“Russia is trying to stir up enmity against France in Africa”

Cross: Why does Russia challenge France in the field of information in Africa?

Maxim Audinet: This Russian effort in French-speaking Africa allows Russia to compete with Western power in what it considers its old “French backyard”. Based on its media apparatus and the galaxy of actors and organizations centered around Wagner creator Yevgeny Prigogy, it costs little to create hostility to France’s military presence in the Sahel. mercenary gang. Beyond the African framework, it also aims to legitimize Russia’s actions with non-Western countries, which is of particular interest in the context of the war in Ukraine.

How long has this Russian come to power in the African continent in the field of information?

MY: In French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa, it all started with the creation of the Wagner group at the beginning of 2018, a year after the end of the French Sangaris operation in the Central African Republic. Later, as in Mali, Wagner arrives to fill the void left by the French army. A few months after arriving in the Central African Republic, the Russians established an information mechanism that would legitimize their presence and combat criticism. This mechanism of influence was embryonic at the beginning, but the attention of the authorities and the French media on Wagner became more and more intense.

It should be understood that this information effort is closely related to the organizational model of “Prigogine’s galaxy”. It has three components: the provision of “security” (mercenary), the extraction of raw materials such as gold or precious timber, and the information effect that comes with the previous two dimensions. The Central African Republic is the laboratory of this model, which Wagner’s group will decline elsewhere with more or less success. Every time Wagner asserts himself in a country, this information machine is activated.

Are Russians able to arouse positive feelings towards France in addition to creating resentment towards them?

MY: It is difficult to confirm this due to the lack of opinion studies. But a Mali-Mètre poll published last May found that two-thirds of respondents considered Russian forces in Mali “instructors” (a term used by Wagner and Russian authorities), while only 10 percent called them “mercenaries.” . This is significant because it shows the penetration of Wagner’s group’s self-legitimizing discourse in Malian society.

Another clue: the appearance of Russian flags during demonstrations in a number of Sahelian countries “Western neocolonialism”. It is often difficult to determine who is behind these operations. Nevertheless, a Gallup poll conducted between April 2021 and January 2022, before Wagner’s arrival, shows that Mali is the country with the most positive image of Russia in the world. This shows that there is a pre-existing pro-Russian bias, especially in relation to the Soviet era.

What is this Soviet heritage according to Africans?

MY: Many prominent officers and politicians in Mali and elsewhere were educated in the Soviet Union and have strong personal ties to Russia. But Russia’s best asset is that it was not a colonial power in Africa: on the contrary, the Soviet Union supported decolonization movements.

The Wagner group understood all the interest in developing this image to legitimize its existence today. This is clearly reflected in the performances of Prigogine’s galaxy. The latter presented as a manifestation of the coup in Burkina Faso in January 2022. “The Last Wave of Decolonization”. He also confirmed that Assimi Goita, the head of Mali’s government since the 2020 coup, has become the “African Che Guevara”, borrowing the nickname given to Thomas Sankara in the 1980s. This is a way to deceive the minds and African leaders.

Has France struggled to adapt to this challenge?

MY: Yes, and despite developments, this is probably still the case. On the one hand, because Wagner, although closely connected to the Russian authorities, operates with his own agenda and in a gray area that allows the Russian state to deny his direct involvement. On the other hand, because France has regressed in the field of information influence, given that until recently these practices were the domain of authoritarian states.

This began to change in 2016 after Russian interference in Western elections. For two years, we witnessed the real awareness of the French authorities. Note that in 2021, watch out for the creation of the Viginum service under the General Secretariat for Defense and National Security in France, which fights against foreign digital interference and is also interested in activities in French-speaking Africa. We should also note the adoption by the French military in October 2021 of a new “computer influence warfare” doctrine that gives France the tools and legal basis to become more offensive in the information field.

Is Russia’s focus on Africa related to suppression of Russian media in Europe?

MY: Not only. Russia understood that Africa will be a strategic place in the 21st century, and therefore the interest in the countries of the continent increased. However, the suspension of RT and Sputnik, Russia’s international state media, within the European Union, and the closing of RT’s UK and US affiliates, have actually caused these networks to look for new channels in sub-Saharan Africa. This accelerates the phenomenon in the information sphere.

For the moment, we note that RT France is still in wavering form among French and African viewers. Sputnik France made a more open choice. After the invasion of Ukraine, this media closed its offices in France, renewed its editorial staff in Russia and simply called itself “Sputnik Africa”.

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