At a compound on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana, a group of people post messages to over 200 various social media accounts. Their goal is to spread disinformation about police brutality, LGTBQIA+ issues, and race. The target of this campaign is not the online Ghanaian community; the target is the American public, and the sponsor of this campaign is Russia.
In recent years, Russia and China have increasingly engaged in digital authoritarianism in West Africa, polarizing national politics and undermining Western influence across the region. Yet these security issues often remain under-analyzed and unaddressed among US security policy officials. Worryingly, this shift coincides with the rumored drawdown of US troops in Africa.
US Focus on West Africa
Since 9/11, US interests in West Africa have focused on terrorism, namely on countering the growth of domestic armed groups and the influence of foreign entities on local communities. Primary threat actors include the Al-Qaeda-aligned Union for Support of Islam and Muslims (JNIM), as well as the Islamic State-Greater Sahara (IS-GS). In recent years, new forms of localized insecurity rooted in climate change, demographic change, and other stress factors have become a priority for US analysts. These threats include transnational criminal organizations, pastoralism-related insecurity, and electoral violence. While a new focus on non-traditional security threats is welcome, analysts are once again failing to capture emerging threats in the region, to the detriment of US security. While the current administration continues to reduce US military presence on the continent, Russia and China use West Africa as both a testbed for digital authoritarianism and a springboard from which to threaten the United States .
West African states face a new threat in the form of emerging information technologies, which risk amplifying existing security challenges and undermining democratic norms. The majority of these technologies exist to enable digital authoritarianism, which refers to the use of digital information technology to surveil, repress, and manipulate populations. Using techniques of surveillance, censorship, cyber-attacks, internet shutdowns, disinformation, or the purposeful dissemination of false information intended to mislead or harm, Russia and China export support for authoritarian and illiberal leaders in West Africa.
Russia and China have different strategies and goals for their work in West Africa. Russia’s model is relatively simple and involves disinformation and low-tech surveillance. Examples include disinformation campaigns to support the 2020 reelection bid of President Alpha Conde in Guinea and the undermining of public support for the presence of French security forces in Mali. Russia is testing grey zone tactics, notably disinformation, in West African contexts before exporting them to the United States. Following intensive coverage of foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election, Russian influence operations adopted a new approach of “franchising,” collaborating with local disinformation producers to create content protected under domestic free speech laws. Throughout 2018, these tactics were deployed across West African states undergoing elections and were subsequently fine-tuned and redirected to American audiences ahead of the 2020 election.
Meanwhile, China employs its advanced domestic technology sector and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)—which has a significant digital component—to facilitate the sale of information technology such as smart city platforms, facial recognition systems, and smart policing. China uses these sales, and its pro-Beijing influence operations, to cultivate a positive self-image abroad and export its governance values of digital authoritarianism to like-minded states. However, given the role of the Chinese private sector in these transactions, a portion of this export strategy is profit-driven, as opposed to Russia’s more overtly political and centrally-led objectives.
While Russia and China are the primary exporters of tools for digital authoritarianism, and do so for a mix of political and economic reasons, there are other exporters whose goals are purely profit-driven. Israeli, French, British, and American firms, for example, enjoy a growing demand from West African leaders who favor the use of information technologies to consolidate their power and limit democratic space, especially ahead of elections.
In terms of regional trends, states with weak rule of law and significant levels of military spending are most likely to invest in technologies of digital authoritarianism. While Russia’s model will likely make further inroads, as its relatively low costs and high adaptability make it appealing for resource-poor governments, the cost of Chinese technology is expected to fall with technological innovation and complementarity with BRI projects.
Recommendations to US Security Officials
Combatting digital authoritarianism is imperative for US national security and foreign policy interests in West Africa. As with other grey zone threats, the best US response must be to preempt the evolution of these tools before they can be used to threaten more direct US interests. Disinformation will amplify existing non-state security threats, while attempts to counter these threats using technologies of control will fail to address their root causes and increase marginalization in the long-term. Due to COVID-19 and the activities of foreign actors, disinformation has grown in volume and impact across West Africa, undermining trust in institutions and independent media, and weakening social cohesion. As a result, bottom-up disinformation is now widespread, facilitating episodes of inter-communal violence, pastoralism-related insecurity, electoral violence, and violent extremism. Moreover, as states turn to AI-empowered cities and policing, they risk securitizing problems rooted in social, economic, and political inequality, resulting in marginalization and increased risks in the long-run. States should instead respond to these threats by reforming security services, whose abuses drive conflict and radicalization across the region, and pursue a preventative approach focused on governance and development.
Current trends further empower Russian and Chinese interests in West Africa at the expense of the United States and its allies. Continued Chinese technology assistance will likely be tied to political and economic leverage over states, while Russia has shown a keen interest in winning the support of authoritarian leaders and shifting public opinion against Western states, notably France. The United States and its partners face a growing credibility gap between leaders and the public. They should do more to address their concerns and develop a norms-based, digital cooperation, and assistance strategy that supports partners and protects democratic freedoms.
Africa has always been low on the US security priority list. The National Security Strategy’s focus on great power competition can too easily be interpreted as a call to shift sights from Africa, despite the fact that Africa is where a portion of this GPC occurs. As has been clear to most Africanists for decades, Africa is a key area of influence for Russia and China, and while their presence is not new, their tools are.
While the United States grapples with the implications of an extensive drawdown in Africa, it must leverage existing partnerships and digital capacities to counter the creeping influence of digital authoritarianism in West Africa. First, the Department of Defense should prioritize a human-rights based approach to security sector assistance, with a new focus on the use of digital technologies. Specifically, it should help support West African states seeking to build smart approaches towards urban security and policing, contingent on the ethical and restrained use of such technologies. These conditionalities should extend to how partner states use technologies from other countries, namely China, and provide incentives for restraint in the deployment of surveillance technologies, along with support for digital development, modeled after USAID’s 2020 digital strategy. Second, the United States should support local partnerships that promote technology and information exchanges between civil society, the private sector, and government agencies. By promoting partnerships and adopting good governance conditionalities for technological assistance, the United States can establish the foundation for a more effective security policy in West Africa, able to respond to the challenges posed by emerging technologies.
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Claire Metelits is an Associate Professor of Strategic Studies at Marine Corps University. She is the author of several books and articles that discuss security issues in Africa. She received her PhD from Northwestern University.
Gabriel Delsol is affiliated with the consulting firm, Park Advisors, and focuses on issues of disinformation and development. He graduated from American University with a dual BA in International Relations and Economics with a focus on West Africa.