can count on the support of anti-French, Russian-allied movements in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso, among other places. In the Nigerian capital, Niamey, supporters of General Abdourahmane Tchiani's junta regularly protest in front of the French embassy with Russian flags. Also, since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the colours of the Russian Federation have flown at rallies in other African countries, including Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic, where the Wagner Group's propaganda is especially strong.

Niger under the influence of the Wagner Group

According to Cameron Hudson, the US expert on the Sahel, from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Niger had up to now not occupied any special place on the Kremlin's disinformation map, but the coup changed that situation. In an interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel, the expert stressed that Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin had congratulated Niger on regaining sovereignty and that the country was now a first-rate candidate to expand Russian influence in the Sahel region. Hudson said that Niger, in terms of potential interest of the Wagner Group, fulfils the key conditions: firstly, it faces an internal security threat, and secondly, it is in a phase of political uncertainty. "Until a week ago, Niger was a close democratic ally of Washington, Paris, Brussels and Berlin. It would be a great moral victory for Russia and Wagner's leader Yevgeny Prigozhin if such a country moved from one bloc to the other," he concluded.

Elites with diplomas from the USSR era

When experts who on a daily basis analyse Russian influence in Africa are asked why, despite many proven crimes against the people of African states, the Russians or, more precisely, the Wagner Group, enjoy the support of quite a number of communities, a single answer is usually given: because they are promised protection and the Russians and the Wagner Group keep their word, even if this protection comes at a bloody price. According to Grzegorz Kuczynski, Director of the Eurasia Programme at the Warsaw Institute, and author of the book 'Wagner Group. Putin's Dogs of War,' the Group is positively perceived in various African societies primarily because the propaganda of the authorities is allied with Moscow and the very active Russian trolls on social media present them as a better alternative to the French, Americans or the European Union. "In the struggle for influence, including propaganda, on the African continent, it is important to play the colonial card and juxtapose former metropolises like Paris or London with Russia's supposedly pro-African attitude," Kuczynski said.

Africa remembers that in the 1960s and 70s, Moscow supported the independence aspirations of various colonies. It is not insignificant that contacts from that period are still maintained, e.g., some African elites have studied in the USSR and later in Russia. Also, military forces from various countries are still trained in Russia, as an example the current heads of the junta in Mali. According to Kuczynski, African societies are more susceptible to disinformation and manipulation because they are strongly divided ethnically, religiously, politically and socially. Has the local population who falls prey to the Wagner Group and witnesses their atrocities not resent them?

According to Kuczynski, this is not the case. "For they are simply 'whites’ and, on top of that, they generally cooperate with the local troops. Supporters of a given regime automatically support the Russians allied with it. For African societies, Russia is still a world power. Moscow also exploits the fact that African societies, which are more conservative than the West, are ideologically closer to Russia," he added.

For the record:

• In January this year, UN-appointed independent human rights experts called on the Malian authorities to immediately launch an investigation into the mass executions of civilians that took place in April 2022, that were carried out "allegedly by government forces and a private military contractor based in Russia, the Wagner Group." It concerned the village of Moura in central Mali, where up to 400 people were slaughtered over five days by the Malian Armed Forces together with the Wagner Group (witnesses spoke of at least a hundred white soldiers speaking a foreign language which was not French). The presence of the Wagner Group was confirmed by internal Malian documents cited by the British newspaper The Guardian. Villagers were subjected to execution, torture and rape under the pretext of "fighting the jihadists."

• The Wagner Group's activities in the Central African Republic made headlines in July 2018, following the deaths of three Russian journalists who were killed during a journalistic investigation into activities of the Wagner Group in the CAR.

• Since it has been revealed that former Russian military officers were conducting training in CAR, the media and organisations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), have been reporting on the executions and torture of civilians allegedly committed by the Wagner Group. According to a report issued in June 2023 by the Washington-based investigative group The Sentry, the Wagner Group committed a number of crimes against civilians, including "torture with a brutality that exceeds that of the rebels." The report revealed that the Wagner Group also committed systemic rape of women, men and minors. One of the witnesses interviewed by the report’s authors, a father in front of whom his

daughters were repeatedly raped, stated that "it is impossible to object because the Russians are getting away with it as they are our allies."

This is just a small part of the bigger picture of atrocities committed by the Wagner Group in the African states. Many of the massacres and executions are related not just to 'fighting the rebels' or jihadists, but to competition for access to gold, diamond and uranium reserves. If the local population does not agree to provide access to reserves or refuses to hand over gold or diamonds mines it ends up being executed. Such situations are particularly typical in CAR, where, on the one hand, the Wagner Group executes civilians who refuse to submit to them and, on the other hand, have considerable support. For example, there is a monument at the gate of the University of Bangui showing the Wagner mercenaries defending women with children. The statue is meant to remind locals who they can count on should the rebels surround the city again. Those who were killed at the hands of the Wagner Group are not mentioned.

The question is whether African societies, being at least partially aware of the crimes committed by the Russians, believe in the security assurances provided by the Wagner Group. According to Grzegorz Kuczynski, this is not significant. "The important thing is that local regimes, for their own purposes, make deals with Moscow. The passivity or pro-Russian attitudes of ordinary people are largely the result of years of consistent actions by Prigozhin trolls and internet specialists and the so-called polit-technologists," he said.

The Wolf and Hare in Bangui (from “Well, Just You Wait!”, a Russian animated series)

Lengo Songo is one of the most popular radio stations in Bangui, the CAR capital. The radio is sponsored through Russian capital and remains under the control of the Wagner Group. Since the 1950s, this radio station has been the most important source of information in CAR that provides news about the world, and the Russians have been vying to get their own radio broadcaster. The peculiarities of the CAR media market with the rather limited reach of online media (only 5.3 percent of the population has access to the internet) do not allow for widespread online disinformation. On the other hand, analysing the pro- and anti-Russian narrative in online media, it is clear that the battle for souls is fierce even within this theoretically modest framework.

Lengo Songo portrays Russia as CAR's greatest and most faithful ally, which "has been taking care of state security for the past five years." The Wagner Group is referred to as 'military instructors' in the radio's stories and on its website, although the name 'Wagner Group' itself does not appear in the news.

On July 14, 2023, the radio reported that 20 'instructors' had been awarded the Cross of Military Valour by the authorities of the town of Bambari, the administrative centre of the Ouaka prefecture. The communiqué said that the decoration was "an expression of gratitude to the Russian instructors fighting on Central African soil". Earlier, a similar ceremony was held in other cities. Lengo Songo also comments on current political affairs. The coverage of the Africa-Russia Summit held in St Petersburg on July 27-28, 2023, was an accolade to Russian President Vladimir Putin and CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, and another opportunity to praise Russia's relations with African states. The summit was in fact a blow to the image of the Kremlin, not only because of a low attendance of African leaders, but also because of the lack of agreement on grain supplies. But that information was not mentioned by Lengo Songo radio.

At the beginning of July, the radio station dealt with a report prepared by the US non-governmental organisation, The Sentry, which depicted the scale of crimes and violations of international law perpetrated by the Wagner Group in CAR. The report was released on July 23, just days before the UN

Security Council Sanctions Committee was due to meet to decide the next steps on a CAR arms embargo. According to the radio station, the date on which The Sentry's report was released was not coincidental, and the report itself failed to meet basic standards, as it was "based on the statements of only 45 witnesses, while CAR has a population of 6 million."

Lengo Songo is keen to report on initiatives for the local community promoted by the so-called Russian House in Bangui, a centre for Russian culture and education which offers various courses and educational programmes. The facility has been operating since December 2021, with Russian language courses for children and young people, sewing workshops for women, cinema screenings of 'Soviet and Russian cartoons', and the organisation of meetings with Russian officials and military officers. The Russian House has three meeting rooms and a playground. The head of the facility, Dimitri Sytyi, who is also a member of the Wagner Group's top management, in a radio interview, expanded the range of 'Russia's merits in Africa' by including humanitarian aid and explaining that "Russia provides support to 20 countries on the African continent, but nothing is said about that." In December 2022, Sytyi was wounded by a package bomb. At the time, Prigozhin accused France of being behind the bombing.

Lengo Songo also likes to reach out to pro-Kremlin journalists in promoting a narrative of the 'evil West'. In January 2023, an article by Edvard Chesnokov, a journalist from Russian Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, was promoted on the radio's website. It was a story concerning the trip of Chesnokov to Mali and Niger, which became a cause for reflection on the condition of both countries. The journalist stressed that "the West uses the resources of these countries to its advantage" and mentioned, among other things, the mining of uranium by French companies in Niger and the deployment of French soldiers there "under the pretext of fighting terrorism." According to him, that constitutes a de facto new form of colonisation. Chesnokov juxtaposed the situation of African countries "re-colonised by the West" with the war in Ukraine, and wrote that "Russia has done its homework. For years, starting in 2014, it pleaded with the West to stop the military escalation near Russia's borders and to refrain from bombing the mainly ethnic Russian cities of Donetsk and Lugansk. When this attempt to keep the peace failed, Russia struck NATO forces in Ukraine in 2022. So, Russia and Africa are now natural allies in the global struggle for a new world." In conclusion, Chesnokov added that "Russia has found a cure to fight the demons of Africa—instability and the terrorist-military threat—and the Wagner Group is fighting pro-Western extremists of the Islamic State in various parts of Africa."

Prayers for Putin

Let's go back a few years. It is December 9, 2018, and the finalists of the 'Miss Central African Republic' pageant are about to set off from the village where they spent the last weeks before the grand finale, to the Bangui stadium. Before they board the bus, they will pray for the 'President of CAR, for the President of Russia and for Miss Russia.' At the stadium, the winner of the competition will receive the crown from the hands of Elmira Abdrazakova, Miss Russia 2013. Also, the first lady of CAR, a representative of the Russian embassy and a delegate from the Wagner group are present. Also, the first lady of CAR, a representative of the Russian embassy and a delegate from the Wagner group are present. And the sponsor of the competition is a Prigozhin company that has been functioning in CAR for less than a year, and one that later dominated the country's gold and diamond mines.

A month later, the Ledger Plaza, a five-star hotel in Bangui, will host the Miss of the CAR’s capital pageant. And this time, the crown will be presented by Valery Nikolayevich Zakharov, a member of the Wagner Group and, at the time, the national security adviser to CAR President Faustin-Archange

Touadér. During his tenure, Zakharov had an influence on the strategic direction of the Wagner Group in CAR, and at the same time provided advice to the President of the Central African Republic on security issues. The ceremony was observed by Viktor Tokmakov, the first secretary of the Russian embassy in Bangui at the time, along with Zakharov, but it is Zakharov who places the crown on winner's head. Both events are financed by Lobaye Invest SARLU, a Prigozhin company co-managed by Russian House chief Dimitri Sytyi. Lobaye Invest SARLU is involved in gold and diamond mines and was registered in CAR in October 2017 and is the subject of international sanctions.

The same company funds the disinformation mission of the Lengo Songo radio station. According to the local press, CAR authorities did not have the funds to organise the beauty pageant and that was when the Russians came to the rescue. The Wagner Group did not stop at sponsoring the crown and other small items for the finalists. Elmira Abdrazakova not only graced the Bangui stadium with her presence in December 2018, but also travelled with gifts to a local single mothers' home. She brought along a tank for storing water, a washing machine, boilers and five cartons of baby food. Since 2018, the Russians have also been organising meetings at schools on 'friendship with Russia', during which they distribute school supplies and footballs to students. The local press praises the Wagner Group's commitment to not only "conducting military training, but also to providing first aid."

"With the Russians, it is easy to forget that the crisis has not yet been resolved. They bring joy to the people of Central Africa, the children are smiling again and the women feel good," wrote the French-language news website Corbeau News Centrafrique (CNC). However, the website quickly changed its attitude. Today, there is no trace of the delights of 2018. Already in 2020, the Russian embassy in the CAR accused the CNC of "spreading anti-Russian propaganda"; in 2021, during the second round of the combined parliamentary and presidential elections, the government blocked the CNC website. The same happened to Le Tsunami, another website deemed anti-Russian, which was accused of "spreading disinformation during the critical election period."

In January 2022, the ANCIR iLAB team (African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting—a digital forensic team of data scientists and investigative specialists) prepared a media map of CAR. Authors of the report divided local media based on how they report on Russia. There were three categories: positive, neutral and negative reporting. The CNC, ranked together with Le Tsunami, were seen as media critical of Russia, the Ndjoni Sango website with proven financial links to Russia was considered to be unequivocally enthusiastic about Russia (although the Wagner Group's radio broadcaster was not taken into account), and the Journal de Bangui and Le Potentiel Centrafricain were considered neutral in their coverage of Russian-related narratives in the CAR. ANCIR iLAB analysts sketched out the divisions in the CAR media market starting with Russians' disinformation activities on social media (despite the low level of internet access Russian trolls still managed to stir up much in Central African social media, especially on Facebook, before the 2020 elections) and ending with the Franco-Russian conflict for influence in CAR.

“This online arm wrestling has now spilled into the diplomatic turf, with France having suspended its military cooperation and budgetary aid to the CAR, citing the government’s failure to stop massive disinformation campaigns against it. France halted more than $12million in military aid and withdrew direct military cooperation. According to the French Foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, a “seizure of power” by Russian mercenaries in the CAR also contributed to the withdrawal of the military personnel,” ANCIR iLAB experts wrote.

According to Dr. Joseph Siegle, director of the research division of the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies at the National Defence University in Washington, Russia tends to employ multiple platforms to disseminate its disinformation in Africa. He said that there are social media—TikTok, Twitter,

Facebook, Telegram—where sensational or socially polarising statements can generate a lot of views and enable the dissemination of Russian messages and false claims. "This may be done directly from Russian troll farms like the Internet Research Agency. Increasingly, Russia will sponsor seemingly independent African influencers (such as Kemi Saba and Nathalie Yamb) who are active on YouTube and Facebook and take pro-Russian positions and disseminate these false claims, effectively serving as a Russian mouthpiece," he said and added that state-owned Russian international broadcasters like RT and Sputnik are also powerful means for distributing Russian messaging and disinformation to urban audiences in Africa. "Collectively, these platforms reinforce one another and create an echo chamber within certain information circles in Africa. Absent strong, credible, independent researchers in Africa, these falsehoods are able to get traction and are shaping the narratives in many African countries," Siegle said.

Russiahood In May 2021, the Russian film 'Tourist' (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt15251228/) had its premiere in the Central African Republic. The screening was organised in the Bangui stadium, with spectators dressed in Wagner Group T-shirts. Five days after the African premiere, the film was shown on Russian television. The plot concerns Grisha Dmitriev, a Wagner Group member, nicknamed 'The Tourist', whose mission is "to defend the civilians of the Central African Republic against rebel hordes funded by the West." A Bengali actor also plays one of the leading roles in 'The Tourist,' and a feature can be found online in which he presented his and his family's miserable living conditions.

Another Russian movie about Wagner Group was made simultaneously to 'The Tourist'. It was titled 'Granit' (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt17352384/) and was filmed in Mozambique. Here, too, the main character is an assumedly noble 'instructor' who comes to Mozambique to train poorly armed and undisciplined soldiers. The third movie in the series was 'Sky' (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt15133902/), which shows Russian pilots in Syria and was produced with the official backing of the Russian Ministry of Defence. The rights to these movies are held by Aurum Production, founded by Elena Kiselova in 2017, with Prigozhin's company AKTIVISTI being Aurum's main shareholder (51 percent). The movies were primarily intended for African audiences, but they have also been used by Russia internally. They all premiered before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, with further Aurum Production movies being made during the war. These latest productions form a pillar of Russian propaganda for an internal audience.

"Films like 'The Tourist,' which portray Russia as being the saviour from dangerous rebels in the Central African Republic have made an impact among their target audiences—young, urban populations—in Africa. While low-quality films with simplistic narratives that present Russia in heroic terms (and often France as the villain), are operating in an information environment that doesn’t have many established sources of credible news. Therefore, these films are able to convey rosy narratives of Russia that are not subjected to critical examination. Presented in an action film genre, these films are easily accessible and effective at softening Russia and Wagner's image in Africa. This makes audiences more receptive to other forms of Russian disinformation," Siegle concluded.


Olga Doleśniak-Harczuk