Russian hypocrisy and the death of a Zambian student in Ukraine

Lemekhani Nyirenda’s life and death expose the fallacy of Russian anti-imperialist rhetoric on Africa.

Florence Nyirenda, mother of Lemekhani Nyireda, is comforted by family members at the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka, Zambia, Sunday, Dec. 11 2022. The body of a 23-year-old Zambian student who died while fighting for the Russian army in the war in Ukraine has been returned home. The body of Lemekani Nyirenda who was studying nuclear engineering in Russia before joining the military arrived at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka on Sunday. (AP Photo/Salim Dawood)
Florence Nyirenda, mother of Lemekhani Nyirenda, is comforted by family members at the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka after the body of her son was flown in from Russia, on December 11, 2022 [AP/Salim Dawood]

On December 11, the remains of 23-year-old Zambian citizen Lemekhani Nyirenda finally made it back home to his family. A month earlier, the Zambian government had released a statement on his death in Ukraine, which raised more questions than answers.

Subsequently, it became clear that Nyirenda, who studied in Russia before being imprisoned on drug charges, had signed up for the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary company, to fight in Ukraine in a bid to get a reduced sentence.

In a November 29 post on the Russian social media platform VKontakte, Wagner founder Evgeny Prigozhin claimed he spoke to Nyirenda, who allegedly told him he had volunteered because: “You, Russian, helped us Africans gain independence. When it was difficult for us, you stretched out a hand to us and continue to do this now. Wagner is saving thousands of Africans; going to war with you is paying back for at least some of our debt to you.”

But Nyirenda’s family has insisted on an investigation into his recruitment, suspecting he may have been coerced. They also say he was wrongfully convicted; he had been working as a courier to support himself while studying in Moscow but was stopped and searched by the police, who found a package he was carrying with drugs in it.

Nyirenda’s death and how the Russian government handled it speak to the glaring gap between Russian official rhetoric and how it treats Africans in reality. While it insists it has an anti-imperialist approach to Africa, Russia has no qualms about victimising Africans on the continent and within its own borders.

An ‘anti-imperialist’ force

As Russia became an international diplomatic pariah in the aftermath of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Africa’s importance to its foreign policy and public relations has grown. The Kremlin has worked hard to maintain an image as an anti-imperialist force that supports the African struggle against (neo)colonialism – something Prigozhin referenced in his alleged conversation with Nyirenda.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and various Russian government officials have also consistently made references to supposed Russian support for African states’ struggle against colonial powers. “Our country has always been on Africa’s side and has always supported Africa in its fight against colonialism,” he declared in June.

This rhetoric has been prominently featured in Russian media and official social media accounts. On December 2, for example, the English-language Twitter account of the Russian foreign ministry tweeted: “#Russia was among the few world powers that neither had colonies in #Africa or elsewhere nor participated in slave trade throughout its history. Russia helped, in every possible way, the peoples of the African continent to attain their freedom and sovereignty #EndSlavery.”

Attached was a picture of a popular Soviet-era political poster featuring an African man breaking the chains binding his hands along with the words: “Africa fights, Africa will win.”

The tweet reflects the Russian government’s claim that it maintains Soviet anti-imperialist policies towards the Global South. While engaging in an ideological conflict against the United States during the Cold War, the Soviet Union focused its resources on building a sphere of influence in Africa.

The Soviets supported various left-leaning governments and groups throughout the continent and supplied arms, military training, and funds to anti-colonial movements in Southern Africa, including Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. Soviet specialists went to various countries on the continent to train citizens of newly independent countries in governance, technology, and sciences. At the same time, the USSR invited thousands of African students to pursue higher education in various Soviet republics.

The Kremlin’s use of Soviet-African relations to craft an image of positive engagement with the continent has worked. African leaders and people have largely embraced the Russian narrative on the war in Ukraine.

During the UN General Assembly vote on a resolution calling for Russia to remove its troops from Ukraine in early March, of 35 countries that abstained, 17 were African; and one of the five that voted against was Eritrea.

Over the coming months, a number of African leaders welcomed Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to their countries and reiterated their support for Moscow.

The Russian government has also sought to blame the global food crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine on Kyiv – a narrative that has also been embraced by many Africans. In June, after receiving an official invitation from Putin, African Union President Macky Sall travelled to Russia to meet with the Russian president to discuss the grain shortages.

A few weeks later, Russia struck a deal with Ukraine and the UN to release grain blocked in Ukrainian ports. In official government rhetoric, the agreement was presented as a sign that Moscow protects African interests.

Extractive policies and racist views

But the Kremlin’s narrative on Africa belies a very different reality. Although it claims to support Africa’s struggles against former colonial and current neocolonial powers, Russia itself has engaged in predatory practices on the continent that smack of neocolonialism.

It is quite ironic that Prigozhin alleges Nyirenda saw the Wagner Group as a source for good given that it has been at the forefront of Moscow’s extractive policies in Africa. Wagner has become infamous in Sudan and the Central African Republic for both its hired guns and its involvement in illicit mining operations.

The group has also had a hand in military conflicts plaguing Libya, the Central African Republic, Mali and Mozambique. The United Nations has accused the Russian mercenaries of committing a host of human rights abuses, including harassment of civilians, wrongful detainment, torture and summary executions.

Russia does not treat Africans that much better within its own borders either. As Nyirenda’s case illustrates, Africans who come to Russia to study or work do not find the post-colonial, anti-imperialist paradise Moscow claims to be.

Africans have faced racism and anti-Black violence, which was particularly deadly in the 2000s and 2010s. In a 2006 report, Amnesty International said African students and asylum seekers they met in Russia “avoided going out after dark and one covered his face with a scarf so his skin colour was less conspicuous to passers-by”. They also detailed several murders of African students, including the 2004 stabbing of Bissau-Guinean student Amaru Antoniu Lima and the 2006 shooting of Senegalese student Lamsar Samba Sell.

In media reports, African students have shared stories of being denied service by taxi drivers, being barred from stores and clubs, seeing “Slavs only” requirements in rental ads, and being ignored when reporting violence against them to the police.

When African students trying to flee the Russian invasion faced racism in Ukraine, the Russian government took advantage, encouraging anti-Ukrainian sentiment among Africans by amplifying their stories. But the Russian authorities have remained largely silent on racism and discrimination within Russian borders.

Anti-Black racism in Russia, of course, is nothing new. Africans did not feel that much more welcome during Soviet times either, with African students often encountering racism and violence because of their skin colour. In 1963, African students staged a rare protest after the killing of a Ghanaian student allegedly due to his relationship with a white Soviet woman.

Like the miscegenation fears in the American South during the Jim Crow era, the Soviets wanted Africans to keep their distance from Slavic women. Mixed-race children often faced racist abuse and were called “Festival Children” and “Olympics children”, referring to international events during which foreign visitors supposedly fathered children with Soviet women.

This sentiment persisted after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ahead of the 2018 World Cup that Russia hosted, Tamara Pletneva, head of the State Duma Committee on Children, Women, and Family, reminded Russian women not to enter into relationships with visitors who were not of the same race.

Afro-Russians still routinely face racism in Russia. Russian-born footballer Bryan Idowu, who has played for multiple Russian football clubs, has been vocal about the racist abuse he faced on and off the field. Despite being a well-known player, he says he has been racially profiled by the police, routinely getting stopped and searched.

In June 2020, amid the Black Lives Matter protests pressing for an end to institutional racism in the United States and Western Europe, a viral video of a Russian taxi driver refusing service to an African student highlighted just how little the Russian public was ready for such conversations. After the driver was fired by the company he worked for, an online campaign in his support was launched under the hashtag #RussianLivesMatter.

Meanwhile, Maria Magdalena Tunkara, an Afro-Russian blogger who tried to explain BLM to her Russian audience, faced a new wave of online harassment and death threats.

In this context, Lemekhani Nyirenda’s life in Russia and his death in Ukraine are representative of Russia’s two-faced approach to Africa and Africans. While the Russian presence in Africa is very much extractive and Russian views of it quite racist, the continent continues to buoy Russia’s international reputation, just as it did during the Cold War.

Moscow launders its reputation through African need. Many African states depend on Russian agricultural exports or on Russian military training and supplies and have few reasons to turn against it.

Until there is a concerted and focused Western effort to improve relations with the continent that includes reckoning with the long-lasting impacts of European and US imperialism, Russia will continue to have an outsized influence in Africa and will continue to downplay and ignore the anti-African racism and xenophobia in its midst.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.