Why African elites read Russia through the prism of western media


With emerging geopolitical situation characterised by information war and confrontation, Russia is seemingly facing its steepest bumpy road in Africa. In order to succeed, Russia has to frankly acknowledge and swiftly address its own weaknesses, putting heads together and making conscious steps is the only way forward, especially in this expected multipolar world.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, already more than three decades, Russia has been struggling to raise its influence in Africa. The culmination of such efforts, inconsistent though, was the first Russia-Africa Summit that brought together African leaders, corporate businesses, academics and other experts to the Black Sea city of Sochi. Since the 2019 summit, Russian and African leaders have agreed on measures toward building a consolidated relations that explicitly reflected in their joint declaration, only little have been achieved.

Last November, for instance, a special report presented under the title: ‘Situation Analytical Report on Africa’ was prepared by 25 policy experts, headed by Sergei A. Karaganov, Dean and Academic Supervisor of the Faculty of World Economy and International Relations of the National Research University’s Higher School of Economics (HSE University). Karaganov is also the Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy.

That policy report praised the joint declaration adopted at the first African leaders’ summit as it has raised the African agenda of Russia’s foreign policy to a new level. The historic declaration, so far, remains the main document determining the conceptual framework of Russia-African cooperation.

Some of the situation analysis participants who contributed to the policy report spoke very critically about Russia’s current policy toward Africa, and even claimed that there was no consistent policy, and/or consistency in the policy implementation at all. The intensification of political contacts is only with a focus on making them demonstrative. Russia’s foreign policy strategy regarding Africa needs to spell out and incorporate the development needs of African countries.

While the number of high-level meetings has increased, the share of substantive issues on the agenda remains small. There are little definitive results from such meetings. Apart from the absence of a public strategy for the continent, there is shortage of qualified personnel and the lack of coordination among various state and para-state institutions working with Africa.

The report lists insufficient and disorganised Russian-African lobbying, and combined with the lack of ‘information hygiene’ at all levels of public speaking among the main flaws of Russia’s current Africa policy. The report emphasised poor working collaboration with potential African partners in various spheres. Under the circumstance, Russia needs to compile its various ideas for cooperation with Africa into a single comprehensive strategy to achieve more success with Africa.

Admittedly, there are various parameters for strengthening the relations with Africa. For the purpose of this article, we look at media cooperation with and in Africa. During the first Russia-Africa Summit, there was a special panel discussion on media. The panelists and participants attempted to exhaustively examine such questions as follows:

What issues are currently, encountered in the formation of the modern media landscape? What role does the media play in Russia-African relations? What are the prospects for collaboration in the information sphere? What needs to be done to develop a Russian media agenda in Africa? What is the role and place of Russia in the information space of Africa today?

Russian media agencies and organisations, which are largely far from eminent in Africa, include Rossiya Sevogdnya (RIA Novosti, Voice of Russia and Russia Today), Itar-Tass News Agency, and Interfax Information Service. These are powerful instruments to use, but instead of prioritising media cooperation with Africa, high-ranking Russian officials most often talk about information war, the spread of anti-Russian propaganda by western and European media in Africa.

Russia’s media collaboration has been limited to make impact, especially in this geopolitical situation. The fact is that the African continent is rapidly becoming more important in today’s emerging multipolar world. In Russia-African relations, the media is an additional direction to develop, especially with the boost to support the rapidly expanding links across a vast range of areas. The media can – and indeed must – be a decisive factor in building effective ties.

But unfortunately, Africa is frequently portrayed in the media as suffering from numerous intergovernmental, religious and ethnic conflicts; political and economic instability; and an array of demographic and social problems. On the other side, knowledge of today’s Russia and the steps taken by its political leaders to tackle global challenges are given little space in the continent’s media landscape.

That Africa has become a new world centre for global development, Russian legislators at the State Duma (the lower chamber) have advocated for a greater media representation to facilitate collecting important information to support business and economic cooperation with Africa.

Aside from that, experts from the think-tank Valdai Discussion Club, academic researchers from the Institute for African Studies, and independent policy observers have repeatedly suggested that authorities use Russia’s media resources available to support the foreign policy, promote positive image, disseminate useful information about the current achievements and emerging economic opportunities, especially for the African public.

There are reasons media is considered as a priority:

Reason one: Vyacheslav Volodin, the chairman of the State Duma, told an instant meeting held with participation of African diplomats to brainstorm for fresh views on the current Russia-African relations: “It is necessary to take certain steps together for the Russian media to work on the African continent”.

“You know that the Russian media provide broadcasting in various languages, they work in many countries although it is certainly impossible to compare this presence with presence of the media of the United States, United Kingdom and Germany,” he said as the ambassadors responded with a big applause.

Sharing additional matured sentiments and decisiveness about the media, Volodin added: “We propose to move from intentions to concrete steps. Our people will better understand one another through parliamentary relations”.

For the past few years, Russia has made some efforts returning with investment and business to Africa, but unfortunately, not all these steps have received adequate publicity. The presence of Russian media on the African continent and that of African media in the Russian Federation have been raised several times in the past by many policy experts.

Reason two: Vladimir Shubin, Deputy Director of the Institute for African Studies in Moscow, said that Africa has great potential for bilateral relationships with Russia and, most importantly, Russia’s contribution is very noticeable in dealing with the problems of Africa.

Perhaps, one of the reasons why some African leaders have written off Russia is the lack of information about Russia; or rather, plenty of distorted information they have received from the western media coverage of Russia. In fact, Russia needs genuine and objective information about modern Africa, and here, both state and private mass media linger a lot, according to Professor Shubin.

Reason three: Olga Kulkova, a research fellow at the Center for Russian-African Relations at the Institute for African Studies, said that: “Africa needs broader coverage in Russian media. Leading Russian media agencies should release more topical news items and analytical quality articles about the continent. Russia has to adequately collaborate with African partners and attract Russian business to Africa. More quality information about modern Russia should be broadcast in African states”.

“Indisputably, it takes a lot of money and efforts, but the result will pay off. Russia ought to take the media into account if it wants to improve the chances for success in Africa. All the leading countries have been doing that quite efficiently for a long time,” Kulkova noted.

Reason four: While many experts argue that African media seem uninterested in developing working links to Russia, Vasily Pushkov, an independent expert on international media relations, wrote in an emailed comment that: “It works both ways, and the two regions are very far from each other”. Russia and Africa are not as interconnected as they were during the Soviet era, he stressed.

Pushkov explained that: “Russia might have an image problem among African political and business elites partly due to the fact that Russia has low presence in Africa, compared to the Soviet era. Most African media get their global news from the leading western media outlets, which, in turn, have a nasty and longstanding habit of always portraying Russia as the world’s bogeyman”.

Reason five: “Russian media write very little about Africa, what is going on there, and what are the social and political dynamics in different parts of the continent. Media and NGOs should make big efforts to increase the level of mutual knowledge, which can stimulate interest for each other and lead to increased economic interaction as well,” argues research professor Fyodor Lukyanov at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics, Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, and editor-in-chief of the journal Russia in Global Affairs.

“To a certain extent,” Lukyanov said, “the intensification of non-political contacts may contribute to increased interest. Soft power has never been on a strong side of Russian policy in post-Soviet era.”

Reason Six: The trend may change for the better. In a foreign policy speech, President Vladimir Putin has urged all his Russian ambassadors and diplomats to actively use new technologies to highlight Russian success stories, improve Russia’s image and defend its interests abroad, according to widely circulated Russian daily newspaper Kommersant, quoting an official who attended the meeting.

“It’s not enough to just crow something once… We should explain our positions again and again using various platforms and new media technologies until they understand,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, quoted Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation.

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