18.04.23 Review

‘Putin’s Witnesses’ in Africa: why public support for Ukraine remains low among African countries

The populations of many African countries support their governments’ positions in shying away from condemnation of Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine. Anti-colonial discourses which focus on the nature of the West’s relationship with the region tend to be more prevalent in these countries than emotional reactions to Russia's use of force. African and Arab social media users are quick to spread Russian disinformation, as long as it aligns with local anti-Western and anti-elitist narratives and political mythology. However, their pro-Russian stance is often superficial and prone to change, particularly when the local leaders and elites endorsing this position lose popular support. The leaders of the Eastern European countries that experienced Russian colonialism in the 20th century and now wish to join NATO may have a greater chance of success in Africa than leaders in the West.

Almost half of the countries that did not vote in favour of the UN resolution on March 2, 2022 condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine were from Africa. African governments have their own pragmatic reasons for not wanting to sever their ties with Russia, and according to the report ‘Fertile Ground: How Africa and the Arab World found a common language with Russia on Ukraine’ published by the Polish Institute of International Relations (PISM), their position reflects the widespread sentiments of their citizens. The researchers analysed a body of online discussions related to the Russian war against Ukraine among Arab and African Internet users in order to identify the arguments and narratives used by those who hold pro-Russian views.

African and Middle Eastern audiences tend to respond favourably to Vladimir Putin's recurrent statements about the need to shift from a unipolar (pro-Western) global order to a multipolar one. This narrative is aided by the living memory of the USSR’s active support for decolonisation in the 1960s and 1970s. Due to limited knowledge about Ukraine itself, residents of these countries view Russia's full-scale invasion primarily as a challenge to Western hegemony, employing anti-colonialism as the easiest explanation for this narrative. Thus, according to the authors of this report, individuals involved in these types of discussions online easily spread disinformation that aligns with local anti-Western discourses and political mythology.

In Rwanda, for example, a conspiracy theory has emerged which claims that weapons supplied by the West to Ukraine have ended up on the African black market, where they are being purchased by terrorists. Internet users with anti-Western views suspect that President Paul Kagame, who they view as an American puppet, has been benefiting from the destabilisation caused by terrorist attacks. However, when Nigerian President Mohammadu Buhari (whose popularity has been in decline) attempted to use the same theory to deflect responsibility to the West for the failure to combat jihadists in his country, there was widespread scepticism. Disinformation spreads most easily in rural areas where there is limited access to news sources and residents face higher security threats due to the presence of local branches of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram.

In the francophone countries of Africa, support for Russia is driven by anti-French, anti-elitist sentiments. This is largely the result of high levels of inequality and corruption. Local elites tend to be educated in France and have strong ties to French business, so anti-French sentiments run high. Furthermore, the French anti-terrorist operation ‘Barkhane,’ which has been ongoing in Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad since 2013 and initially had the support of local residents, is now seen as a bloated and ineffective programme. Therefore, when a military junta seized power in Mali in 2020 and expelled the French ambassador, inviting combatants from the Wagner PMC to replace French troops in the fight against jihadists, the population welcomed this move.

According to the PISM report, the Western narrative presenting Ukraine as a defender of democracy against Russian aggression is also unpopular across Africa. This is because the period of democratisation experienced in many of these regions during the early 1990s was short-lived and unsuccessful. The ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010-2011, which also aimed to fight authoritarianism, resulted in civil wars, the rise of Islamists, and the establishment of new authoritarian regimes that have since been attempting to discredit democracy. These regimes present democracy as the West’s ‘Trojan horse’, designed to help it become a dominant force in the region once again. This narrative has helped to shape the image of Putin as a strong leader who is unafraid to challenge the superior forces of the West. Moreover, the new autocrats who have come to power see Putin as a partner who is able to support them in the event of internal conflict or an attack by ‘pro-Western’ forces. They tend to support Russia's intervention in the internal conflicts in Syria, Libya, and the Central African Republic.

Iraq has also played an important role in shaping African and Middle Eastern responses to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The West's criticism of Russia is viewed as hypocritical, given Ukraine's participation in the international invasion of Iraq in 2003. Further, the comparison of Ukraine to Israel made by Volodymyr Zelensky has led to further resentment in countries across the region. The mistreatment of Arab and African students attempting to flee the Russian invasion also discouraged the formation of public support for Ukraine. Additionally, a common theme present in the anti-Ukrainian rhetoric is the contrasting treatment of Syrian and Ukrainian refugees in Europe, where Ukraine is seen as part of the ‘privileged’ European world.

The report suggests that the issue of LGBT rights has also contributed to the support given to the narratives promoted by Putin. The opposition to what is perceived as ‘LGBT propaganda’ from the West, which is viewed as a tool to undermine African societies, resonates with both the Muslim and Christian populations in the region. However, the narrative that Russia is defending ‘traditional values’ by waging war with Ukraine has failed to gain support among African Christian denominations that also have representatives in Ukraine. The researchers have based this conclusion on the accounts of eyewitnesses from these communities who experienced the invasion themselves. In such cases, the colonial narrative (but where Russia acts as the major, aggressor power attacking its weaker neighbour) was more prevalent, despite the fact that these communities tend to hold similarly homophobic positions as those that supported the Russian narrative of the conflict.

Finally, the report suggests that this anti-Russian version of anti-colonial discourse should be used to counter Russian propaganda. It is important to highlight the fact that Russian aggression normalises the use of force to revise borders, and the fact that the conflict poses a direct economic threat to the region as a result of the restrictions on Ukrainian grain exports. To engage in this anti-colonial discourse, the West should draw on the voices of the Eastern European countries that suffered from Russian colonialism in the 20th century and chose to join NATO as a result. Additionally, the provision of direct military assistance to Ukraine is important to weaken Putin's image as a strong and capable leader, which will therefore, have a positive impact on countering Russian propaganda.