The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He’s pro-Russian, anti-Zelensky and rallying for Putin in West Africa

The digital diet of a 30-year-old Burkinabe toy seller shows how Moscow is building the image of a superpower

Toy seller Ismael Sawadogo attends a pro-Russian rally in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, on March 27. (Danielle Paquette/The Washington Post)
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OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — He could find no Russian flags at the store, so Ismael Sawadogo asked a tailor to sew three: one to wave on his motorbike, one to wear as a poncho and one in the style of a 1950s diner hat.

“I love Putin, Putin, Putin!” he said, stripping off his periwinkle dress shirt in the middle of the roadside shop to slip on the custom white, blue and red stripes. He handed over 5,000 West African CFA francs, or about $8 — almost a quarter of his monthly earnings.

“I’m ready for the rally,” he said, grinning.

Sawadogo, a 30-year-old seller of children’s toys, said he became a fan of Vladimir Putin last year after watching videos about Russian commandos on Facebook. Interest swelled to passion when extremists overran his childhood village and torched the primary school where his brother taught. Messages flooding his social media feeds blamed France and the West for fueling the bloodshed — while framing Putin as a hero poised to help. “Thank you, Putin,” read one post on his screen. “You are the Jesus of modern times.”

Pro-Russian content has surged here in recent months, according to groups tracking disinformation in Africa, as Putin aims to expand his country’s global influence and counter reputational damage during the war in Ukraine. Researchers have identified and reported dozens of accounts in Burkina Faso and its neighbors pumping out coordinated blitzes of Russian government talking points: NATO is the aggressor. Moscow is on a humanitarian mission in Ukraine.

The rise in Russian online propaganda marks an expansion of the Kremlin’s influence campaigns in the region, according to four Western officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing investigations. Entities linked to Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an oligarch close to Putin, have funded fake news websites and online ads in several West African countries, said two of the officials, who have reviewed intelligence on the matter. One official in Burkina Faso saw little Moscow-friendly chatter until last fall: “Now it’s all over the place.” Another official in neighboring Mali described the upswing as “industrial.”

Russian mercenaries have landed in West Africa, pushing Putin’s goals as Kremlin is increasingly isolated

Prigozhin and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not respond to requests for comment.

Code for Africa, an investigative consortium tracking disinformation across 21 nations, has mapped a network of 175 Facebook pages over the past year that peddle similar pro-Russian, anti-Western narratives to audiences across the region.

Several pages on the group’s watch list have tens of thousands of followers. And one is frequently open on Sawadogo’s phone.

On the day before he picked up his special order, Sawadogo scrolled through posts with a Washington Post reporter at his home on the outskirts of the Burkinabe capital, Ouagadougou. There were flattering portraits of Putin, photoshopped images of President Biden and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky in demeaning poses, extensive France-bashing and lots of declarations in capital letters:

“The UKRAINIAN ARMY HAS BEEN DEFEATED.”

“THIS IS THE HIDDEN PLAN BEHIND THE WEST AND NATO … THEY HAVE ONLY ONE GOAL, DEHUMANIZATION OF MAN … ”

Sawadogo’s tiny concrete room was so hot that he kept a pack of tissues around to wipe the sweat from his face. He mourned the loss of his old life in the village — more space, more shade. Fighters loyal to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State occupy much of this West African nation of 21 million despite the six-year presence of French special forces. Sawadogo wondered: Didn’t France have the resources to stop the horror?

“The problem is they don’t want to,” he said. “They benefit from our suffering.”

He switched on the television to the news channel France 24. The screen showed images of shelled Ukrainian cities.

“Zelensky provoked all this,” he said. “It’s Zelensky’s fault if people are dying, not Putin’s.”

The influence campaigns

The disinformation swirled well before Russia invaded Ukraine. In January, Facebook removed three pages targeting “multiple African nations” that it said were linked to the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, a Kremlin-linked group targeted by U.S. sanctions for its role in interfering with the 2016 election.

The Internet Research Agency, which the United States says is financed by Prigozhin — known as “Putin’s chef” for his catering empire and coziness with the Kremlin — has been sowing deceit online for nearly a decade. Ever since Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, analysts say, Moscow has sought to strengthen alliances where it could, harnessing the agency’s trolls in an effort to sway hearts and minds.

“Putin has been trying to get as many countries as he can to reinforce his narratives,” said Nataliya Bugayova, a researcher focused on Russia and Africa at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.

Attention shifted to African nations, where movements to sever ties with former colonizers like France were growing. Web campaigns painted Russia as a fierce ally with no history of exerting control on the continent. Digital rallying cries tapped long-held frustrations toward the West in general and France in particular.

France announces withdrawal of troops from Mali, reshaping the fight against Islamist extremists in West Africa

Moscow wasn’t the only power associated with fake accounts. In late 2020, Facebook removed pages tied to the French military rhetorically competing with pro-Russian trolls in several African countries. Unlike the French networks, Facebook said at the time, the Russian campaigns were known to team up with locals and co-opt “authentic voices to join their influence operations, likely to avoid detection and help appear more authentic.”

Once sporadic and unsophisticated, the operations have evolved over the past year to connect better with specific audiences, said Justin Arenstein, Code for Africa’s founder: Less reliance on Google Translate. More understanding of local dialects and politics.

Many pages urge followers to join private groups on WhatsApp or Telegram, where they churn out material that could get them banned on Facebook.

“They adapt almost as fast as we can figure out ways to detect them,” Arenstein said.

Pro-Russian networks today are especially targeting West and Central African nations grappling with conflict, according to Code for Africa. Among them are Burkina Faso and Mali, which both face fast-growing insurgencies and have endured a combined three coups d'état since 2020. They’re also home to deep reserves of gold and other precious minerals that analysts say Moscow covets.

Content glamorizing Putin skyrocketed in West Africa just before Russian mercenaries landed in Mali last December. The United States and its allies view the Wagner Group as a covert arm of the Kremlin that provides security in exchange for mineral wealth, among other strategic assets, while committing human rights atrocities. The United Nations has called for an investigation into reports that the Malian army, accompanied by “Russian private military personnel,” executed dozens of civilians during a March combat mission.

Pro-Wagner posts have multiplied recently in Burkina Faso.

Facebook pages administered in the nation seldom mentioned the mercenaries before news broke about Mali’s deal with Wagner last September. But by late January, accounts had referenced Wagner 1,240 times, and the number of users engaging with Wagner posts spiked from 5,500 to 350,000, according to research from Code for Africa and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

“We’re seeing a lot more fake news. More and more pro-Russia messages,” said Jordan Meda, a fact-checker at FasoCheck in Ouagadougou, “and little by little, more calls for military collaboration with Russia from ordinary people.”

The Putin fan

Sawadogo didn’t talk much about geopolitics when Burkina Faso was peaceful. Then attacks erupted in 2015 and have worsened almost every year since. Thousands have died in the violence. More than 1.7 million have lost their homes.

Before traveling outside Ouagadougou meant risking his life, he split his time between here and the village, hawking baby dolls and squirt guns and plastic cupcakes. During the holidays, he dressed up like Santa, toting his toys in a sack.

His mother taught him about standing up to power. She took to the streets after a Burkinabe journalist critical of the government was killed in 1998. She encouraged him to march against former president Blaise Compaoré’s 2014 attempt to extend his 27-year rule.

These days, their conversations focused on Putin’s war in Ukraine.

“Russia is more powerful than Ukraine,” his mother, Mariam, told him, slicing lettuce to sell at her vegetable stand near his house. “They should talk instead. They should cease fire.”

“Russia is right to invade Ukraine,” Sawadogo gently pressed back. “Ukraine should have respected its neighbor.”

He often wandered over to chat with her about everything: church, his girlfriend, world events.

“My son tells me things will keep getting worse here if Russia doesn’t intervene,” Mariam said. “And I agree. Let Russia come here. I’m old. I want to go back to my village, but it’s too dangerous.”

He yearns to escape war. His best shot: Dancing to stardom.

They’d fled the countryside after gunmen shot up a market. His brother, the teacher, joined them in January after his primary school burned down.

“We need to convince our government to work with Putin,” Sawadogo said. “Russia is strong enough to help.”

Sawadogo doesn’t remember the exact moment he began seeing Putin as the answer. But he has watched dozens of videos on Facebook, he estimates, outlining arguments that made sense to him.

One of his favorite accounts — the page on Code for Africa’s watch list — is called L’Afrique Mon Beau Pays, or “Africa My Beautiful Country” in French.

The page, created in 2017, has about 55,000 followers and is administered in Cameroon. The pro-Putin and anti-West posts are mixed with clips of activists in Mali and Burkina Faso, among other African nations, advocating for closer relationships with Moscow.

“I like the information they share,” Sawadogo said, holding up his phone, which displayed a post of a tank captioned “THE RUSSIAN Z” with three flexed muscle emoji.

The Post sent the account to Code for Africa, which ran an investigative review of its content. Twice this year, the researchers found, the page appeared to be part of a coordinated network that promoted the same set of dubious stories.

When reached by a Post reporter, the administrator of L’Afrique Mon Beau Pays declined to reveal their full name or nationality, saying only that they were “African.”

The person did not answer questions about ties to Russia, responding: “I am responsible for what I say and no longer responsible for what people read.”

The rally

A local activist on Facebook spread the word: Rally against France. Rally for “Russian partnership.” March 27. Revolution Square.

Sawadogo started planning his outfit.

He had attended his first pro-Russian protest two months earlier and had a great time until police broke it up with tear gas. Sawadogo collected one of the metal canisters and taped it to his wall. Some of the demonstrators carried Russian flags, inspiring him to call the tailor.

For his sign, he flipped over a wooden painting of a Burkinabe landscape that artists used to sell to tourists before the insurgency scared most of them away. He scrawled a message in chalk: “Too much. It’s too much. Down with France. Welcome Russia.”

A Burkinabe group had organized this rally, saying it wanted the government to forge a security alliance with Moscow. After military officers overthrew Burkina Faso’s president in January, a Russian combat instructor in the Central African Republic appealed to the new leadership in an open letter, offering defense assistance. (The military junta did not publicly respond.)

The rally organizers have denied receiving financial support from Russia. Since late last year, several activists in Burkina Faso and Mali have led pro-Russian events.

An invitation to the March rally in Ouagadougou was shared by 18 watch-listed accounts, based in seven countries, with similar wording.

By the time Sawadogo arrived at Revolution Square, only a couple dozen men had gathered. Maybe he was early.

A few had draped Russian flags over their shoulders like capes. One wore a shirt featuring the faces of the Burkinabe president and Putin. With his new poncho and cap, Sawadogo was the most decked out.

“Everyone,” a protester shouted. “Please hold your flags the right way. Otherwise people could mistake them for French.” He reminded the group that both nations have white, blue and red stripes.

Another protester loudly told people not to talk to journalists.

Sawadogo raised his flag.

“Down with France,” he yelled. “Yes to Russia!”

He hadn’t been online much that day. He indulges in scrolling perhaps three times each week, he said, which is how much data he can typically afford. When presented Code for Africa’s findings about the Facebook page he frequents — that it could belong to a troll, and that it appeared to have participated in coordinated campaigns — Sawadogo shrugged it off.

“I am attracted to the information,” he said, “not the people running the page.”

The gathering gradually grew, attracting news crews. People chanted at the cameras: “Down with France!” “Partnership with Russia!”

Some filed into a convention center, where village chiefs from different communities called for resetting the country’s security strategy. Outside the doors, a man sold Russian flags. He, too, said he’d commissioned them from a tailor.

Others marched down the road, waving their flags and blowing into vuvuzelas.

Sawadogo rushed to join them.

“It feels good,” he said. “We are doing something about our problems.”

He was already looking forward to the next rally — whenever it was. He would keep checking the Internet for announcements.

Oumar Zombre in Ouagadougou contributed to this report.

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