Russia (just like the West) is no true friend to Africa

Supporting Russia’s wars of aggression is no way to combat Western neo-colonialism, or further African independence.

Russian Foreign Minister is seen during a meeting with his Ethiopian counterpart
In this handout photo released by Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, and Ethiopia's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Demeke Mekonnen Hassen, during their meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Wednesday, July 27, 2022. (Russian Foreign Ministry Press Service via AP)

On July 24, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey 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-nation expedition – covering Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda and the Republic of the Congo – by promptly reminding the world that the regime he represents simply cannot tell the truth.

There’s “a common understanding of the causes of the grain crisis” he claimed at a press conference in Cairo, unashamedly trying to blame Africa’s deepening food crisis – indisputably triggered by Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine and its Black Sea fleet’s blockade of Ukrainian ports  – on “Western sanctions”.

And what he said in Cairo was not even the first – and by any measure the worst – lie he told during his visit to Africa.

Just before departing for Cairo, Lavrov wrote an op-ed to be published in newspapers in African countries he was due to visit claiming Russia has “not stained itself with the bloody crimes of colonialism”. The op-ed blatantly rewriting Russia’s history was published on July 22, just two days after Lavrov’s own announcement that Russia has expanded its objectives in Ukraine beyond the eastern region of the Donbas and was now seeking to annex even more territory from the embattled nation.

In the same article, he also claimed that Russia “does not impose anything on anyone or tells others how to live”, despite the Kremlin currently being engaged in a war of aggression which is, by its own admission, aimed at generating regime change in a sovereign state.

The foreign minister further asserted in the op-ed that “the speculations of Western and Ukrainian propaganda that Russia allegedly ‘exports hunger’ are completely unfounded”. Ironically, just a few hours after newspapers containing the article hit newsstands across Africa, Russian cruise missiles targeted the Ukrainian port of Odesa – a main gateway for grain exports that help feed many nations across the world, including those in Africa. To add insult to injury, the attack came just a day after the signing of a new deal to open Black Sea ports.

Throughout his visit, none of the African political leaders or civil servants he came face to face with even attempted to challenge Lavrov’s lies. Sadly, Africa’s seemingly enthusiastic acceptance of Russia’s “alternative truths” during this visit was not in any way surprising.

Disinformation and propaganda have long been tools expertly 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 paint the Kremlin (and especially the current Putin government) as the defender of nations against Western colonial ambitions and aggression gained it countless allies and supporters across the world for many years.

And recently, Africa became one of the main targets of Russia’s post-Cold War offensive on the truth. Between 2019 and 2022, for example, Twitter and Facebook removed Russian disinformation networks that targeted Madagascar, the Central African Republic (CAR), Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Sudan, Libya, South Africa, Nigeria, the Gambia and Zimbabwe.

And since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian efforts to gain favour in Africa through false narratives went on overdrive. In March, for example, a photograph supposedly showing a young Putin training Mozambican freedom fighters in a Tanzanian military camp in 1973 conveniently emerged on African social media and generated undeserved praise and excitement. The image was also posted on Twitter by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s son. Of course, the photo is not really from the 1970s, and the man purported to be Putin is not the Russian leader. Nevertheless, it has been successfully used to justify African support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But why are Africans so susceptible to Russian propaganda?

According to Dmitry Gorenburg, an associate at the Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Russia has established 10 main narratives that inform its strategic messaging around the world. And for a multitude of historical and cultural reasons these narratives seem to resonate especially 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 that regard sexual liberties promoted and protected by Western nations as “immoral”.

Russia’s frequent use of “whataboutism”, as explained by Gorenburg, to deflect attention from its war crimes in Ukraine and beyond also play well with 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 devastating the Global South. Many Africans, for example, view the US-led invasion of Iraq, which reminds them of similar assaults by the West 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 Russia uses in its war of narratives against the West, namely calling attention to the US’s history of intervening in the domestic affairs of sovereign states, also resonates well with Africans who are still suffering the results of Washington-instigated or supported 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 sits well with Africans who had suffered massively under US dominance and are keen for their nations to have their voices finally heard in the international arena.

All in all, there are many reasons why Africans cherish and support narratives pushed by Russia that underline the West’s historic and current crimes, aggressions and missteps towards the rest of the world.

Still, nothing can legitimise or justify Africa’s acceptance of Russia – a colonial belligerent in its own right that has inflicted and is still inflicting incalculable pain on nations within its immediate region and beyond – as an anti-colonial saviour. Beyond acknowledging their moral responsibility to categorically stand against Russia’s brutal and unlawful attacks on Ukrainians, Syrians and many others, Africans also need to realise how harmful their uncritical acceptance of Russia as a benevolent force for good could be for the continent.

As its confrontation with the West escalates, Russia is doubling down on its neo-colonial ambitions in Africa. As it expands its economic and political influence over the continent, there is little reason to expect it would behave differently here than it does in its traditional zone of influence. Just as it did in Ukraine, Georgia and many other nations in its periphery, it will not refrain from interfering in the domestic affairs of African nations to further its interests. It is already heavily involved in domestic politics in Sudan, CAR, DRC and Mali. Russian paramilitaries, particularly from the infamous Wagner Group, are fighting in several African conflicts. Strengthening ties with Russia, at a time when it is clearly in need of new “friends” to exploit to feed its war effort, would not be good news for Africa.

All this, of course, is not to say only Russian propaganda poses a threat to Africa. Western propaganda and manipulation have been a major source of grievance for many African nations since independence. And the West is still working hard to spread its false or incomplete narratives on the continent to further its interests to the detriment of Africans – and the truth. For example, the state-run Voice of America (VOA), supposedly overseen by the “independent” United States Agency for Global Media, has recently been accused of blatant pro-government bias in its coverage of Ethiopia’s civil war by its own African journalists.

Africans have every reason and right to be suspicious of the narratives pushed by the West. But this should not lead to the uncritical 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 the other peoples of the world who have been suffering from either the West or Russia’s neo-colonial ambitions.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.