On July 24, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov landed in Cairo, Egypt, at the start of a five-day tour of Africa intended to strengthen his country’s ties with nations on the continent.
He began his four-country expedition – spanning Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of Congo – by quickly reminding the world that the regime he represents simply cannot tell the truth.
There is “a common understanding of the causes of the grain crisis”, he told a press conference in Cairo, shamelessly trying to blame the worsening food crisis in Africa – unmistakably triggered by the continued invasion of Ukraine by Russia and blockade of Ukrainian ports by its Black Sea Fleet – on “Western Sanctions”.
And what he said in Cairo was not even the first – and by far the worst – lie he told during his visit to Africa.
Just before leaving for Cairo, Lavrov wrote an op-ed to be published in the newspapers of the African countries he was to visit, claiming that Russia “has not stained itself with the bloody crimes of colonialism”. The op-ed blatantly rewriting Russian history was published on July 22, just two days after Lavrov’s own announcement that Russia had extended its aims in Ukraine beyond the eastern Donbass region and was seeking now to annex even more territory to the beleaguered nation.
In the same article, he also asserted that Russia “does not impose anything on anyone and does not tell others how to live”, while the Kremlin is currently engaged in a war of aggression which aims, by its own admission, to bring about regime change into a sovereign state.
The foreign minister further claimed in the editorial that “Western and Ukrainian propaganda speculation that Russia is ‘exporting hunger’ is completely unfounded.” Ironically, just hours after the newspapers containing the article hit newsstands across Africa, Russian cruise missiles targeted the Ukrainian port of Odessa – a main gateway for grain exports. that help feed many countries around the world, including those in Africa. To add insult to injury, the attack came just a day after a new agreement was signed to open up Black Sea ports.
Throughout his visit, none of the African political leaders or officials he came face to face with even attempted to dispute Lavrov’s lies. Unfortunately, Africa’s seemingly enthusiastic acceptance of Russia’s “alternative truths” during this visit was in no way surprising.
Disinformation and propaganda have long been tools cleverly used by Moscow in its geo-economic battle against the West. Indeed, alongside strategic investments, trade incentives and lucrative energy deals, Russia’s ability to construct narratives that portray the Kremlin (and in particular the current Putin government) as the defender of nations against the ambitions and Western colonial aggression has earned it countless allies and supporters around the world. for many years.
And recently, Africa has become one of the main targets of Russia’s post-Cold War offensive against truth. Between 2019 and 2022, for example, Twitter and Facebook took down Russian disinformation networks that targeted Madagascar, Central African Republic (CAR), Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Sudan, Libya, Africa South, Nigeria, Gambia and Zimbabwe.
And since the invasion of Ukraine began, Russian efforts to curry favor with Africa through false narratives have multiplied. In March, for example, a photograph purporting to show a young Putin training Mozambican freedom fighters at a Tanzanian military camp in 1973 conveniently emerged on African social media and garnered undeserved praise and excitement. The image was also posted on Twitter by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s son. Of course, the photo isn’t really from the 1970s, and the man supposed to be Putin isn’t the Russian leader. Nevertheless, it was successfully used to justify African support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But why are Africans so sensitive to Russian propaganda?
According to Dmitry Gorenburg, associate at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University, Russia has established 10 main narratives that inform its strategic messages around the world. And for a multitude of historical and cultural reasons, these narratives seem to resonate particularly well in Africa.
Among these, portraying Russia as “a bastion of traditional values”, in contrast to a “decadent” West, for example, appeals to conservative and homophobic segments of African society who consider sexual freedoms promoted and protected by nations. Westerners as “immoral”.
Russia’s frequent use of “whataboutism,” as Gorenburg explains, to distract from its war crimes in Ukraine and beyond, also appeals to audiences in Africa. This is because an overwhelming number of Africans hold the West, and only the West, responsible for the wars, conflicts and instability that are devastating the countries of the South. Many Africans, for example, view the US-led invasion of Iraq, which reminds them of similar Western attacks on their nations, as a crime and welcome what they see as Russian efforts. to prevent Western whitewashing and counter Western hypocrisy.
Another messaging tool used by Russia in its narrative war against the West, namely drawing attention to the history of US intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states, also resonates well with Africans who are still suffering from the results of Washington-instigated or backed coups across the continent, or mourning the US-assisted assassinations of their independence heroes, such as the DRC’s founding prime minister, Patrice Lumumba.
And presenting Russia as a champion of “multipolarity” in the world also suits Africans who have suffered enormously under American domination and who want their nations to finally make their voices heard on the international stage.
Overall, there are many reasons why Africans cherish and support narratives pushed by Russia that highlight historical and current crimes, aggressions and missteps of the West towards the rest of the world.
Yet nothing can legitimize or justify Africa’s acceptance of Russia – a full fledged colonial belligerent that has inflicted and still inflicts untold suffering on nations in its immediate region and beyond – as an anti-colonial savior. . Beyond recognizing their moral responsibility to categorically oppose Russia’s brutal and unlawful attacks on Ukrainians, Syrians and many others, Africans must also realize how their uncritical acceptance of Russia as a benevolent force for good could be harmful to the continent.
As its confrontation with the West intensifies, Russia is doubling down on its neocolonial ambitions in Africa. As it expands its economic and political influence on the continent, there is little reason to expect it to behave any differently here than in its traditional area of influence. Just as it has done in Ukraine, Georgia and many other countries on its periphery, it will not refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of African nations to serve its interests. He is already heavily involved in domestic politics in Sudan, CAR, DRC and Mali. Russian paramilitaries, particularly the infamous Wagner Group, fight in several African conflicts. Strengthening ties with Russia, at a time when it clearly needs new “friends” to tap into to fuel its war effort, would not be good news for Africa.
All this, of course, does not mean that Russian propaganda alone poses a threat to Africa. Western propaganda and manipulation has been a major source of grievances for many African nations since independence. And the West is still working hard to spread its false or incomplete narratives on the continent to promote its interests to the detriment of Africans – and the truth. For example, the state-run Voice of America (VOA), supposedly overseen by the “independent” US Agency for Global Media, was recently accused of blatant pro-government bias in its coverage of the civil war in Ethiopia by its own African journalists. .
Africans have every reason and right to be wary of narratives pushed by the West. But that should not lead to the wholehearted acceptance of Russian narratives and whitewashing of the Kremlin’s many well-documented atrocities.
It is time for Africa to learn not to be manipulated by the West and Russia – for the benefit of Africans themselves and all other peoples of the world who suffer from the neocolonial ambitions of the West or Russia.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.