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Vol 64 No 23

Published 16th November 2023

Wagner pays cash for digital influence

A leak from the Russian group's propaganda arm reveals payments for videos by West African bloggers and influencers on social media platforms

The Wagner Group has been paying West African social and digital media influencers and broadcasters for videos and blogs attacking France and supporting Russian narratives on the Ukraine war, according to documents leaked by a disgruntled former group employee to Africa Confidential.

They also promote the regimes, especially Central African Republic and Mali, where Wagner mercenaries are active.

The former Wagner operative, who wishes to remain anonymous, worked for the Lakhta Project, the Wagner department responsible for disinformation and propaganda. In 2020, the United States Treasury placed Lakhta executives under sanctions for attempting to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election campaign. Lakhta, and associated Kremlin-aligned front organisations, such as the Association for Free Research and International Cooperation (AFRIC), also planned to interfere in the 2019 South African general election.

The leaked documents are in Russian and resemble PowerPoint slides. They include photos of bank transfers and receipts of a Cameroon company, Bang & Partners, controlled by Jérôme Ebossama, the Programme Director of Douala-based Afrique Média TV (AMTV). AMTV is well-known throughout the region for its unashamedly pro-Russian stance.

AMTV has a long association with Wagner. In 2019, it was accused of planning a pro-African National Congress (ANC) disinformation campaign against the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in South Africa, although it never took off.

AMTV is linked with RT, formerly Russia Today, the pro-Kremlin propaganda broadcaster, under which they exchange programmes. But until now, there has been no suggestion that bloggers and influencers who used AMTV's Facebook page or YouTube channel or posted on TikTok and Telegram had been paid. Only one of those we emailed asking if the allegation was true replied (see box, African voices singing the Kremlin's tune).

Receipt trail
Ebossama, who was among those who did not reply to us, appears in the leaked documents to have signed three receipts 'for the digital bloggers' campaign' in August, October and November 2022 for US$3,400, $3,000 and $3,000 respectively. The receipts were translated into Russian, presumably to tell non-French speaking Wagner officials what the monies had been spent on.

Each payment is followed by a list of 10 named individuals, with a link to the video each made on a pro-Russian theme, or backing Russia-supporting regimes in Africa, and the fee, either $300 or $500.

The sequence of the three invoices indicates the possibility that the payments were monthly, and if so the 2022 'digital bloggers' campaign' may have cost $36,000.

The links in the documents tracked to posts ranging from 15-minute monologues to stream-of-consciousness diatribes lasting over 90 minutes. The views and followers recorded ranged from a few hundred to nearly 500,000, reflecting the enormous reach of social media in Africa. (Some of the links are provided in the box).

Some of the links have expired and others, a Facebook notice said, were 'not available to view' because they were probably now only being 'shared' privately. Almost all the content paid for in the Bang & Partners receipts was broadcast during the month that followed the date on the receipts (see box). 

AMTV has 1 million followers on Facebook and 866,000 subscribers on YouTube. 

Propaganda which the documents say was financed by Wagner's payments also appeared in the Wolof and Bambara languages on the internet. They range from allegations that France organised an ambush of Malian soldiers which claimed dozens of lives, to claims that Nazis control the Ukraine government. 

The importance to the Kremlin of the AMTV operation and other disinformation in Africa is shown by the fact that after Wagner CEO Yevgeny Prigozhin's coup attempt against the Russian government failed in June, he continued to be seen on AMTV, including greeting African leaders at the Russia-Africa summit in St Petersburg at the end of July attended by 17 heads of state. 

At a time when Prigozhin could not be seen on Russian TV, and played no apparent part in the war in Ukraine, and when his own television station had ceased broadcasting in Europe, his appearances on AMTV actually increased. This looked to many like evidence that Wagner was vital to Russia's African policy. 

Speculation is rife on how the Russian relationship with Africa will develop in the wake of Prigozhin's death at the end of August, with all the indications pointing to the Kremlin hoping to absorb the unexpected runaway success – in their terms – of the Wagner network in Africa into Russian state organs and to keep the propaganda activities at a high pitch.

African voices singing the Kremlin's tune

Some of those detailed in the Wagner documents as receiving funds for broadcasts and their themes.

• Souleymane Gbagbo (https://fb.watch/eYo-4U0idz). The Côte d'Ivoire national is one of the most prolific of the social media posters of pro-Russian themes, frequently filming his contributions on his mobile phone while sitting in the driver's seat of a car. The Wagner documents claim that he was paid $500 for a video post on a Facebook page with 234,000 subscribers in which he claimed that Central African Republic (CAR) President Faustin-Archange Touadéra's troops were enjoying massive success against rebels supported by Chad while French international media were covering it up.

The documents say he received a further $300 for supporting President Touadéra's campaign for a yes vote in the July referendum on the CAR constitution (AC Vol 64 No 22, Touadéra stirs the geopolitical cauldron). They also say he was paid another $300 for a post on Facebook's L'Afrique d'Abord ('Africa First'), which has 178,000 followers, in which he claimed Mali's coup leaders were enjoying huge success and the country's situation had improved massively between January and August 2022.

L'Afrique d'Abord is another popular site for pro-Russian and pro-Mali military junta posts. 

We contacted Gbagbo for a reply but received no answer.

• Egountchi Behanzin (https://fb.watch/f8G5Gi5_AY). The Paris-based activist formerly known as Sylvain Afoua ran an NGO which was banned in France for violent disruption, and he was once convicted of rape. He has 226,000 Facebook subscribers, a website, and a highly active X (formerly Twitter) account.

The documents claim he received $500, via Afrique Média TV (AMTV) for a report in August last year claiming the bodies of 37 French, eight Ghanaian and five Danish mercenaries were among those found after an attack on the Malian army in Tessit in August 2022.

He has also said on social media that President Vladimir Putin was correct to start the war with Ukraine after the EU sided with 'Nazis' in Kyiv, and that President Emmanuel Macron and France were a greater threat to Africa than famine.

Behanzin replied to our email asking about the Wagner documents denying even knowing Wagner, let alone receiving money from it. He did not post anything for mercenary reasons, he said, and only did what he did out of conviction.

Benhanzin, like other recipients identified in the leak, has published pro-Wagner material in the recent past.

In April 2022, the Al Qaida-aligned Jama'at Nasr al Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) jihadist militia claimed to have captured a Wagner mercenary in Mali. Almost immediately, a short video by Wagner was published and went viral. It showed a jihadist-style hostage situation, with the Wagner soldier on his knees behind two jihadists. The Wagner man suddenly bursts his bonds, knocks out his captors, seizes their guns, shoots them, and pulls down the JNIM flag to reveal those of the United States and France behind it. He then declares to the camera that 'Russians do not surrender. We can't be defeated'.

The video was repeated all over social media by Kremlin and Wagner-linked accounts, but Behanzin was the first to retweet it on X, according to analysis by the Nairobi-based technology and data NGO, Code for Africa. By November 2022 the video had accumulated 14 million views and a vast majority of positive reactions in the comments, CfA said.

• Drissa Meminta (https://fb.watch/f2WLg2deBm). A legal advisor and political analyst, and one of Mali's best-known activists, he has 117,000 subscribers on Facebook. He paid tribute to late Russian journalist Darya Dugina, whom he describes as having fought for Mali and Africa in the struggle for decolonisation and against French imperialism. For that, the document says, he received $300 from Wagner.

He received another $300 for a video he made in November last year, the documents say, in which he claimed Russia was going to supply Mali with hydrocarbons and other goods worth $100 million.

He was quoted last December in an article about Russian influencers saying 'we had walked along together [with France], but we gained nothing. With Russia, however, we can build a win-win relationship.' He had already been supporting Russia on social media for three years.

Meminta is also a spokesperson for the Yerewolo political movement in Mali, which supports the military junta. The weekly Jeune Afrique described Meminta in May last year as 'an important figure in the support of Russia' who had organised demonstrations against the French military presence.

We emailed Meminta but received no reply before publication.

Other social media bloggers and influencers are named in the Wagner documents as having taken Wagner's money, but we have not named them because we were not able to reach them to give them a right of reply to the allegations.

Russia's victories in the African propaganda war

One expert on the Kremlin's campaigns in Africa told Africa Confidential, 'the Russians have already won the battle for hearts and minds on the African street.' Cautioning that internet statistics are unreliable, he says that even so, 'the sheer avalanche of pro-Russian comments on blogs and posts on social media is overwhelming. Even on the African services of French, British and German broadcasters,' he added, 'the comments are universally hostile to the west.'

Russia wins support by providing an alternative view of Africa, tracking current problems back to colonialism, of which Russia has been a consistent opponent, and being a friend to ordinary Africans, he added.

Most of the recent putschists in West Africa have cited French colonialism as a motive for their actions, capitalising on a rising wave of anti-French sentiment on the street that has driven Paris's influence to a lower point than at any time since Francophone Africa started to become independent in the late 1950s (AC Vol 63 No 4, The coup-makers win the first round).

Cameroon-based Afrique Média TV (AMTV), the biggest recipient of Wagner monies according to our documents, has been pro-Russian for some time, reflecting the turn towards the Kremlin by the 90-year-old President Paul Biya, the oldest head of state in the world (AC Vol 64 No 22, Biya circles the wagons).

Rattled by the recent coups d'état in the region, Biya seeks anti-coup insurance in Moscow, pundits say. He was among the 17 African heads of state to attend Russia's Africa Summit in July and vocally supports Russia in its war against Ukraine.

Biya does not have a public relationship with Wagner, but its late leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, met many African public figures at the St Petersburg summit in July.

Prigozhin was seen shaking hands with Justin Tagouh, the proprietor of AMTV and boss of Jérôme Ebossama, its programme director and alleged recipient of Wagner funds for bloggers and influencers in West Africa.

Biya praised Russia's involvement 'in the development of the continent and the fight against crises and terrorism'. Cameroon signed an arms deal with Russia in April 2022.

Biya brought to St Petersburg his wife Chantal Biya, his would-be successor, his son Franck Biya, and nine ministers. The ministers met their Russian counterparts and signed cooperation agreements while Franck gave an interview on AMTV to Tagouh.

Unlike the military-led governments of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Guinea, Biya is a conservative and has never been viewed in a nationalist, anti-colonialist and anti-French light until now, being seen rather as a pillar of the corrupt network of African politicians and French business interests known as Françafrique.

Although the Russian campaign has mainly been in Francophone countries, a group of five Ghanaians was arrested in August after holding a protest in Takoradi against the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) threat to overthrow the Niger military coup by force. They had been supplied with Russian flags and T-shirts by Simeon Boikov, a pro-Russian activist in Australia, the 'Aussie Cossack', according to a report by the African Digital Democracy Observatory (ADDO). Reports of the arrest were amplified by pro-Russian outlets on social media, and AMTV.

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