This is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. It no longer needs to be said, though I will. That recognizing and reckoning with one's history is an ongoing project. These days it's happening just about everywhere all at once. In every place it happens, the role of propaganda distorts the outcome. Consider the Sahel region, which spans a strip of Northern Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea, where last week Niger's presidential guard turned on the Democratic leader it was supposed to defend.
Female New Speaker: They said they dissolved the Constitution in the West African country, suspended all institutions and closed the country's borders.
Brooke Gladstone: Propelled in part by resentment of their former French colonizers still in charge of much of its money and resources and egged on by Russian propaganda.
Male News Speaker: Many demonstrators were seen with placards calling for the departure of French forces from Niger and shouting pro-Russian slogans. There's been speculation that the coup leaders have enlisted the support of the Russian mercenary group Wagner.
Brooke Gladstone: The president of Niger was only the latest to fall in what the New York Times has called the longest corridor of military rule on Earth.
Male Speaker: The Western African nation of Guinea has plunged into deeper political instability. A unit of military has declared a coup in the region.
Male Speaker: All army officers in Burkina Faso have announced the overthrow of military leader Paul Henri Damiba.
Female Speaker: Leaders of a military coup in the West African nation of Mali say that they will enact political transition and fresh elections within a reasonable time.
Brooke Gladstone: The Sahel is a place veteran reporters have dubbed the coup belt.
Alexis Akwagyiram: I describe it as a coup belt simply because there have been a number of coups, something like 7 coups in the last 3 years.
Brooke Gladstone: Alexis Akwagyiram is the managing editor of Semafor Africa and former Reuters bureau chief in Nigeria. He said that the impact of the coup in Niger has more geopolitical impact than most.
Alexis Akwagyiram: This particular coup is important because Niger is the West's strongest ally in the region. The US have about 1,100 troops there, and there's a base from which they can launch drone attacks. The French have 1,500 troops there, and they can also launch attacks from a drone base as well.
Brooke Gladstone: There are all photos of protestors saying down with France. There are also plenty of protestors in the streets of Niger waving Russian flags and chanting long live Putin. Did Russian propaganda play a role in the Niger coup?
Alexis Akwagyiram: Yes, absolutely. I strongly suspect people in Niger do not have Russian flags and T-shirts lying around, so someone somewhere is supplying these.
Brooke Gladstone: What does this propaganda look like?
Alexis Akwagyiram: There's RT, which is a rolling Russian news service, and there's Sputnik News, which is like a defacto wire service, and they've forged partnerships with a number of broadcasters across the continent. You don't get a Russian broadcaster in any form. It's actually local broadcasters speaking the local languages, presenting the news, but the content that they provide is very much anti-Western and anti French in particular, these stories present the Russians as allies.
Now, as well as that, another layer is online. The Russians have, as I understand it, paid certain influences that have hundreds of thousands of followers on Facebook and on Twitter or X as it is now and on YouTube. Again, their commentary is very much about a narrative that is supportive of Russia, and the key thing here is some of them have existing networks. They've got an existing following, so one guy that I'm thinking of is a French-Béninois influencer called Kemi Seba, and he's been a longtime critic of France Afrique. This idea of France's continued political and economic influence over its former African colonies.
There was a big public outcry in 2017 when he was arrested for setting fire to the CFA Note this currency that's pegged to the Euro and controlled by France, and that's back in 2017. He presents himself as a Pan-Africanist. People have referred to him as African version of Louis Farrakhan, and so by co-opting someone like that, they can use him as a mouthpiece to present a narrative of the world that is sympathetic to Russia, so I found a Facebook post where he was referring to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and he claimed that Moscow was trying to re-conquer Russian lands. It's subtle and it's coming from the mouths of people who you can relate to if you're from that region.
Brooke Gladstone: I know that the coverage of Mariupol, where so many Ukrainians were slaughtered was that Russia was invited in and I would think that would be extremely credible to African nations when Mali invited them in for real, but I'm just wondering, in the rest of the region in Mali, Burkina Faso, there's been a network of pro-Russian and anti-French Facebook pages to help drum up support for coups in both countries. What's the message about the US that Russia is trying to send to African news consumers?
Alexis Akwagyiram: It's not necessarily specifically just about the US. The message is fundamentally that the West is trying to bring about another wave of colonialism, and they should not be allowed to do that. Bear in mind, there is the collective memory of slavery in West Africa followed by colonialism. The belief is, and the argument is that this is what Europe, the US, France in particular is trying to do. They're trying to recolonize the continent.
I stumbled upon a cartoon that was widely shared on Twitter, so you've got a fighter who's got a Malian uniform, he's got the flag on his arm and then the flag in the background, and he's shooting. He's shooting this army of French zombies. Then it keeps on cutting to the Emmanuel Macron. You see him from the back at his desk and on his table he has a couple of framed photographs of his loved ones. There's a framed photograph of his wife, and there's a framed photograph of Joe Biden, and there is a map of Africa. You've got West Africa and it says Mali, and there's Niger and there is Ivory Coast. Then it cuts to a Malian soldier shooting French soldiers who are zombies effectively, and he's running out of ammunition.
Then a brave Russian swoops down and says, do you need some help? The Malian soldier says, yes, please, and the Russian soldier feeds ammunition into this assault weapon, and between them as partners, they kill all these French zombies. Then we get the same thing in Burkina Faso. Then they said, next, we need to go to Ivory Coast and help our brothers there. It's all very much about equals and being allies and nobody's helping anyone out. This is an equal partnership.
Brooke Gladstone: A lot of African countries though, didn't show up to the Russia-Africa summit and the Russian Press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, blamed that on the west putting pressure on these world leaders not to go.
Alexis Akwagyiram: It was very poorly attended. The Russia Africa summit was held 4 years ago and there were 43 heads of state that attended, on this occasion there were only 17. Vladimir Putin is very keen to build these alliances across Africa because it'd been locked out to the Western world through sanctions, and so it really helps the Russians, if they have a supply of things that bypass the Western financial networks, access to gold that they get from Mali or from Sudan, access to uranium will be incredibly useful. It's clear that Putin needs Africa and he's desperate to make sure that he deepens his foothold there.
Brooke Gladstone: Thus, the partnership between local African media outlets in Russia today. One of them is Afrique Media TV based in Cameroon. Here's a recent headline, "Putin: Russia promises to deliver free grain to six African countries." Do the people in these countries know that it's Russia's war and Russian action that is responsible for the grain shortage that they're suffering?
Alexis Akwagyiram: Well, yes and no. It depends how you frame it, because the Russian argument is Ukraine is part of Russia. Vladimir Putin's made it clear that he's just trying to reclaim land that is rightfully part of Russia. At this summit, Putin announced that he'll give free grain to six African nations, and so he would say this is an act of benevolence. Russia is trying to help Africans to prevent them from being collateral damage in what is a fair and just war, so it is all in the framing, all of it.
Brooke Gladstone: Alexis, what do you really think of the US coverage of Africa?
Alexis Akwagyiram: First of all, I'm the managing editor of Semafor Africa, and it was launched in October for the simple reason that there's clearly a gap in the American media market. I think for far too long, American media coverage of the continent has presented the continent as if it's a country rather than a continent of 54 nations. I understand why that's happened because the US is the wealthiest country in the world, and for many years we've essentially lived in a unipolar world in which the US is this dominant force that drives everything across global foreign policy and the dollar is the the global economy's engine, but it does matter because we live in an interconnected world.
If you take your eye off the ball in the Sahel, for example, that could be the next place where you get extremist groups, forming camps, and then launching attacks and it leads to global instability. I think there has been typically a lack of nuance. You end up with situations where you either get poverty porn and famine or conflict, and whereas something like this, this story in Niger as we've discussed, it's clearly more than just an eruption of anger and military strong men just wanting to be strong. There were a whole host of factors that all combine to make this happen.
Brooke Gladstone: The history of the West in Africa is so brutal and gruesome. You don't have to embroider it to have it be wounding as a memory. How do you think history is being used for purposes here, and what role does it play in the tug-of-war over hearts and minds in Western Africa?
Alexis Akwagyiram: I think history is central to the dynamics of what we're seeing play out across the Sahel and I don't think you have to aggressively rewrite it at all. If you lay out the simple facts. Look at slavery, you look at colonialism, the history is so hideous, and this is all within living memory as well since so-called liberation. The simple fact that African nations are in built with incredible natural resources. There are diamonds, there's an abundance of oil, there is gold, and yet Africa is the poorest continent on earth. The parts of the world that are the wealthiest are the ones that enrich themselves off the back of those natural resources.
The history is present in so many ways. There's a thread of it through all of what we're seeing in the Sahel. It doesn't take much for the Russians to come along, and by being careful with their language and finding different ways to spread their message, just say, "Look, we're not like those other guys. We're not the West." They can also hop back to history because the Soviet Union were friendly to and amenable to African countries in the liberation struggles when they wanted independence. That's why you're seeing for example South Africa refusing to denounce this invasion. In fact, roughly half of the countries in Africa refuse to denounce the invasion of Ukraine by Russia when it went to UN and vote. The reason is, they just feel this is not Africa's fight and Africa doesn't want to get involved in the affairs of these colonizers.
Brooke Gladstone: What you're saying is that it isn't about wrestling with dueling narratives of history in Africa, it's about reckoning with it. The West has to figure out some way to reconcile with Africa, its ugly history there?
Alexis Akwagyiram: I think a way forward would be to simply listen and adopt an approach which treat African countries as partners that doesn't seem paternalistic. With the Biden administration, I do think you can see a shift in tone and approach. For example, there was the U.S.-Africa Summit which was held in December. I attended that. The African delegates that I spoke to were really pleased. Everybody was invited, it was a big tent, everyone felt that they were treated as equals. Sometimes clichés are clichés because they're true. One is people want trade not aid. People want ways in which they can build themselves up and foster genuine partnerships.
Having now somebody who likens colonial history and the West approach to, you're standing next to somebody and that person pushed you off a cliff, you broken every bone in your body, and then you at the bottom of the cliff and they come down and they say, "Let me help you up." Would you trust that person? What I'm saying is you got to be really, really intentional and empathetic and find ways to particularly economic and business partnerships. I say in situations like this, the situation in Niger and Sahel more broadly and that instability try and work through back channels to subtly work with local partners so that those local partners can be in the driving seat because also knowledge is local. People in the region have a far better and more nuanced understanding of local politics.
Brooke Gladstone: Alexis, thank you very much.
Alexis Akwagyiram: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.
Brooke Gladstone: It's been a pleasure. Alexis Akwagyiram is the managing editor at Semafor Africa and he's been covering the region for over a decade with the BCC, Reuters and the Financial Times. Coming up, the historical consequence of colonizing in another part of the world. This is On the Media.