During a trip to Bouaké (Сôte d’Ivoire), I met Irina, the owner of the only Russian restaurant in the region. Her story, so different from those of entrepreneurs who seek to expand Moscow's geopolitical influence in Africa, offers alternative perspective on Russia’s presence in Africa.
Walking the dusty streets of Bouaké, the former capital of the rebels in the north of Côte d'Ivoire, I ran into Irina, the owner “The Datcha, Russian-Ivorian Specialties,” a small local restaurant. Bouaké, the third-largest city in Côte d'Ivoire, is a regional commercial crossroads in the center of the country, linking the coastal regions to the Sahel, via roads where jihadist incursions are increasingly common. Cars are rarer than in the south of the country, buildings are humbler, and roads are sandier. Further north, in Mali, one can find a significant Russian presence, but not here.
Russia is generally viewed unfavorably by Ivorian authorities, who see Moscow's influence as a potential security concern. The current president of Côte d'Ivoire, Alassane Ouattara, enjoys a political position that is not conducive to rapprochement with Russia. A former opponent of Laurent Gbagbo, who was once indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, Ouattara is a Western ally in the region.
Against the backdrop of his problematic relationship with France, Russian narratives accusing Western countries of imperialism and colonialism in the region are readily used by his opponents. For instance, the Russian news agency Sputnik published several articles that were widely circulated on social media, portraying France as the main culprit behind Ouattara's victory in 2011. At the same time, supporters of Gbagbo or Guillaume Soro, Bouaké's former strongman now living in exile, are sensitive to the rhetoric of pan-Africanist influencers backed by Moscow, such as Kemi Seba or the Swiss-Cameronese Nathalie Yamb, who calls herself "the Lady of Sochi" because of her participation in the Africa-Russia Forum there in 2019.
In Bouaké, the former capital of the rebels during the politico-military crisis (the period of instability and civil war that the country experienced between 2002 and 2007 and then again in 2011–2012), the authorities' distrust of Russia is complemented by a distrust of the local population, which is always suspected of betraying something. For example, a man suspected of running a highly influential fake Twitter account was recently arrested under murky circumstances.
It was in this incongruous setting, where the reddish dust from the Sahel causes breathtaking twilights, that I discovered this dacha in the bush, and met its owner Irina. Her story, which she shared without hesitation, opens a little-known page of the Russian presence in West Africa, far from the militias and other contractors who are busy restoring Moscow's geopolitical influence there. Irina's story dates back from way before the Wagner Private Military Company, its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, or others doing their business there.