On social networks, they present themselves as those who comment on political events. But in reality, some digital creators, especially from West African countries, openly support Russia and – not only because of the colonial history – criticize France.
Their fan bases sometimes number hundreds of thousands of followers.
However, not every commentator speaks on the basis of his own convictions. As African political and economic news site Africa Confidential mapped in its newly published investigative report, some political influencers are being paid by Wagner’s group.
Thousands of dollars a month
Access to the documents documenting the practices was obtained by journalists thanks to a former employee of the Lakhta project. It is a large-scale anti-Western disinformation operation launched by the now deceased founder of the Wagner group Yevgeny Prigozhin. According to Jeune Afrique, a news server focusing on events in African countries, the operation is taking place in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger.
The financial ties of political influencers to the Wagnerites lead mainly through the program director of the pro-Russian television station Afrique Media (AMTV), based in Cameroon, Jérôme Ebossama. He is also the head of the Cameroonian company Bang and Partners.
Ebossama appears in the documents as the person who signed three invoices for a “digital blogging campaign” in 2022 – in August for $3,400, in October for $3,000 and in November also for $3,000 (i.e. over 76,000 or 67 thousand crowns).
What are the Wagnerites doing in Africa?
Gold, diamonds, vodka, sugar – a selection of raw materials that Prigozhin’s group generates or sells in Africa, thereby obtaining funding for, among other things, actions on the Ukrainian front.
According to journalists, the documents are translated from French, which is the official language in Cameroon, into Russian, probably so that the Wagnerites, who do not know this language, have an overview of what the money was spent on.
According to the investigators, the order of the three invoices indicates that the payments could have been made regularly. If that was the case, a “digital campaign” could cost $36,000 in 2022 alone.
Each of the invoices received lists 10 people with a reference to the work they did — making videos directly in support of Russia or an African regime that Russia supports — and a fee of either $300 or $500.
The videos are in the format of a 15-minute, but in some cases even a 90-minute monologue of the creator. Recorded views and viewership range from hundreds to half a million.
While some videos have already expired, others cannot be viewed because they are probably only shared privately.
Almost all content paid for by Bang & Partners was broadcast in languages including Wolof (a language spoken primarily in Senegal) and Bambara (a primary language in Mali) within a month of the invoice date.
According to the journalists, the documents provided to the editors appear to be some of the first evidence that some political bloggers and influencers are being paid directly by the Russian mercenary group.
- Wagner’s group was first deployed in 2014 during the annexation of Crimea. Russia has consistently denied having any ties to this organization, but multiple investigations have shown otherwise.
- It is a mercenary paramilitary organization that has about five thousand soldiers, as the BBC writes. Its founder Dmitry Utkin, known as Wagner, was a well-known sympathizer of Nazi ideology.
- The militant group participated in Russian military operations in Crimea, Africa, Syria, Mali, and Ukraine. Among other things, the group faces accusations from the United Nations of violence against civilians in Mali. Her activities in Ukraine are currently being investigated, e.g. the massacre of civilians in Buč is attributed to her.
Souleyman Gbagbo, for example, is mentioned in the documents as originally from the Ivory Coast. According to journalists, Gbagbo is one of the most prolific spreaders of Russian propaganda. He posts videos shot on his mobile phone, mainly from the car, on his social networks.
In posts, Gbagbo has repeatedly sided with the Moscow-backed President of the Central African Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadéro.
The Wagner documents state that, for example, he was to receive $500 for a Facebook post in which he claimed that Touadé’s troops were enjoying huge success against Chadian-backed rebels. He received another $300 for supporting Touadér in the Central African Republic’s constitutional referendum vote in July. For context: the referendum, in which the majority of the population there ultimately voted in favor, allows the president to run for a third consecutive term in 2025. The term of office was also extended from five to seven years.
Gbagbo also received the same amount for a post on the Facebook page with 178 thousand followers L Afrique d’ Abord (Africa First). In it, he claimed that the military coup in Mali was a huge success and the situation in the country subsequently improved significantly from January to August 2022. We remind you that the coup of 2020 shut down the government supported by France and a military junta took power, which invited Wagnerians to the country to protect its interests.
Journalists tried to confront influencer Gbagbo, but he did not respond to questions.
Egountchi Behanzin is also mentioned in the documents. As he describes himself on the X social network, “political activist, pan-Africanist, freedom fighter and revolutionary”. He has 226 thousand subscribers on Facebook. On X 16.8 thousand.
The influencer, who is based in Paris, was supposed to receive $500 through the AMTV station for a report from last August. At the time, he claimed that the bodies of 37 French, eight Ghanaian and five Danish mercenaries were found after the attack on the Malian army in Tessito. However, reports from that time clearly state that it was a clash with fighters of the Islamic State. Again, it was a matter of stirring up anti-French sentiments.
According to journalists, Behanzin is also the author of the statement that Russian President Vladimir Putin had a reason to start a war in Ukraine. Allegedly because the EU sided with the “Nazis” in Kyiv.
He called French President Emmanuel Macron and France a bigger threat to the continent than famine.
Speaking to Africa Confidential, the digital creator denied being in contact with the Wagners. He is said to be fundamentally convinced of the opinions he publishes on social networks. And against finding out that he is being paid for them, he sharply defined himself on the X network.
What will happen to the Wagnerites in Africa after the death of Prigozhin?
“Continuation of the cooperation established by Yevgeny Prigozhin is in the interest of the Kremlin and African governments. The ties and profits of the Wagnerites could be directly taken over by the Russian state. But the change will be gradual,” predicts political scientist Bohumil Doboš for Nauzal.
Drissa Meminta, a Malian legal advisor and political analyst with 117,000 subscribers on Facebook, was also supposed to receive money from the Wagner family. According to the documents, $300 went to his account for paying tribute to Darya Duginova (more here), the late daughter of Russian nationalist ideologue Alexander Dugin. He described her as the one who stood behind Mali and Africa in the struggle for decolonization and against French imperialism.
He collected another $300 for a video from last November in which he said Russia would supply Mali with hydrocarbons and other goods worth $100 million.
Even Meminta, who, according to Jeune Afrique, organized anti-French protests in the country, did not respond to the journalists’ confrontation.
Propaganda is increasing
According to the investigation, the biggest recipient of the Wagner family’s money is the Cameroonian station AMTV. Prigozhin was supposed to personally shake hands with the station’s owner Justin Tagouh and program director Ebossama in St. Petersburg this July at the Russian summit with African leaders.
The AMTV station also broadcast this meeting. It happened after Prigozhin’s unsuccessful campaign against Moscow, when he had already fallen out of favor and disappeared from public space.
However, he was not out of favor in Africa. His presence on the AMTV station, on the other hand, increased. According to the journalists, this shows how crucial the Wagners are for African-Russian relations.
AMTV is affiliated with the state-funded Russian television network Russia Today. As part of the cooperation, the two stations, for example, exchange programs. RT operates in almost half of all African countries. In others, a possible contract is being considered or there is cooperation with local media, the Africa Confidential server published the results of its research some time ago.
AMTV has a million followers on Facebook alone, and 866 thousand subscribers on YouTube.