Bethlehem Endale is a dentist. After Russia’s attack on Ukraine, she fled from Kharkiv to Stuttgart with her two sisters – her parents left Ukraine for their homeland, Ethiopia.
There they are exposed to disinformation from the Kremlin, says Bethlehem, nicknamed Betty, in a Deutsche Welle interview: “Russian propaganda is very present in Africa, there is a lot of false information.”
“Many Ethiopians watch Russia Today, Russian television, and hear propaganda,” she says. Her conversations with her parents often ended in arguments. Like many Africans, they came to Ukraine on a student exchange program during the Soviet Union. “They’re educated,” says Betty.
But in the Russian cultural centers in Ethiopia, they received false information about the war. “They don’t understand that Ukraine has a right to exist – they have been brainwashed, as have many Russians.”
It is still only a matter of time before more Russian propaganda will be broadcast from the South African economic metropolis Johannesburg: The Russian state broadcaster RT – formerly known as “Russia Today” and banned in the West as a result of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine – wants the first English-language broadcast Set up headquarters on the continent in South Africa. The Kenyan capital Nairobi was previously under discussion as a location.
According to Guido Lanfranchi from the Dutch Clingendael Institute, Russia’s media campaign is part of Putin’s strategy for more power on the continent: “The role of Russian media such as RT and Sputnik in Africa has recently come into focus. Especially after the start of the war in Ukraine. This media charm offensive is related to Russia’s efforts to strengthen its presence on the continent again,” Lanfranchi told Deutsche Welle.
It is still unclear to what extent the messages resonated with the population: “Anecdotal evidence suggests that a growing number of people in Africa have access to these media and that this is having a positive impact on their perception of Russia,” says Lanfranchi.
How is the Kremlin disinformation campaign going on the continent and how is the media reacting to it? “Some are rather indifferent – that is, indifferent – others are very explicit in their criticism of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine,” says Christoph Plate in an interview with Deutsche Welle. He directs the media program of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation for Sub-Saharan Africa in Johannesburg.
There is no mass movement, the debates differ from country to country, Plate sums up. Normal people on the street are not so interested in the war, which is far away. “But this war is being hotly debated among journalists, diplomats and government officials.” Numerous Russian embassies on the continent are also very active in publishing false information or placing an opinion piece in newspapers.
The Russian narrative intended to be disseminated in the media is evolving into a narrative that Russia has never been a colonial power and has never had imperialist ambitions. “That catches the eye of one or the other, but more out of the feeling that someone is defying Western dominance here,” says Plate.
Old connections that are being reactivated in the course of Russia’s Africa policy are helping. They can be traced back to the political relations during the Cold War: “During the Soviet Union, there was military cooperation and thousands upon thousands of scholarships were awarded to students from African countries,” says Plate.
Many of the former grantees ended up in African leadership positions – such as in South Africa, Angola and the Central African Republic – and maintained ties, especially as the then USSR supported African freedom movements. According to Clingendael expert Guido Lanfranchi, that also shaped the mindset in Africa. Many African governments regard Russia as a partner – which was also reflected in the voting behavior at the United Nations.
When looking at Russia’s engagement in Africa, it’s important to put things in perspective, Lanfranchi stressed. Russia’s influence in many areas of the economy is currently weak – it is only significant in the area of security cooperation: Russia was the largest arms supplier for African governments with 44 percent of the total volume, the Stockholm SIPRI Institute reported in the spring. Russian mercenaries are also active in Mali and the Central African Republic.
Russia’s influence in Africa is growing quite rapidly in all areas, says Lanfranchi. The severing of ties between Moscow and the West could accelerate this trend as Russia looks for new allies internationally, so we could see a stronger Russian presence on the continent in the future.”
Prevention is better than reacting, says Lanfranchi. Fact-checking teams are examining the Russian side’s claims, but media organizations need to take a more critical look at which foreign media outlets are active in their countries and what their goals are.
Autor: Martina Schwikowski
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The original of this article “Russia’s propaganda plans in Africa” comes from Deutsche Welle.