Kremlin’s Renewed Interest Russia’s Emerging Threat to Elections in Africa

Past incidents of Russian online interference in elections are enough proof that Africa should not underestimate foreign interests in spreading disinformation.

As Africa faces renewed interest from global powers, online electoral interference is a new emerging security threat. In April 2020, American intelligence officials confirmed that Russia had interfered with the 2016 United States elections. It is, therefore, expected that Russia will continue or at least attempt to interfere with elections and public opinion abroad. Indeed, Russia has run covert disinformation campaigns in African countries to increase public disaffection with governments, opposition parties and other global powers, or to feed growing tension and conflict. 

In March 2020, Facebook and Twitter reported that through collaboration with journalists, cyber security experts and law enforcement officers, they had detected and taken down social media accounts run by Russian troll farms operating in Ghana and Nigeria. Ultimately, African countries are facing the threat of cyber interference, not only in elections but also in the democratic sovereignty of electorates, which is arguably a contested norm in Russian politics and national security. 

In the absence of concerted and proactive efforts by governments, the private sector and regional organizations, Africa is at risk of cyberwarfare orchestrated by Russian private and semi-state actors attendant to the Kremlin’s interests in Africa. Russia’s renewed interest in Africa is a curious matter and has significant geopolitical and security implications. Particularly because in the aftermath of the Cold War (1947-1991), while other players such as the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Turkey and the Gulf states cultivated close ties with African governments the Kremlin stayed away. Therefore, although some analysts have argued that Russia is late to the party and should not be seen as a major threat to Western interests on the African continent, it is unwise to underestimate Russia’s capability to pursue its own agenda. At the moment, Russia’s Africa strategy might not look robust and coordinated, but the continent must respond proactively and position itself strategically within the current global geopolitical framework.

The Rationale Behind Russia’s Preference for Cyberspace 

Cyberspace is a conducive arena for Russia to exert influence, as Africa has over half a billion internet users and more than 200 million Facebook subscribers, making the internet a cheap tool to influence a lot of people—particularly relevant given Russia’s projected economic recession. Analysts estimate that there might be as much as a 3 per cent drop in Russia’s GDP due to widespread defaulting on loans resulting from risky lending that Vladmir Putin warned could lead to an economic bubble. Therefore, the Kremlin will be forced to provide financial support to deal with financial challenges at home. This contradicts other foreign players such as China, which is commonly viewed as Africa’s main bilateral creditor, pursuing capital-heavy foreign extractive strategies mostly on infrastructure projects unlike Russia. 

Another explanation for Russia’s interest in the cyberspace is that online messages can be easily tailored to specific constituencies due to the features that social media platforms offer for building trust and communities. The anonymity, real-time communication and lack of physical barriers (due to virtual operations) work to make the internet an incredible platform.

Elections, Peace and Security in Africa

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the tactics used by Russian actors to interfere in the 2016 US elections included the use of fake identities that closely resemble real people and organizations, and targeting all political constituencies to sow disunity amongst different groups based on the echo-chamber effect. In Africa, Russia’s actions have included the defamation of opposition parties in Mozambique, and the commendation of Central African Republic’s (CAR) president Faustin-Archange Touadéra and of Russian activities in the country. The strategic use of locals to ensure the use of appropriate language makes it difficult to identify Russian activities on African social media platforms. Consequently, there is no doubt that Russia’s online political activities in Africa have grave implications for peace, security and development given the continent’s sometimes problematic experiences of elections and sovereignty. 

When run effectively, elections can be a conflict resolution mechanism. Electoral processes can channel social conflict into respectful and constructive debate, with common rules for choosing legitimate representatives who can serve in executive, legislative and other state institutions. However, there are many African examples where elections have been drivers of conflict. For instance, according to the Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Post Election Violence (CIPEV Report) the 2007 general elections in Kenya were followed by violence that led to at least 1,133 deaths and internal displacement of more than 350, 000 people. Online interference in elections is, therefore, a serious threat to peace and security, as it erodes citizens’ trust in democracy as a means of solving socio-economic and political challenges. If true, alleged Russian interference in elections in Zimbabwe and Madagascar threatens peace and security. Increasing troll activity and Russian actors’ influence in CAR and other African countries are concerning.

Russian interference in sovereignty and national security diverges from the norm in democratic governance, but it is not a new phenomenon. Analysis of Russian cybersecurity shows that Russia’s outlook differs from what Keir Giles, a Senior Consulting Fellow at the think tank Chatham House, calls the Western consensus on cybersecurity. In fact, Giles argues that Russia proposes that each country should define what cybersecurity is for itself. This brings into stark relief the question of the extent of African agency, for example through the African Union (AU) or the regional economic mechanisms, in guaranteeing the security of Africa’s cyberspace. 

The Implications of Trolling on Policymakers 

Trolls can cause serious dilemmas for policymakers concerned with peace, security and development, as online sentiments may differ with on-the-ground perspectives. For example, Professor David Broniatowski realized that there was a disconnect between Pew Research Center findings on American sentiments towards vaccination and online views. While official polling showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans perceived vaccines as safe, online content posted by trolls posing as Americans refuted this notion strongly. Gaps in data from credible research and online perceptions can confuse policymakers seeking to make data-driven policies that are informed by societal perceptions. 

To overcome this challenge, African leaders must verify all of the data that they receive concerning societal perceptions. It is vital to ensure that decision-makers avoid falling prey to disinformation, as this can cause dissatisfaction that, if exploited by armed groups with extremist ideologies, can result in sentiments of marginalization, exclusion or even violence. 

African Agency 

There is often a misconception that Africa’s political, social and economic situation is the result of the continent being a helpless player in international relations. However, African countries have often been proactive in positioning themselves politically; for example, by playing the politics of bipolar global powers during the Cold War through various approaches including the non-aligned movement. The non-aligned movement was an organization created by states that wanted to remain neutral and independent from being drawn into the fold of the super powers. Most recently, Africans have shown agency in their use of technology to criticize powerful corporations such as CNN for being Eurocentric, and to apply pressure on government officials accused of corruption and poor governance. Moving forward Africa needs to exercise agency so that even foreign investment meets African needs. 

The adoption of the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection in 2014 showed Africa’s determination to independently draft a continental approach to the global challenges of cybercrime and cybersecurity. Unfortunately, as of June 2019 only five member states—Ghana, Guinea, Mauritius, Namibia and Senegal—had ratified the convention. In addition to ratification, African states must invest in training cybersecurity experts to design security systems, rather than depending on systems built abroad. African governments should also be at the forefront of all national cybersecurity issues to ensure that all stakeholders are supported and that new findings are incorporated into national priority areas using an interdisciplinary approach.

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the need for legitimacy. In systems of democratic governance, this is earned through free and fair elections and is key for social mobilization. Citizens’ cooperation is crucial to national security and the protection of public health for example. As such, the integrity of elections across the continent must be guarded earnestly from any disruption or disabling elements of online and offline interference. In addition, the continent must speak with one voice wherever Russian activities in Africa threaten peace and security. CAR provides one example where the African Union and international peacekeeping efforts remain undermined ahead of the December 2020 elections. 

Citizens must be keen to identify and steer away from online manipulation geared towards election interference and political divisions. Initiatives such as PesaCheck should be supported, as the organization provides training in fact-checking and the verification of information. Moreover, Africans must move to issue-based politics and critically analyze the information that they see online. 

From Dependence to Self-Reliance

Public policy researcher, Ahmed H. Adam argues that to fully exploit the opportunities presented by renewed interest in Africa, citizens—and by extension the AU and regional economic communities—must carefully scrutinize deals made with Russia so that they are mutually beneficial to both states and citizens. This pressure could move states away from patronage politics. He asserts that there is need for the AU to work on: 

…a coherent, unified and comprehensive strategy to deal with the three superpowers’ competition over its natural resources… It should swiftly implement robust institutional reforms and start acting as the decisive power on the continent. Also, in order to resist any detrimental foreign interference and preserve their independence, dignity, and sovereignty, African states should work towards ending their financial dependency.

Adam’s call for Africa to move from dependency to independence through self-reliance and rapid decolonization is echoed by David Mwambari, who argues that the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity for Africa to fast-track the decolonization process. As the international community will need to work on self-recovery after the pandemic, there is an opportunity for Africa to become more autonomous and tap into its own resources. 

Effective cybersecurity strategies are dependent on regional and international cooperation for gathering, sharing and analyzing intelligence to counter online Russian activities geared at disrupting African elections and sowing disunity. An interdisciplinary approach that incorporates law enforcement, private sector actors, tech experts, behaviourialists, peace and security policy-makers, and civil society organizations is needed to harden soft targets and share best practices, as these might be the weakest link. 

Strengthening Peace, Building Trust

Overall, Russia’s renewed interest in Africa presents many great opportunities for the continent as far as security, economic and diplomatic relations are concerned. According to researchers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, Erik Brattberg and Tim Maurer, preventive measures to online interference include conducting regular tests to check for vulnerabilities, risk assessments to ensure that systems have up-to-date patches, and that only those who are authorized have access to these systems. Brattberg and Maurer argue that public dialogue sessions should be held to raise awareness of the dangers of election interference and to reassure the public about ongoing efforts to ensure credible elections. They suggest engaging social media companies in disinformation campaigns.

Past incidents of Russian online interference in elections are enough proof that Africa should not underestimate foreign interests in spreading disinformation. African states must build their cybersecurity capabilities, and all AU member states should ratify and begin to implement the AU Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection. 

Finally, factors such as grassroots civic education, training of electoral officials and credible procurement of adequate election-related supplies also impact elections. These should be taken into consideration to ensure free and fair elections. Not only will this help to strengthen peace and security, it will also give governments the legitimacy that guarantees trust and compliance from citizens during tough times such as the COVID-19 pandemic

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].