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How African Students Became Pawns In Russia’s Election Trolling Scheme

In 2016 Russian agents approached Nigerian students in Moscow hoping they’d help convince American blacks Hillary Clinton was a “racist bitch.” Clumsy? Yes. But typical.

Philip Obaji Jr.12.17.17 12:00 AM ET

CALABAR, Nigeria—You may recall those wannabe YouTube stars Williams and Kalvin Johnson, two black bloggers who went after Hillary Clinton with a vengeance last year, claiming to offer “a word of truth” to black audiences in the United States. They called her, among other things, an “old racist bitch,” and a “witch,” and “sick in the head.”

As for Donald Trump, the Johnsons proclaimed they would vote for him “because any businessman cannot be a racist because when you are a racist, then your business is going down.”

Where did these words of “truth” really come from?

As The Daily Beast revealed in October, they were part of the extensive Russian-backed campaign to discredit Clinton and if possible get Trump elected.

Finally, in August this year, the Williams and Kalvin content was pulled from Facebook and their Twitter account was suspended after it was identified as Russian government backed propaganda. Their YouTube channel was taken down by Google after The Daily Beast published its investigation.

But where did the Johnsons themselves come from? They claimed on Facebook that they were living in Atlanta, and they signed on to one Facebook group, “#BlackLivesMatter against #PoliceBrutality.” But nobody has been able to find them in Atlanta.

They said they were originally from Owerri, Nigeria— and they do have southeastern Nigerian Igbo accents—but we have been unable to find them there, either.

What The Daily Beast has discovered, however, is that the Johnsons were not the only Nigerians contacted by Russians who may have been looking for black avatars to influence the American political scene. The goal was to get Trump elected if possible, or to mount a sustained effort discrediting Clinton if she had won.

IN OCTOBER 2016, a month before the U.S. presidential elections, two men who claimed to be independent political and public affairs journalists with programs they said aired on RT, a Russian Television network funded by the Kremlin, met three Nigerian students studying in universities around Moscow to discuss Hillary Clinton and the U.S. presidential elections.

The informal encounter was at an outdoor restaurant in the Tverskaya area of the Russian capital where black students, especially those from Nigeria, often like to hang out. The friends had gathered for dinner and were talking in loud voices when the Russians met them.

One those students told The Daily Beast the men were in the restaurant for about half an hour, and were eavesdropping on the conversation the Nigerians were having about the political situation in their own country, before they walked up to their table.

“It wasn’t a planned meeting,” said the student, who wanted to be identified as Coby. Or, at least, it did not seem to be. “We were just discussing and having fun when these two men came to us and said they wanted to have a friendly conversation.”

“They were both dressed in black suits and ties,” Coby said. “Initially we thought they were detectives.”

According to Coby, the so-called journalists introduced themselves as Sergei and Aleksandr and said they’ve each been active in the media for over two decades and are contributors to a number of Russian outlets.

“They were both dressed in black suits and ties,” Coby said. “Initially we thought they were detectives.”

The journalists gave the young men the impression that they wanted to know what they thought about Russia and what kind of influence the country has on foreigners and vice-versa, and if they thought Russia was playing an influential role in global affairs.

The men started by asking the students about their stay, activities and concerns in the country. But as the discussion progressed, the Russians began to digress a little bit.

“At some point they asked about Nigeria and the political situation there,” Coby said.  “Then they moved over to issues concerning U.S. politics and the candidates for the presidential elections.”

Once the students began to analyse Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and their chances in the elections, Sergei asked the students who their preferred choice was.

“Everyone said it was Clinton,” Coby said. “Then the journalists said they were surprised about the choice of Clinton because, from their findings, she wasn't popular among Nigerians.”

The Russians tried to convince the students that most Nigerians disliked Clinton, and to make them believe so, Aleksandr brought out his phone showed the students a video of Williams and Kalvin, whom he referred to as “Nigerian students” telling “the truth” about Clinton.

“In the video, one of the boys referred to Clinton as a killer,” Coby recalls. “In another one he said she was a racist and a witch.”

But nothing of what Williams and Kalvin said on video convinced the Nigerians. The students kept arguing in favor of Clinton, even as Sergei and Aleksandr insisted that some points raised by the anti-Clinton rappers should not be overlooked.

The conversation ended at this point, but just before the journalists left, they told the students that they were going to create a platform for them to air their views on video concerning the American candidates. In the event, that was the last time Coby or his friends heard from them.

“They never called even after taking some of our phone numbers,” Coby said. “Maybe they thought there was no point in doing so since they couldn't force us [to agree with the points raised by Williams and Kalvin].”

OF THE HUNDREDS of Nigerian students in Russia, many are very vocal. In recent years, some have taken to the streets to protest non fulfilment of their government's obligations in the award of scholarship. Others have used the media to express their grievances on a number of issues, including racism, in Russia.

Each year, hundreds of Nigerians enroll in Russia’s institutions of higher learning, many of them on scholarships sponsored by state governments in Nigeria. The Russian government, in partnership with the federal government of Nigeria, also grants scholarships to close to a hundred Nigerian students on a yearly basis, but it pays only the tuition fee while the Nigerian government is responsible for stipends and airfares to Russia and back home at the end of their studies.

“For over a year, Nigerian students on scholarship in Russia have not been paid their $500 a month stipend by the Nigerian government, and many are forced to beg to survive,” Christian Anozie, editor of Events Diary International, a Nigerian magazine that focuses on the activities of Nigerians abroad, told The Daily Beast. “Russian officials would want to take advantage of their situation by offering them incentives to do their dirty jobs. Who knows, it may have been the case with Williams and Kalvin.”

In October, Nigerian federal lawmakers said the situation of Nigerian students in Russia was “not acceptable,” with Senate President Bukola Saraki admitting that some students are involved in “illegal activities” because of the hardships they face.

“It's activities like those of Williams and Kalvin, who do dirty jobs for the Kremlin, that Nigerians see as illegal,” said Anozie. “Unfortunately, they may not be the only Nigerians doing such jobs for the Russians.”

Another Nigerian student in Moscow said he also saw the Williams and Kalvin video in October last year, and it was shown to him by a Russian classmate who is an active campaigner for United Russia, the political party of Putin.

His Russian classmate is “someone who terribly dislikes Clinton but is so in-love with Putin and Trump,” the student told The Daily Beast. “He wanted to convince me that Nigerians didn’t want Clinton as the American president.”

Requests for comment from Williams and Kalvin through their Facebook accounts went unreturned, and efforts to reach out to their Facebook friends also did not receive a response.

Nonetheless, by referring to them as Nigerian students, the Russian journalists, who tried to convince Coby and the other Nigerians in Russia of Clinton’s incompetence, may have given us an important clue about how these mysterious Nigerian rappers came to do the Kremlin’s bidding.

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