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Several self-styled pan-African voices linked to sanctioned oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin’s network of influence in Africa are calling for greater Russian influence across the Sahel. This network aims to aggressively influence publics across Africa to call for greater Russian influence. The Prigozhin effort across the Sahel purports to support Pan-African ideals, such as greater brotherhood and collaboration among peoples of African descent, but in reality the effort allows for support of Wagner’s unrestrained exploitation of African resources, notably gold, diamonds, and timber.
Prigozhin’s Acknowledgement of the Wagner Group
The Kremlin-backed Wagner Group exploits insecurity to expand its presence in Africa, Europe and the Middle East, threatening stability, good governance, and respect for human rights. Yevgeniy Prigozhin is a pro-Kremlin oligarch and the Wagner Group’s manager and financier. Due to his actions, Canada , the United States , the United Kingdom , and the European Union have sanctioned Prigozhin and his companies. Russian Federation officials, as well as Prigozhin, have denied their connections to Wagner Group, but in September 2022, Prigozhin acknowledged that he is its founder. Prigozhin claimed his “group of patriots” has supported “heroes who defended the Syrian people, other people of Arab countries, destitute Africans and Latin Americans.” In reality, Wagner’s forces threaten the safety and security of the people in the countries to which they deploy, often sapping resources from the very countries they are contracted to protect without contributing to their development.
The Kremlin’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem works to amplify pro-Russia narratives to curry favor with African audiences and drum up support for Wagner Group services across Africa. These tactics are most often observed in areas with political and security tensions. They support Wagner efforts to exploit natural resources, as evidenced by unrestrained gold mining in Sudan and export to places like the UAE and Russia. Several dominant disinformation narratives include treating government takeovers as new waves of decolonization in Africa, spreading propaganda about Wagner Group successes, and falsely claiming the West brings terrorist groups to the Sahel. In the wake of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Prigozhin’s networks are likely to continue amplifying related disinformation, especially on issues such as food security.
Russia’s Hidden Hand: Pan-African Influencers
Pan-Africanism is a legitimate movement that is respected by many across the continent and the world. However, Prigozhin has co-opted some Pan-African activists to promote Russia’s interests across the continent, including African voices calling for the removal of French and Western influence across the Sahel while encouraging more Kremlin influence. These influencers allow Kremlin-linked entities to maintain plausible deniability of Russia’s hand in African affairs, while attempting to mold African opinions favorable to the Kremlin’s policy goals. Two influencers serve as vital nodes of Prigozhin’s network: French-Beninese Kémi Séba and Swiss-Cameroonian Nathalie Yamb. Yamb and Séba’s YouTube channels – La Dame De Sochi (“The Lady of Sochi”) and Kemi Seba officiel – receive more than 28 million views combined, suggesting they are savvy communicators who routinely weave pro-Russia narratives into their rhetoric in a digestible and appealing manner for some African audiences.
In a complicated web of connections, Yamb and Séba have ties with Prigozhin-linked entities. These include the U.S.-sanctioned Association for Free Research and International Cooperation (AFRIC) , the U.S.-sanctioned Russian think-tank Foundation for National Values Protection (FZNC), and Media Afrique TV , a Cameroon-based French language media outlet with links to AFRIC. AFRIC serves as a front company for Prigozhin’s influence operations in Africa, including by sponsoring phony election monitoring missions in Zimbabwe, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa, and Mozambique and disseminating pro-Kremlin disinformation. FZNC claims to be one of Russia’s leading think tanks focused on Africa. It is a key organization involved in Prigozhin’s global influence operations as the FZNC website spreads messages on behalf of Moscow. Both Yamb and Séba have disseminated pro-Kremlin propaganda at events and conferences sponsored by the Russian government and Prigozhin-linked organizations such as AFRIC and Media Afrique TV.
Kemi Séba: Promoting the Kremlin’s Neo-Colonial Agenda?
Pan-Africanist Kémi Séba is a prominent purveyor of Russia’s disinformation and propaganda. Séba claims to support the principle of African problems – African solutions, as does the Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs when promoting Russia’s image writ large in Africa. However, Russia’s deployment of certain Kremlin-friendly African voices to push its disinformation masks the Kremlin’s own neo-colonialist agenda. During the October 2019 Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, a conference with close affiliations to Prigozhin-linked, U.S.-sanctioned entities and individuals, Séba proclaimed a solid partnership with Russia, which he claims is helping African countries steer away from imperialist powers and reclaim their sovereignty and self-determination.
More recently, Séba defended the 2021 Malian military takeover in a June 13 interview with the pan-African TV channel VoxAfrica. He posted the interview on YouTube , where it has garnered over 69,000 views and 2,700 likes. In the video Séba explains the need for African sovereignty and argues that 21st-century Russia is different from the 1960s Soviet Union. Séba also called on Mali and Sahel countries to break free from the influence of France and the West, identifying Russia as a partner to achieve these goals. Séba touted Russia’s “achievements” in Syria and Venezuela to substantiate this claim.
Séba’s anti-western narratives intensified following Russia’s further invasion of Ukraine. In February 2022, Séba gave an exclusive interview to Prigozhin’s RIA FAN and posted a Facebook video (over 1.6 million views) defending Russia’s actions and blaming the West and NATO for destroying the USSR, encircling Russia, and arming former Soviet republics to threaten Russia the same way the West “destroyed and dismantled” Africa. Séba visited Moscow in March 2022 where he opened the “Russia-Africa: What’s Next” youth forum at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and repeated many Kremlin talking points. He outlined his vision of Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as natural allies of a free Africa, which will help it ensure the world’s geopolitical balance within the framework of equal cooperation. He described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “a natural and legitimate response to the deaf rejection by Western countries” of the desire of the Russian people “to develop a world order based on equality and mutual respect” and signed a resolution expressing support for the Kremlin’s actions.
In his March 24 interview with U.S.-sanctioned Aleksandr Dugin’s anti-liberal, recently sanctioned website, Geopolitica, Séba accused the West of wanting to “destroy Vladimir Putin, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East” and advocated for “further destabilization of the West” to benefit those who fight against neoliberalism. In an April 4 interview, Seba asserted “the Russian victory will be a guarantee of the victory of the African struggle for freedom.” Seba was also a paid keynote speaker at an October 2022 conference at the Moscow Institute of International Relations, where he parroted Russian propaganda justifying its invasion of Ukraine.
Nathalie Yamb: The Lady of Sochi
Born in Switzerland to a Cameroonian father and a Swiss mother, Yamb lived in Côte d’Ivoire from 2007 to 2019, and is a highly prolific purveyor of disinformation and a prominent critic of France and its allies on the continent. She has over 213,000 followers on Twitter, 84,000 on Facebook, and 200,000 subscribers on YouTube. Yamb calls herself “the Lady of Sochi” after her participation in the October 2019 Sochi summit in Russia where she accused France of plundering Africa’s resources, fomenting rebellions, and training terrorists – which resulted in her expulsion from Côte d’Ivoire in December 2019.
During the Sochi summit, Yamb contrasted the French “neo-colonial” vision of Africa’s history and future with Russia’s vision, which she says is based on “mutually beneficial cooperation.” She claimed , “the presence of Russia, which has no colonial tradition, can be very useful” and invited Russian companies to participate in the development of Africa’s agricultural sector or mining industry. Yamb has reiterated her vision of “Russia or China as important partners when it comes to freeing us from existing colonial shackles” in a July 2021 interview .
Yamb also participated in the July 2019 AFRIC conference “Africa 2040: Vision of the Future” in Berlin and the January 2020 AFRIC and FZNC-hosted roundtable on Freedom of Expression and Social Networks in Berlin. The event promoted the idea that African countries should align with Russia rather than with “colonial powers that today still violate African countries’ sovereignty with impunity,” and the latter focused on portraying AFRIC as a victim of censorship after Facebook deleted AFRIC’s account.
When it comes to the Sahel, Yamb is similarly outspoken on which African countries should partner with Russia. On June 9, 2021, following the confirmation of Colonel Assimi Goita as Mali’s transition president, Yamb posted a video on YouTube in which she implored coup leaders to consider the success of the Russia-CAR model when negotiating new alliances given Russia’s defeating France and its proxies in CAR. She also called on President Macron to withdraw his troops and stop plundering Mali and the Sahel’s natural resources. The video garnered over 114,000 views and 5,000 likes.
Russia’s Disinformation and the Wagner Group in Africa
Despite international sanctions and exposure of their links to the Kremlin, Prigozhin-linked actors continue operating in Africa. They use disinformation in turbulent situations to expand Russia’s influence and achieve key Kremlin goals. Understanding and spotlighting the role of disinformation in the Kremlin’s Africa strategy is a key step toward limiting its impact on the continent.