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In this file photo taken on Sept. 3, 2019, a man walks by a wall plastered with election posters, in Central Maputo, Mozambique. Two months after Mozambique’s election, Facebook has uncovered a network of fake pages with links to a Russian disinformation expert.GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

In the capital of one of Africa’s poorest countries, there is talk about the mysterious Russians who called themselves “election observers.” People tell of an illegal poll that emerged on Facebook at a crucial moment in the recent election campaign, and a flow of cash from a self-styled “think tank” that seemed to have no office anywhere.

Two months after Mozambique’s election, clues to explain the mystery have surfaced. Facebook has uncovered a network of fake Mozambican pages with links to a Russian disinformation expert. The “election observers” had their Facebook page exposed as a front. And a Russian-funded scholar has confirmed his role in the illegal poll, which gave a valuable boost to the ruling Frelimo party in the days before the election.

Under Mozambique’s laws, opinion polls are banned during election campaigns. But when polls are forbidden, an illegal poll can gain outsized influence. That’s what happened when the Russian operatives began publicizing the poll that purportedly showed Frelimo far ahead of Renamo.

The clues add up to a clear picture: Moscow is back in the African political game. Three decades after the end of the Cold War, the African continent is again becoming a battleground for the Kremlin’s geopolitical ambitions.

Mozambique, with its vast wealth of natural gas and other resources, has become a key target for global rivalry. The United States, Europe and China have been here for years. Now, the Russians want in, and they’re offering their specialized political and military technology as a lure.

The military support was easy to spot. Russian military contractors, from the Kremlin-connected Wagner Group, landed in northern Mozambique in September to provide high-tech assistance to the national army in its fight against Islamist insurgents.

But the political technology was more carefully hidden. Two weeks after the October election, Facebook announced that it was removing a network of fake pages that were covertly interfering in Mozambique and seven other African countries. The pages, posting up to 8,900 items each month, succeeded in gaining “likes” from 1.72 million accounts.

Facebook said the fake pages were linked to Russian financier Yevgeny Prigozhin – the same man who controls the Wagner Group. A close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he is facing criminal charges in the United States for allegedly interfering in the 2016 election.

Mr. Prigozhin and his Internet Research Agency are accused of deploying social-media trolling to feed disinformation into election campaigns. Facebook’s discovery of his connection to Mozambique’s fake pages has suggested that Moscow is trying the same tactic in the African country.

One of the fake pages, Wave of Frelimo, enthusiastically promoted the ruling party and the illegal poll. Just six days before the election, it said the poll showed Frelimo “heading for victory” and “distancing itself from its opponents” with 62-per-cent support.

Other fake pages, posing as Mozambican, praised Frelimo and attacked its main rival, Renamo. They even accused Renamo, falsely, of signing a contract to allow Chinese nuclear waste to be stored in Mozambique.

The Stanford Internet Observatory, a U.S.-based research group, reported that four of the fake Facebook pages were created on the same date – Sept. 23, 2019, just three weeks before the election – and often posted identical content.

“All pages had at least some degree of suspicious engagement, with each page receiving at least 1,200 likes on their first similarly generic post welcoming users to the page,” the observatory said.

It said the Russian-linked operation “appears to have further relied on subcontractors who are native speakers and/or local to the region” – which made the operation harder to detect.

Just a few weeks before the Facebook pages were created, Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi had flown to Russia and signed a series of economic and security agreements with Mr. Putin. The deals were a boost to Russian companies, which have long coveted Mozambique’s gas fields, diamonds, rubies and other resources.

Dercio Tsandzana, a political scientist who is studying youth politics on Mozambique’s internet for his doctoral research, says he didn’t realize at first that the Facebook pages were fake. He tried to post comments on the pages, but got no response.

Because of low education levels and inexperience with the internet, the country is vulnerable to covert tactics, he told The Globe and Mail. “Even educated people can be manipulated. People aren’t sophisticated enough to know if the information is legitimate. People didn’t even know about these fake pages when they were voting.”

Alexandre Nhampossa, a Mozambican journalist, said he found anonymous Twitter accounts – created shortly before the election – that echoed the same messages as the fake Facebook pages, while disguising their origins by adding jokes and authentic news. “It was really well done,” he said. “I didn’t realize at first that it was an organized campaign.”

The illegal poll during the campaign was first published by a Russian organization, the International Anticrisis Center (IAC), and then widely promoted by the fake Facebook pages. Media reports have identified IAC as a branch of Mr. Prigozhin’s political operations. Many analysts have noted that the Mozambique poll cited implausible data and failed to publish any information about its methodology.

The leader of another Russian-backed organization has now confirmed his own role in the affair. Jose Matemulane, a 40-year-old Mozambican who studied at three Russian universities, is the head of AFRIC, the Association for Free Research and International Co-operation, which has sent observers to five African elections over the past 18 months. He told The Globe that he shared the poll with IAC and it was published because of a “misunderstanding.”

He insisted that the poll was legitimate, but confirmed that the methodology was not published.

The Facebook page of AFRIC’s Mozambique branch was among the pages removed by Facebook because of alleged connections to Mr. Prigozhin’s organization.

The Stanford Internet Observatory, in its report, said AFRIC is probably linked to Mr. Prigozhin. “The model of creating a fake or malign think tank is reflective of both Internet Research Agency and GRU information operations,” it said, referring to Mr. Prigozhin’s agency and the Kremlin’s military intelligence agency.

Dossier Center, an investigative team financed by Russian dissident and former billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, says it has obtained leaked Russian documents showing that AFRIC is a group of pro-Moscow loyalists with links to Russian political strategists. AFRIC’s election-observer missions are aimed at strengthening African rulers and boosting their legitimacy, Dossier Center said, citing the leaked documents.

AFRIC is clearly well-financed. One of its former election observers described how it routinely gave generous per-diem payments to the observers in U.S. dollars. But it seems to have no office in its home territory in Mozambique, and Mr. Matemulane – who describes himself as a university professor – meets people in cafés instead of an office, according to two people who had meetings with him.

Mr. Matemulane denies he is financed by Mr. Prigozhin. He said he received donations from another Russian businessman who is an expert in “political technology.”

Despite his denial of past connections, he told The Globe that he is working on a “memorandum of co-operation” for possible future work with IAC, the Prigozhin-linked organization. “Anything Russian is seen as bad, but why should it be so shameful?” he asked.

Mr. Tsandzana, the internet scholar, is skeptical of Mr. Matemulane’s sudden rise to political influence. “He is unknown in Mozambique,” he said. “He was used by others. We don’t know how to find the people who really lead these organizations. I feel that democracy is in danger – not just in Mozambique – and it’s going to get worse.”

He said Mozambique’s government must have co-operated with AFRIC, since it authorized AFRIC to provide 62 election observers in the October election – and it never prosecuted the organization for the illegal poll, despite the clear violation of the election law.

The Russian operation in Mozambique is part of a larger pattern of political and military activity across Africa. Facebook says similar fake pages in Libya and Sudan were traced back to Mr. Prigozhin. In both countries, his Wagner Group mercenaries have been active this year. The IAC also sent political strategists to South Africa this year to prepare a “disinformation campaign” against opposition parties, according to the Dossier Center, citing the leaked documents.

One young Mozambican man, whose name The Globe is keeping confidential because he fears retribution, described how he became an election observer for AFRIC without realizing its true identity. He joined the organization because he was jobless and was attracted by the possibility of travelling abroad. He thought AFRIC was an independent organization.

After a while, he realized that there were always Russian men in the backrooms of AFRIC’s observer operations in every country. He often heard Mr. Matemulane praising Russia in emotional terms.

But he didn’t realize the full extent of its Russian connections until late October, when he saw that Mr. Matemulane had been invited to a Kremlin-organized Russia-Africa summit in the Russian city of Sochi, along with dozens of African presidents and prime ministers.

He said he felt misled by AFRIC. The organization posed as a pro-Africa group, but it was actually pro-Russian, he said.

Since 2018, AFRIC has sent observers to elections in Zimbabwe, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa and Mozambique, often praising elections that Western observers had criticized.

Mr. Matemulane was featured on a panel at the Sochi summit and reportedly signed a “co-operation agreement” with a pro-Kremlin propaganda leader, Alexander Malkevich, who has been subjected to U.S. Treasury sanctions for his alleged role in interfering in elections.

Although there are only about two million regular users of Facebook in Mozambique, a country of 30 million people, those on Facebook include journalists, activists and others who can shape public opinion. The fake Russian pages may have helped create expectations of a landslide victory by the ruling party, making it easier for the party to inflate its vote total, as many analysts suspect it did.

“It created a narrative that Frelimo would win the election,” said Valy Bayano, a Mozambican human-rights activist.

“If there’s a foreign player with high technology and a history of manipulating elections, it becomes very troublesome for our democracy,” he said.

“You realize how fragile our country and our democracy can be.”

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