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Information Operations: An Understudied Facet of Russian Influence in Africa

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russia invest south africa

By Miriam Roday and Sarah Daly

In a quiet neighbourhood just outside of Accra, 16 Ghanaians were instructed to create social media accounts, representing themselves as Americans, to post content about divisive political issues, where and when U.S. audiences were most active online.

Starting in June 2019, posts like this tweet trickled into users’ newsfeeds: “How can a #police officer kill an 11-year-old #black boy and go unpunished? Why, are some lives more important than others?”

In the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Russian operatives from Ghana and Nigeria crafted fake profiles on social media to stoke tensions and widen cleavages in American society.

Russian trolls posted in Facebook groups about police brutality and racial inequity, implying or claiming that they lived in the United States, and in one case, purported to be the cousin of a Black American who had died in police custody.

These trolling tactics may sound familiar. They were central themes of Moscow’s “sweeping and systematic” campaign to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Under the direction of Russian financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin deployed an army of professional trolls from the now-infamous Internet Research Agency (IRA) based in St. Petersburg to manipulate social media platforms and flood the information space with divisive and inflammatory narratives. During the 2016 election cycle, the effort succeeded in fomenting unrest and conflict.

Russia’s most recent campaign to sow discord within the American electorate, however, marks its first use of Africa as a launchpad for disinformation campaigns aimed at the United States.

Earlier in 2021, the intelligence community confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to influence the contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, including by “exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the US” and using troll farms in Ghana and Nigeria to “propagate US-focused narratives.”

A months-long investigation by CNN uncovered details about the pop-up operation in Ghana masquerading as a non-profit that received funding from an “anonymous source” in Europe. Its 16 employees, some unaware they were working with and for Russian operatives, built audiences and coordinated their posts by time and topic to maximize engagement with American users. Facebook corroborated these findings and linked several of the accounts to Prigozhin’s IRA that it had previously removed for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour.”

The Kremlin uses these troll accounts on social media to establish digital networks of influence and advance its agenda in the information space—to subvert public discourse and disseminate anti-Western messaging.

Russia’s interference campaign in 2016 illustrated how damaging these low-cost, low-risk tactics can be, especially against a fractious electorate in a highly polarized media environment. This threat is particularly palpable in Africa, where geopolitical developments and democratic backsliding make many states vulnerable to Russian interference.

And while the Kremlin’s use of Africa as a base for its information operations targeting a U.S. election may be novel, Russia has been running information manipulation campaigns within Africa for years. Moscow’s weaponization of information is an understudied, overlooked component of its strategic influence efforts that presents immediate national security risks to democratic processes and institutions across the continent.

Russia’s Evolving Information Operations 

The conversation surrounding Russian power projection in Africa often focuses on its revitalization of Soviet-era relationships and strategies to strike military, trade, and resource deals across the continent.

Russia’s use of parastatal and opaque private military companies to accomplish its goals has drawn international scrutiny. Nominally private, these entities and individuals operate at the direction of the Kremlin, and often deploy information operations to advance Russia’s broader goals in Africa: building a positive reputation for Russia as a “revitalized great power, international mediator, humanitarian actor, and effective counter-terrorism partner”; and courting current and future African leaders to establish long-term ties that will benefit its strategic interests.

Russian reputation-building campaigns involve circulating propaganda through various media, from social and state-funded to proxy sources in foreign news outlets. The Kremlin infiltrates and controls the information space by buying local media outlets or inserting Russian state-owned television channels RT and Sputnik in-country. Establishing mass media control allows Russia to shape the citizenry’s impressions of current events. The resulting de-democratization of information creates a similar effect to that of Russia’s social media campaigns: the Kremlin can develop and disseminate narratives not immediately identifiable as foreign propaganda and impose them onto a population.

Russia sees sidelining Western influence in Africa as integral to its campaign of upending the international order led by the United States. Using an ad-hoc blend of private military companies, non-governmental organizations, and local agents to carry its messages, Russia can launder narratives through the information ecosystem that paint the West as exploitative interventionist actors, and Moscow as a benevolent partner engaging with Africa on mutually beneficial terms.

Common tactics include criticizing the U.S. and French security assistance efforts and praising Russia’s ability to serve as a mediator and counter-terrorism partner despite limited evidence to support its effectiveness at either.

In addition to propagandizing, Russia uses its “franchised” proxies—local troll farms established by Russian operatives and affiliates—to influence domestic politics in Africa, often as a means to court political elites and secure support for extracting resources and building Russian military bases.

In October 2019, researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory together with social media analytics firm, Graphika, uncovered Russian-linked information operations aimed at influencing the politics and public discourse of eight African countries.

Their joint report shows how using local trolls to augment mass and social media campaigns pays dividends allowing Russia to deploy effective, low-cost operations to more easily evade detection and obviate the need to conduct the operations within its own borders.

Russia has demonstrated a preference for autocratic or authoritarian-leaning political leaders and regimes that often coexist with a controlled information and media space.

For instance, in 2019, Russia orchestrated information operations in Sudan aimed at delegitimizing protestors in Khartoum and Moscow. Private researchers found that Prigozhin-linked proxies set up a Facebook page disguised as a local news network and frequently re-shared Sputnik articles.

The proxies, who were attempting to preserve President Omar al-Bashir’s leadership against popular opposition, also recommended public messaging themes to the regime and security responses to demonstrations. Though al-Bashir was deposed in April 2019, Russia’s influence campaign in Sudan corresponded to interests in licensing for gold mines and military basing in Port Sudan on the Red Sea. For Russia, relationship building, with later economic and security agreements in mind, supersede loyalty to a particular candidate or political platform.

Moscow has demonstrated this ideological flexibility in its extensive electioneering and propaganda efforts in the Central African Republic, Libya, Madagascar, and Mozambique, among others. The Kremlin seizes upon the information space as a means to gain political allies and threaten U.S. and French interests, even if it only manages to hijack African social and political discourse in the short term or on a particular issue.

To this end, Russian state-backed media outlets offer training courses on social media and the Kremlin sends “spin doctors” or propaganda specialists overseas to African clients. These impermanent and relatively agile information operations are ideal for producing a maximum effect on African states with minimum effort.

Growing Threat to Democracy 

Russia’s efforts to infiltrate the information space in Africa brought to the fore with its most recent attempt to influence the 2020 U.S. election, will likely grow in scale and sophistication. In the past few years, such campaigns have enabled the Kremlin to dictate the terms of the truth and to degrade democratic discourse, which directly undermines U.S. stated interests in the region, namely its commitment to strengthening democratic progress and peace. These campaigns draw Africa into the spotlight as a battlefield where Russia can hone its weaponization of the information space against the United States and its allies.

Just as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War, Russia perceives the African information environment as permissive and less monitored, a place where it can experiment with tactics to influence political processes, fan the flames of social unrest, and deflect culpability. The threat to Africa, however, is acute. Russian information operations could fuel conflict in states prone to election violence, could destabilize governments and economies, and further erode democratic gains across the continent.

The United States and its allies can mitigate this risk by bolstering the African information environment against Russian exploitation. Specifically, the West can double down on its support for African nations and leaders working to strengthen election integrity and public discourse and to preserve independent and diverse media.

Also, establishing the means for greater collaboration between governments, civil society, and tech companies to expose and raise awareness about Russian disinformation can increase societal resilience against it.

Countering Russia’s subversive activities in the information environment will not only stymy its attempt to broker political, economic, and security deals across the continent, but promote the endurance of democratic institutions at home and abroad.

Miriam Roday is a researcher in the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses with a focus on digital disinformation, Russia, and transatlantic security.

Sarah Daly is an adjunct researcher in the Intelligence Analysis Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses with a focus on geopolitical and security developments in Africa.

The views, opinions, and findings expressed in this paper should not be construed as representing the official position of the Institute for Defense Analyses, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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Okowa’s Financial Aid to Mission Schools

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Ifeanyi Okowa Delta State

By Jerome-Mario Chijioke Utomi

The recent decision by the Governor of Delta State, Ifeanyi Okowa, to provide financial aid to 40 schools it returned to religious missions in 2011 again underscores the time-honoured belief that leaders must learn the art of management, an art of engineering and skill to absorb and mater success in their mission. As there is no hard and fast rule but involves a lot of practical wisdom and prudence in one’s functioning style and performance.

Speaking at the thanksgiving service to mark the end of the 16th Synod of Asaba Diocese, Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion), held at the Cathedral Church of St. Peter, Asaba, Okowa, who read the first lesson, congratulated the new Bishop of the diocese, the Rt. Rev. Kingsley Obuh, on his consecration and enthronement.

Acknowledging that the running of mission schools is difficult given the current economic condition of the nation, the governor commended the church for drawing his attention to the plight of the schools, especially his promise to ensure that grants were given to missions to assist them in giving a firm standing to the schools that had been returned to them. This, he explained, became necessary to assist the schools in running effectively, particularly in view of the prevailing harsh economic situation in the country.

Indeed, from the above comment by the Governor, it is evident that he is not taking success in leadership for granted or attributing the same to a function of luck and destiny but achievable through effective planning, genuine efforts and technique followed sincerely and scrupulously in their mission.

By his latest action, it is now evident that the Governor considers education as the bedrock of development. More than anything else, his promise to ensure that grants were given to missions to assist them in giving a firm standing to the schools demonstrates a leader with an understanding that with sound educational institutions, a country is as good as made -as the institutions will turn out all rounded manpower to continue with the development of the society driven by well thought out ideas, policies, programmes.

Secondly, it is a sign that he recognizes the challenges of perennial underfunding bedevilling the education sector not just in missionary schools in Delta State but across all the privately and government-owned schools across all the states of the federation.

This challenge has as a consequence brought upon the nation an astronomical increase in the rate of out of school children, especially in the northern part of Nigeria, to swell in number, even when it is obvious that the streets are known for breeding all forms of criminals and other social misfits who constitute the real threat in the forms of armed robbers; thugs, drunkards, prostitutes and all other social ills that give a bad name to the society. This underfunding challenge has also visited the sector with a state of affairs where a number of Nigerians are in school but are learning nothing; as schooling, according to UNICEF, does not always lead to learning.

“In Nigeria, there are more non-learners in school than out of school,” UNICEF concluded.

More specifically, aside from being in the best interest of the state government that those schools returned to the missions are supported to stand because they provide a space for study for some of our children across the state, Okowa’s current gesture reinforces the belief that we all have reasons not only to feel worried but collectively work hard to deliver the nation’s education sector in ways that will bring to an end the reign of thoughtless demand for fees of varying amounts/ proposed by the school authorities-a development that is financially squeezing the life out of the innocent students and their parents.

There exist more concrete reasons as to why Governor Okowa’s present move needs to be applauded.

At the most fundamental levels, it refreshes the minds of Nigerians of the passionate plea by the United Nations for government-private sector collaboration for sustainable development.

For instance, there was a veiled agreement among stakeholders at a recent gathering in Lagos that the government at all levels in Nigeria is shirking the traditional but universal responsibility of provision of educational, economic and infrastructural succour to the citizenry which the instrumentality of participatory democracy and election of leaders confers on them.

Essentially, participants at that event were unanimous that the 2030 sustainable agenda has partnership and collaboration at its centre. It was clearly stated that the scale and ambition of this agenda call for smart partnerships, collaborations, ecosystem thinking, co-creation and alignment of various intervention efforts by the public and private sectors and civil society.

The conference, which had as a theme Partnership for Sustainable Development and Innovation, was among other goals aimed at finding an ‘urgent need for creative and innovative thinking by all strata of the society-public and private sector and civil society-to promoting sustained and inclusive economic growth, social development and environmental protection’.

To further buttress the imperativeness of this needed commitment from all the parties in tackling the agenda, the conference stressed that the partnership is at the very centre of the sustainable development agenda as it is both a means to an end since it is a crucial enabler for the attainment of the other goals and an end to in itself since Goal 17 is a means of implementation and revitalised global partnership’.

Very instructive also, finding a solution to the societal problems, particularly providing access to adequate and quality education for the youths of this nation will in some ways help solve the youth unemployment challenge and develop a climate of sustainable future and innovation among our youths.

Talking about youth unemployment in Nigeria, a report recently put it this way: “We are in a dire state of strait because unemployment has diverse implications. Security wise, the large unemployed youth population is a threat to the security of the few that are employed. Any transformation agenda that does not have job creation at the centre of its programme will take us nowhere”

Youths’ challenge cuts across, regions, religions, and tribes, and has led to the proliferation of ethnic militia as well as youth restiveness across the country. This may, in turn, hamper the peace needed if handled with levity.  But this threat has become more pronounced in the oil-rich region of the country with the chunk of the proponents spearheaded by the large army of professionally trained ex-militants currently without a job. Proper management of these teaming youth is the panacea for determining the success or otherwise of the 2030 sustainable agenda, it is only by engaging these teeming youths through employment creation that the incessant youth restiveness can be abated.

One fact we must acknowledge is that the 2030 Sustainable Development Goal was formulated to among other aims promote and carter for people, peace, the planet, and poverty but nurturing to bear the premeditated result will depend on not just the private sector but our government.

To, therefore, move this nation forward, we need to like Governor Okowa, recognize that a sound educational sector and sustained infrastructural development remain the spine. We must learn that nations such as the Jews progressed because they possessed a tradition of education combined with social and political action. They enthroned education and sacrificed to get it.

We must as a nation make quality but subsidized education a human right that will be accessible to all Nigerians irrespective of tribe/ethnicity, sex, religion or creed. And develop the political will to fund education in compliance with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) budgetary recommendation.

Jerome-Mario Chijioke Utomi is the Programme Coordinator (Media and Public Policy), Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA), Lagos. He can be reached via jeromeutomi@yahoo.com/08032725374

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Tips for Building a Low-code Strategy

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Low-code Development

By Hyther Nizam

Over the last few years, businesses have been racing to digitise their processes and offerings. Whether you’re working from home, banking online, or doing a quick grocery order, you’ve likely noticed a significant rate of transformation. Given that every aspect of a consumer’s daily life is connected to the digital world, the challenge of digital transformation may be daunting. Traditional ways of developing consumer and internal applications are time-consuming and usually require a large number of development resources.

Fortunately, low-code/no-code (LCNC) development platforms empower businesses to quickly create cross-platform applications without writing thousands of lines of code. Low-code/no-code not only simplifies development but also saves time and money. Low-code is not a new concept, but demand for it has increased as a result of the pandemic and the necessity for businesses to speed up their digital transformation initiatives.

The advantages of low-code/no-code 

LCNC platforms provide a visual environment for building applications. As they provide snippets of pre-built code in a simple drag-and-drop user interface, people with little to no programming experience can also build custom web/mobile applications. However, it’s crucial to take the time to identify the most effective LCNC platform for your business before diving headfirst into app building.

The LCNC platforms help teams develop applications faster and with fewer errors than traditional coding. Because the platforms provide standard components such as forms, report templates, and ready-to-use code snippets, months of development time can be saved. By eliminating some of the more complex aspects of the application development process (such as creating frameworks and linking databases), these platforms empower people across the organisation to get involved in application development and bring their business ideas to fruition, without having to depend on IT assistance.

Zoho Creator, Zoho’s low-code platform, aims to facilitate efficient app development and effective collaboration. It uses pre-built integrations to connect with hundreds of systems and cloud services to make app development quicker and easier. Organisations can seamlessly integrate Creator with other Zoho applications and third-party platforms like QuickBooks, Zapier, and PayPal. To facilitate effective collaboration, Creator gives organisations the power to assign roles to users and grant them access to information relevant to their jobs. Role-based access controls help ensure the application development process is both streamlined and secure.

Now that digital transformation is an ongoing imperative for most businesses, agility and collaboration are critical. Our research shows that 40% of organisations are involving their business teams in their digital transformation processes. This indicates a growing understanding that digital transformation affects the whole business—not just IT teams.

Considerations for using LCNC strategies

First, and potentially most important, your business must know what to look for in LCNC platforms. Besides the visual modelling and drag-and-drop interfaces that make these platforms easier to use, your LCNC platform should be secure. It should have the required security framework certifications in place and espouse data confidentiality measures. It’s important to avoid using software that potentially opens the door to hackers.

Your LCNC platform should be equipped for multi-device deployment (meaning that you only have to create an app once for it to be accessible on any device), and scalability so you can add more users to your application as your organisation grows.

Once you’ve identified the right platform, it’s time to start cross-organisational planning for the digital experiences your organisation will provide, and the ways low-code can be leveraged to create those experiences. Remember, one of the major strengths of a good low-code platform is that it allows for collaboration. People across the organisation need to be exposed to the platform to understand what it can do for them.

The time is now

There has never been a better time for your business to embrace an LCNC strategy, as the world is undergoing an unprecedented rate of digital transformation. It is essential, however, to combine the correct platform with a strategy that enables your entire company to realise the benefits of low-code development. This is the most effective way to put your business ahead of the competition.

Hyther Nizam is the President of MEA at Zoho Corp

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B2B e-Commerce: Fostering Sales, Distribution with Data Analytics

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Data Analytics

The informal sector is a major source of economic growth and productivity globally. According to both the World Bank and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) statistics, more than 2 billion people representing 61% of the world’s employed population work in the informal sector.

Of the number, 93% are reportedly in emerging and developing countries. Around 86% of employment in Sub-Saharan Africa is in the informal sector, while 80% of household retail distribution is said to be delivered via informal retailers.

Nigeria is reputed to have a huge informal sector that makes up 50% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and accounts for over 90% of employment. The informal retail market value is estimated at US$100bn out of which the food and consumer goods retail segment is worth over $40bn.

B2B e-commerce firm Alerzo’s CEO, Adewale Opaleye, described the informal sector as a major source of economic growth, productivity and competitiveness.

Despite the importance of the sector, informal retailers face complex challenges that impede their business growth, financial and income stability and service quality. The challenges include limited inventory due to high demands, meaning the market is underserved; and limited access to funding which sometimes leads them to stock low-quality products.

The retail market is also clustered; products are often overpriced because prices are largely unregulated. Distance to market especially those in hard-to-reach locations; opportunity costs; dangers of travel; inadequate logistics such as transport to move purchased goods also impact informal retailers adversely. The unstructured nature of most retail businesses is another setback.

The challenges faced by consumers at the base of the pyramid also represent another key issue in the retail market. Often, lack of access to reliable product information, quality products and services, and low purchasing power deny consumers access to everyday essentials such as food, medicine, hygiene and household products.

The fallout of the challenges in the retail market segment is that manufacturers and distributors are often unable to track data on informal retail sales, regulate quality or access BoP customers for research, marketing or the delivery of social mission goals.

As a strategic pivot for national GDP growth, reforming Nigeria’s informal trade is a key to unlocking socio-economic prosperity for the citizens, and improving the lives of the retailers themselves including their families, and the communities in which they operate.

Hence, initiatives that remove barriers in the Factory-to-Retail distribution chain for consumer goods companies are most welcome. The role of e-Commerce, in particular tech-driven B2B e-Commerce platforms, is pivotal in this regard.

“Our mission is to empower these informal retailers through our ecosystem of digital products, so they are equipped to run profitable and sustainable businesses. We strongly believe that technology has the potential to transform the way informal retailers conduct their businesses, by using it to facilitate – with just a click of a button – fast and easy access to a wide assortment of consumer products at zero delivery cost to the retailers,” Alerzo CEO, Opaleye said.

B2B e-Commerce platforms are beneficial to manufacturers and tier one distributors as enablers of data gathering and market intelligence. By utilising an array of digital technologies to gather market intelligence and analyse data, they arm goods producers with vital information on consumer behaviour to further help them in research and product development. Distributors also use such information to scale up operational efficiency.

The use of customer data significantly fosters sales growth and enhances customer relationships. According to Statista, a 2018 survey in the United States showed that 84% of industry-wide leading firms revealed that data analytics helped to bring greater accuracy to their decision-making. That is, data utilisation and related analytics methods were reported to deliver the most value to firms by reducing expenses and creating new avenues for innovation and disruption.

Data analytics enable manufacturers and distributors to strengthen their business operations. For example, in supply chain management and customer relationship, data analytics can support the personalisation and customisation of sales and customer services to build stronger and more personal relationships with customers.

By deploying data technologies and tools, B2B e-Commerce platforms like Alerzo collect data and market intelligence to identify what customers actually expect from companies and to predict their future demands. In other words, data analytics help to create business knowledge, that is, information and understanding related to business processes and the business environment. It can additionally reveal hidden behavioural patterns.

Furthermore, B2B e-Commerce can provide manufacturers access to real-time data and instant information, creating real-time knowledge of markets, and when properly implemented, can increase sales. McKinsey’s research suggests that a healthy data culture, that is, an organisational culture that accelerates the application of data analytics, is becoming increasingly important for leading and lagging companies. Also, the deployment of data helps to provide accurate and timely information within an organisation.

B2B e-Commerce platforms by utilising their digital solutions can make the collection of data more feasible and cost-effective for manufacturers and distributors. Data analytics as one of the emerging areas in the domain of B2B marketing can even support businesses with access to big data thereby increasing access to quantitative and qualitative information beyond just transaction data such as purchase quantities.

In a nutshell, B2B e-Commerce in so many ways offers solutions that are helping to address the needs in the Factory-to-Retail distribution value chain holistically – at the supply side (manufacturers, top-tier distributors and last-mile retailers), and the consumers (demand) side.

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