‘The only white people who did not bring evil’: Serbian media narratives around Russia in Africa

Collage of screenshots of Serbian media articles ‘Why does Russia fascinate Africa: The only white people that didn't bring evil, killing, robbery …’ (Sputnik), ‘Why could the French remain without electricity, due to the coup d'état in Niger?’ (RT), ‘RUSSIA CONQUERS AFRICA?! France was wiped out from the Black Continent, after Niger, it was Gabon’s turn! What's happening?’ and ‘IT IS SIGNED, PUTIN LIBERATES AFRICA! He made a powerful deal with as many as 40 countries!’ (Srbija Danas). Fair use.

This analysis by Aleksandar Ivković was originally published by the International and Security Affairs Centre (ISAC), part of the regional initiative Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub. An edited version is republished by Global Voices as part of a partnership agreement.  

The coup carried out by Niger’s army at the end of July 2023 — and, to a lesser extent, the Russia-Africa summit held in Saint Petersburg — were used by Serbian-language media to promote narratives of growing Russian influence in Africa, claiming that the Kremlin, unlike the West, is a sincere friend of African countries, and is winning the geopolitical battle with the West on this continent.

On July 26, Niger’s military overthrew the country’s civilian president, Mohamed Bazum, and established a military junta. It was one of a series of coups in Africa in the last few years and primarily negative news for France. Paris kept troops in this country with a strategically significant position on the continent. In September, it was confirmed that the French army and the country’s ambassador would be withdrawn by the end of the year. Niger is also the country from which France imports 20 percent of its uranium, and the coup has raised concerns about its energy security.

On the other hand, as the Carnegie Foundation assessed at the end of August, it is still too early to conclude that Niger will completely reverse its foreign policy, which also included cooperation with the US. For the time being, US troops remained in Niger even after the coup, and, on August 7, acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visited the country, albeit in a tense atmosphere. The coup leaders announced that the country would face a transitional period of “no longer than three years,” during which the country’s future orientation would become more explicit. According to information from the second half of August, Niger did not stop the export of uranium to France.

Nevertheless, the fact that some of the demonstrators who supported the military coup at the end of July waved Russian flags and carried placards with pro-Russian messages was enough to build a narrative of Russia’s geopolitical victory and the West’s defeat, which later spread to describe the situation in all of Africa. This narrative was widely represented in the Serbian media in the following weeks.

Screenshot of Večernje Novosti's article entitled ‘The Black Continent at Boiling Point: Africa Rises against the West,’ fair use.

On August 2, the pro-government newspaper Večernje Novosti concluded, based on the statements of two demonstrators who supported the coup, one of whom was dressed in the Russian flag, that “citizens turned to Russia, hoping that it would help them continue after the coup without interference from the West.” The cover image of this article (originally from AP, attributed to Serbian state agency Tanjug) showed another protester holding a placard translated as “Down with France, long live Putin.” The text placed the coup in Niger in a broader context, interpreting it as a sign that “Africa is rising against the West.”

Other media also “inserted” the events in Niger into this narrative.

“A slap to the West, a big drama in Niger!” is the headline published by the most influential pro-government tabloid in Serbia, Informer, in a piece alleging that the deposed pro-Western president Bazum could be tried for high treason. This same media reported a little earlier that, in Niger, “Putin is gaining new allies.”

Screenshot of RT (Russia Today in Serbian) article ‘Why could the French remain without electricity, due to the coup d'état in Niger?’ Fair use.

The Serbian edition of the Russian state media Russia Today (RT) also announced that “residents of Niger and other Sahel countries want to see a change in politics, and many of them see Russia as a potential partner for the future.”

At the very least, the mentioned media hastened to announce the alignment of Niger with Russia, while the claims about strong pro-Russian sentiments of the local population were based only on a few photos and statements.

As the Carnegie Foundation stated in the aforementioned analysis, Russia may be able to use the coup in Niger to expand its influence, including the offer to send the Wagner paramilitary unit to help the new regime, but this, especially after the death of the leader of this formation, Yevgeny Prigozhin, will not be simple.

Screenshot of Srbija Danas’ article ‘RUSSIA CONQUERS AFRICA?! France was wiped out from the Black Continent, after Niger, it was Gabon’s turn! What's happening? (Photo/Video).’ Fair use.

This more cautious interpretation of the situation did not prevent several Serbian media from continuing to interpret the events on the continent in a strongly pro-Russian key. At the end of August, another coup took place in Gabon, also a former French colony. The pro-government portal Srbija Danas published news item about this event entitled “RUSSIA CONQUERS AFRICA?! France was wiped out from the Black Continent, after Niger, it was Gabon’s turn! What's happening? (Photo/Video).”  The text did not provide evidence that Russia had anything to do with the coup in Gabon but only mentioned the case of Niger and the previously held Russia–Africa summit.

Another of the main narratives in this period was that Russia was a friendly country towards Africa, unlike the West that colonized it. At the beginning of August, the Serbian edition of the Russian Sputnik published a conversation with Serbian interlocutors, in which it was pointed out that the Russians are “the only white people” in Africa that did not bring “evil, trouble, killing and robbery.”

Screenshot of Sputnik Srbija's article ‘Why does Russia fascinate Africa: The only white people that didn't bring evil, killing, robbery …’ Fair use.

The same media outlet also published an article about how Africa will benefit from cooperation with Russia in mining and energy, unlike the West, which exploited those resources on the continent. The statement of the spokesman of the president of Russia, Dmitry Peskov, also said that “many countries are quite jealous of the way of improving relations between Russia and African countries.”

On August 19, the Vostok portal published a statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who said that “partnerships between Moscow and Africa are growing despite colossal pressure from the West” and that “African countries see Russia as a reliable partner that can contribute to maintaining stability and help in the fight against terrorism and drug crime.” The same media previously quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin in a detailed article about the Russia–Africa summit in Saint Petersburg on July 27 and 28. On that occasion, Putin said that Russia supports the desire of African countries for social and economic stability and national and cultural sovereignty.

On August 3, Sputnik reported the statement of the president of the State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, who said that “the USA, Britain and France should compensate African countries for the damage caused during colonialism.” He also reminded his audience that, in those times, the US and the above-mentioned European countries engaged in the slave trade and transported about 15 million people to America alone, who became slaves.

“IT IS SIGNED, PUTIN LIBERATES AFRICA! He made a powerful deal with as many as 40 countries!” Screenshot of Srbija Danas article, fair use.

Finally, several texts supported the narrative of losing the geopolitical battle of the West, primarily France, in Africa. After the summit in Saint Petersburg, the Srbija Danas portal announced that agreements were signed between Russia and over 40 African countries and that Russia will now have a much more significant influence on the continent. The headline read: “IT IS SIGNED, PUTIN LIBERATES AFRICA! Made a powerful deal with as many as 40 countries!” Other media, including Večernje Novosti and Russia Today, also highlighted the growing role of China and BRICS on the continent.

In reality, Russia’s influence in Africa is limited

According to Euronews, there is currently no evidence of Russia’s direct involvement in the coup in Niger, as stated by the US National Security Council spokesperson. Therefore, giving it straightforward points in the geopolitical struggle with the West makes little sense. Regarding the bigger picture, Russian influence in Africa exists in some areas — notably in security and the arms trade — but most authors who have written on the subject conclude that the overall impact should not be overstated.

The value of trade between Russia and Africa is about USD 18 billion, while Africa’s trade with the European Union and China is worth over USD 200 billion each, and, with the US, about USD 65 billion. Although, from 2013 to 2021, the volume of trade between Russia and Africa almost doubled, in the next few years, this growth slowed down, and between 2019 and 2023, the volume of trade even decreased, while Russian direct investments account for 1 percent of all incoming investments to Africa, the Carnegie Foundation stated. In addition, two-thirds of Russian business is concentrated in the north of the continent, primarily Egypt, Algeria and Morocco.

Russia’s decision to leave the Black Sea Grain Agreement in July, whose goal was to reduce the world price of grain and enable its delivery to the world’s poorest countries, met with adverse reactions from African leaders, despite Putin’s announcements that he would allow free exports to some countries on the continent.

Cooperation between Russia and Africa is most intense in the sphere of security, mainly the export of weapons, where, in previous years, there was a significant increase in the value of exported goods from about USD 500 million to USD 2 billion annually, according to data from the RAND Corporation. According to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, regardless of the outcome of the war in Ukraine, Russia will have strong incentives to continue using paramilitary formations in Africa, including the restructured Wagner group, because a large number of war veterans from the Ukrainian battlefield will be available for these missions.

On the other hand, as the British Chatham House analysis notes, only 17 heads of state from the continent came to the Russia–Africa summit in Saint Petersburg, which is a significantly lower number than four years ago, when the first summit of this kind was held in Sochi, attended by 43 heads of state. The authors of the analysis concluded that African leaders gained few concrete results from the meeting with Putin and that the practicality of the Russia–Africa summit will be reconsidered in the future. Nor is the image of Russia in Africa absolutely positive. A survey conducted by IPSOS in June 2023 in Senegal, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Zambia and the Republic of South Africa showed that in each of these countries, over 50 percent of the population agreed that Russia committed war crimes in Ukraine, while fewer than 30 percent disagree with this statement.

As researcher Joseph Siegle wrote for the Africa Center for Strategic Studies from Washington, “Russia’s influence in Africa may exceed its capacities.” He concludes that:

“There is a growing awakening on the continent of how little Russia actually brings to Africa in terms of investment, trade, jobs creation, or security. Its deployment of mercenaries, polarizing disinformation, political interference, and opaque arms for resources deals means Russia is actually an amplifier of instability on the continent.”

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