Aaron Ross on report on how Russia moved into Central Africa
In an insightful report, Reuters detailed how Russia is expanding its military presence across Africa, signing cooperation agreements with nearly 20 countries, supplying arms and offering advice. The story, by West Africa Correspondent Aaron Ross, reported that since Western nations sanctioned Russia for annexing Crimea in 2014, Moscow has signed 19 military cooperation deals in sub-Saharan Africa, including with Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Aaron offers a behind-the-scenes look at how he landed the scoop.
Q. How did you get started on this story?
A. I first started to see reports about Russian soldiers being deployed to Central African Republic at the start of the year. That piqued my interest in what was behind the move and what else Russia might be doing in Africa. I quickly realized that Russia’s activity on the continent was much more extensive than commonly known – militarily but also in terms of trade and diplomacy.
Q. What types of reporting were involved?
A. Most of the reporting involved speaking to sources knowledgeable about CAR and the U.N. Security Council, which signed off on the Russian arms shipment. For the latter, I got some major help from our U.N. Bureau Chief Michelle Nichols. I also spent a considerable amount of time going through Russian government websites to catalogue military cooperation agreements with African governments and other activities in Africa. Additionally, I looked at U.N. trade data to help illustrate the commercial side of the rise of new powers in Africa like Russia, China, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Q. What was the hardest part of the reporting?
A. The main challenge was nailing down important details with my sources. Russia’s presence in CAR is a relatively sensitive topic, and a lot of people in a position to know things were not willing to go on the record. So that required casting a wide net and keeping after it until I had enough to stand up the story. There were also number of stories about Russia’s activities in Africa that came out while I was reporting the story – particularly after three Russian journalists were killed in CAR in July – so I needed to make sure I had something genuinely new to say on the matter.
Q. Why was this an important story to tell our customers?
A. Power dynamics in Africa are undergoing significant changes, with Russia, China, India, Turkey, the UAE and others all muscling in on terrain once dominated comfortably by the United States and former colonial powers. That has wide-reaching implications, from pure power politics to trade and investment. The story focused mostly on Russia, but it highlights larger trends, including the U.S.’s waning influence in Africa, that will continue to play out for years to come.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?
A. For me, being a journalist is more than anything else an exercise in satisfying my own curiosity. It means getting to talk to people, ask questions and travel to places I wouldn’t be able to in another line of work. Sometimes the questions are well-received, sometimes not, but I enjoy the entire process of trying to piece together different elements into a coherent whole. Hopefully readers also find the end product interesting, and that’s a nice bonus.
Q. What is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A. I cover 23 countries in West and Central Africa. It’s a region with a tremendously diverse range of stories, from political wrangling and armed conflict to innovative business initiatives and cultural events. Stories here are often much more complicated than they seem at first. Particularly in Congo, where I worked for three years before moving to Dakar, there’s rarely a single straightforward version of events. That can be frustrating but it’s also extremely fulfilling to try to make sense of it all – and sometimes get to the bottom of it!
Q. What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A. Cracking a complicated story – cutting through the rumours and disinformation – can be very rewarding. A story I did last year about two U.N. workers I knew who were murdered in central Congo comes to mind. Using phone logs and other materials from a prosecutor’s file we got a hold of, another journalist and I revealed that an informant working for Congo’s national intelligence agency had helped plan the U.N. workers’ fatal mission. None of the Congolese or foreign investigations into the case had shed much light on what had happened. It was satisfying, if obviously bittersweet, to be able to bring that information into the open. Subjects like that can also be very difficult. There’s a lot of frankly horrendous violence on a near daily basis in several of the countries I cover. That requires speaking to both victims and perpetrators – and both of those experiences can be difficult, although in different ways.
Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A. I contemplated some other professions like the foreign service and law when I was in college, but I do have a hard time these days imagining myself doing anything else. There are a number of careers that appeal to me in one way or another but nothing else that checks all the boxes. I get to write for a living, travel widely, speak to interesting people, work alongside other interesting people, and I don’t have to wear a suit to the office! What more could I ask for?