Main Image Credit War of narratives: Ukraine faces a challenge in building support for its cause in Africa. Image: Anna / Adobe Stock
While it has no problem communicating its story to Western allies, Ukraine is losing the narrative battle to Russia in Africa. How can it adapt its message and methods to reach audiences on the continent?
As many have pointed out, not least Greg Mills in his recent commentary, perceptions of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine are very different in the Global South to those in the West. The reasons for this are complex and well documented, ranging as they do from the historical to the transactional. Historically, Europe’s colonial legacy and the Soviet Union’s assistance to the freedom movements that are its corollary still resonate. Transactionally, support for or ambivalence about the invasion means preferential access to Russian weapons, energy and grain. As a consequence, diplomatic backing for Ukraine outside the Western bubble is far from guaranteed and in some cases actively rejected, as the various UN votes attest.
To most of us in the West, the war represents the struggle between democracy and autocracy, but in Africa it is much more about the US, Europe and NATO’s perennial competition with an assertive Russia. For Africans and many others in the Global South, this is just a matter of ‘Back to the Future’ in a reincarnation of the Cold War. And from this perspective, the Kremlin has a distinct advantage, with over half a century of experience of influence and engagement across the continent, whereas Ukraine has none. Putin is simply able to overmatch Ukraine for exposure, historical sentiment and diplomatic resources, and Kyiv’s Western allies lack the credibility they have in their own backyard. Understanding this has been subject to much analysis and comment by others already and so needs little additional attention here, but what might constitute an effective strategy for tackling the problem has not had the same level of scrutiny.
As always, the problem seems to be confusion over the relationship between strategy and tactics, and where the emphasis lies. What is the strategic narrative Ukraine wants to proliferate beyond the Euro-Atlantic arena, and how should it be constructed and delivered? Is it about the stories we want to tell, or those Africans want to hear? Is it about the voice the stories are told in, the dissemination of key messages or the enabling of a conversation?
The clue for me comes from the former US Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, and his famous remark that ‘all politics is local’. In other words, that strategic effect in politics is best achieved by being as close to the problem as possible. Many in the US and Europe tend to think of and treat Africa as a single entity rather than the diverse continent of 54 countries and as many languages and more that it is. Audiences in Egypt and Mali, for example, are very different and have different needs than those in South Africa or Mozambique. Africans are tired of being clumped together and treated as geopolitical chess pieces. They need to be engaged on the individual regional, national and hyper-local issues that are important to them, rather than those that are important to the West.
A narrative that focuses on war and brutality in Europe has little resonance in Africa where there are plenty of similar stories closer to home
Putin and his henchman Yevgeny Prigozhin – of Wagner Group fame – certainly understand this, commissioning local PR and marketing companies and online influencers to produce locally targeted content. According to Cayley Clifford and Steven Gruzd of Policy Insights, as many as 4,000 African online news websites re-publish content from Kremlin-sponsored media like Russia Today and Sputnik as ‘reputable sources’. As Shelby Grossman of Stanford’s Internet Observatory observed in the Economist last year, ‘they (Putin’s people) have figured out that the more local you can get the better’ and ‘local people are going to be better able to create content that resonates than a random Russian dude’. This is a lesson we in the West still don’t seem to have learned as we obsess about the news cycle and traditional, primarily English-speaking, news media. Globally, meanwhile, there has been a significant decline in media attention on the war, with Ukraine slipping off the news agenda almost completely outside Europe and the US.
Last year Emerson Brooking, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Laboratory, suggested we had reached a zenith of support for Ukraine, with media organizations withdrawing resources and shifting their attention to other parts of the world. Social media interactions about Ukraine, for example, have decreased by over 93% since March last year, and by May there were six times as many stories about Johnny Depp and Amber Heard as there were about Ukraine. While this last point might seem a little flippant, it demonstrates what really captures audience interest, particularly recognising that in Africa these audiences are primarily under the age of 30 and don’t get their information from conventional news sources. Mobile phones are the main channel of information for most of them, and Ukraine no longer holds their attention for its own sake.
An impactful, clearly articulated and coordinated core strategic narrative is evidently critical to get Ukraine’s message across, but one that focuses on war and brutality in Europe has little resonance in Africa where there are plenty of similar stories closer to home. A core narrative for Africa needs to engage with the target audience in a way that grabs their attention via the information tools they use. It should see the conflict through the stories that affect them locally, and needs to be adapted to the specific conditions and languages of each target country and delivered in a voice that they recognise. Polling in the countries where support for Putin is strongest – and which unsurprisingly also tend towards autocracy – suggests that local opinion doesn’t match that of the government. Here, sympathy for Ukraine is primarily driven by a sense of common cause with their struggle against an oppressive regime. A narrative that examines elite capture, corruption and state-sponsored violence, putting Ukraine’s struggle with the Kremlin in the same context as their own, is likely to have more impact. The key is to focus on national issues and to frame the war through a local lens, not a Western one.
Ultimately, winning the narrative war in Africa depends not just on the novelty of the content or platform used but on the pace and volume it is delivered in
Achieving this requires a detailed understanding of the context, conditions and circumstances of the target countries in Africa. This sort of detailed local knowledge is normally provided through individual embassies, and as such is a problem for Ukraine, which has just 10 diplomatic missions in Africa compared to Russia’s 46. Clearly these limited resources need to be targeted to those regions where they can have most impact, and where local networks can be fully developed and exploited. Perhaps Western embassies could also provide facilities to Ukrainian diplomats in the countries they currently can’t reach?
Crucially, though, we need to be smart in our delivery, using platforms and content that build the conversation rather than providing information down a one-way news pipe. Here we can look to the commercial marketing sector, which has moved away from conventional media towards using social media influencers and taking customers on individual journeys. Experience has shown that interactive engagement is the most powerful way to get its story across. Interactive engagement builds and grows critical networks by entertaining the individual directly through the devices in their pocket. It provides novel and compelling ways to communicate with target audiences and breaks into the alternative news cycles preferred by the under 30s. Gaming is a good example of this approach, where in narrative- and story-driven online games players learn through entertainment and their own experience. These experiences can then also be shared and discussed with others through the same channels that deliver the games. Other interactive digital tools such as online quizzes, chat rooms and closed sharing platforms are also examples of how to enable this approach.
Ultimately, winning the narrative war in Africa depends not just on the novelty of the content or platform used but on the pace and volume it is delivered in. In the face of declining interest in Ukraine’s story and increasingly scarce resources, it will be critical to maintain the speed and momentum of the campaign and the quantity and quality of the product and information it distributes.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.