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Extreme caution: How the African Media Report on Russia’s War on Ukraine

By John Masuku

Photo: President of Ukraine / Flicker

The African public and private media have covered the war between Russia and Ukraine with extreme caution due to long-time allegiances, its impact on global diplomacy and its global economic impact.

The aftermath of the Cold War and its global polarization have clearly influenced the reporting. Many ruling parties in Sub-Saharan Africa, including in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique and Angola among others, were supported during their fight for liberation from colonialism by Russia (as the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the USSR). Influenced by this old-time connection, the state and even some private media in these countries have been writing and broadcasting positively about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine.

For example, despite Russia’s brutal attacks on Ukraine, the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) has been reporting favorably about Russia-Zimbabwe relations. The former Vice-President Joshua Nkomo led ZAPU party, which merged with ZANU led by former President Robert Mugabe to become the Patriotic Front during the 1960s-1970s war to liberate Zimbabwe from British-Rhodesian colonial rule got most of its military and humanitarian support from Russia. Most guerrilla fighters and other personnel trained in the USSR before Independence in 1980.

Even as the conflict in Ukraine intensified, the Zimbabwen public broadcaster as recently as in May, reported ‘Zim-Russia seek to deepen relations’ after a meeting of Russia’s Ambassador to Zimbabwe Nikolai Krasilnikov and Speaker of Parliament Jacob Mudenda. The Russian top envoy in return applauded the support rendered to his country by Zimbabwe in what it termed the ongoing ‘Special Military Operation’ in Ukraine.

“Today I had another opportunity to express the gratitude of the Russian federation to Zimbabwe for the strong support my country received in terms of countering the West actions against Russia,” Ambassador Krasilnikov was quoted as saying.

In recent years Russia and Zimbabwe entered into economic mega deals which the government-controlled Herald newspaper reported as remaining intact despite the war in Ukraine in another interview with the Russian ambassador. On the other hand President Mnangagwa’s government is pushing for intensified political and economic re-engagements with Western governments led by Britain and the US, which earlier imposed sanctions over what they termed as Zimbabwe’s poor human rights record.

In South Africa, firebrand youthful opposition leader Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Front(EFF), in a speech widely covered across government and private media, vowed that the country would support Russia in its conflict with Ukraine because the ruling African National Congress (ANC) fought for the democratization of the former apartheid- state in 1994 with Russian support.

“Russia was with us during difficult times. The AK 47 was given to us by Russia to fight apartheid-ruled South Africa. We are not with NATO but with Russia,” said Malema in widely shared video clips and state media reports.

“Not against Russia,” ran a headline in the Zambian Daily Mail. Zambia which harbored many liberation movements before their independence, did not vote against Russia during a United Nations (UN) emergency meeting recently but merely opposed the war in Ukraine.

Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Stanley Kakubo said Zambia’s vote was not asking UN member states to choose between the West or East but whether the war between Russia and Ukraine ought to continue or end.

Nearly half of African countries abstained during voting on the two UN proposals demanding an end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Nigeria supported the tabled proposals. The online Premium Times Nigeria reported that US ambassador to the African Union Jessica Lapenn welcomed the statement issued by the African Union on February 24, the day Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion. The statement had called on Russia to “respect international law, the territorial integrity and national sovereignty of Ukraine.”

Another US diplomat Akunna Cook, highlighted the Premium Times Nigeria, said that it was important to recognize “that Africa is very much affected by the Russian invasion, of Ukraine, both because of the economic impact which we are seeing here and across the continent in terms of rising commodities and fuel prices and also because of the threat to territorial integrity.”

Twenty-seven African states voted for the resolution, just one — Eritrea — voted against, while 17 abstained and the rest were absent. Globally, the resolution was overwhelmingly supported, with 141 votes in favor, five against and 35 abstentions.

So the proportion of African countries not supporting the decision was disproportionately high, reported the Institute for Security Studies with the headline ‘Ukraine War reveals Africa divided.’

The East African newspaper of Nairobi in a headline wrote, “Kenya: Russia’s expansionist move in Ukraine dangerous.” The article reported on the Kenyan government’s advice to Russia “to take a leaf from African countries” that have had to live with artificial boundaries created by former colonial rulers, for the sake of peace. The paper quoted Dr. Martin Kimani, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN, who said that Ukraine’s territorial integrity had been breached, adding that Russia’s move was a dangerous step that could easily be borrowed by another ambitious power.

Ghana’s newspaper the Conversation focused on the war’s impact on the country, citing many economic benefits that the country would lose if the war carried on.

“Even before the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, several emerging market economies like Ghana were already classified as being at high risk of debt distress. Given this context, a prolonged Russian-Ukraine conflict will cause further economic dislocations to Ghana. This will happen primarily via two channels: oil prices and sourcing inputs for the agricultural sector,” wrote the paper.

Zimbabwean political blogger Takura Zhangazha, observing trends in African social media narratives on racism coming out at the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, writes:

“Even as they were fleeing the conflict, narratives by African students indicated gross racial discrimination as they were enroute to safer countries and awaiting their repatriation home. The discourse was also however complicated in relation to the surprising number of African students who were actually in Ukraine and how in some instances some embassies were saying that even though they had painstakingly managed to leave Ukraine for neighbouring countries, some of the students were not keen on returning home.”

In Africa, reported the South African Daily Maverick, Russia’s information operation aims to combat Western narratives and provide “a more balanced” image of Russia.

“Russian state-owned media outlets like RT and Sputnik are key to this strategy. They provide content in English, French and Arabic to African countries where they also swap content with local media. Their ability to cover issues marginalised by the so-called “mainstream media” finds resonance among African news outlets,” wrote the paper, adding that Russian state media have also reported about Africa in a positive way, unlike “the western media narrative of Ebola and civil war.”

“With tech companies like Meta and Twitter now wise to online influence campaigns” added the Daily Maverick, “Russia has sought to outsource the creation of content to local actors in Africa. This gives the influence campaigns more cultural context while also making it difficult for ordinary citizens to identify inauthentic accounts.”

John Masuku is a Zimbabwean based radio and TV broadcast journalist.He is a fellow of the Center for Media,data and Society(CMDS) at the Central University of Europe.John can be contacted on jjwpmasuku55@gmail.com Twitter: @john_masuku

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Center for Media, Data and Society

Center for Media, Data and Society

Research center for the study of media, communication, and information policy and its impact on society and practice. https://cmds.ceu.edu/