On December 11, the stays of 23-year-old Zambian citizen Lemekhani Nyirenda lastly made it again dwelling to his household. A month earlier, the Zambian authorities had launched an announcement on his demise in Ukraine, which raised extra questions than solutions.
Subsequently, it turned clear that Nyirenda, who studied in Russia earlier than being imprisoned on drug costs, had signed up for the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary firm, to battle in Ukraine in a bid to get a lowered sentence.
In a November 29 submit on the Russian social media platform VKontakte, Wagner founder Evgeny Prigozhin claimed he spoke to Nyirenda, who allegedly informed him he had volunteered as a result of: “You, Russian, helped us Africans achieve independence. When it was tough for us, you stretched out a hand to us and proceed to do that now. Wagner is saving hundreds of Africans; going to conflict with you is paying again for not less than a few of our debt to you.”
However Nyirenda’s household has insisted on an investigation into his recruitment, suspecting he might have been coerced. Additionally they say he was wrongfully convicted; he had been working as a courier to assist himself whereas learning in Moscow however was stopped and searched by the police, who discovered a bundle he was carrying with medication in it.
Nyirenda’s demise and the way the Russian authorities dealt with it communicate to the obvious hole between Russian official rhetoric and the way it treats Africans in actuality. Whereas it insists it has an anti-imperialist method to Africa, Russia has no qualms about victimising Africans on the continent and inside its personal borders.
An ‘anti-imperialist’ drive
As Russia turned a world diplomatic pariah within the aftermath of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Africa’s significance to its overseas coverage and public relations has grown. The Kremlin has labored onerous to take care of a picture as an anti-imperialist drive that helps the African wrestle in opposition to (neo)colonialism – one thing Prigozhin referenced in his alleged dialog with Nyirenda.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and varied Russian authorities officers have additionally constantly made references to supposed Russian assist for African states’ wrestle in opposition to colonial powers. “Our nation has at all times been on Africa’s facet and has at all times supported Africa in its battle in opposition to colonialism,” he declared in June.
This rhetoric has been prominently featured in Russian media and official social media accounts. On December 2, for instance, the English-language Twitter account of the Russian overseas ministry tweeted: “#Russia was among the many few world powers that neither had colonies in #Africa or elsewhere nor participated in slave commerce all through its historical past. Russia helped, in each doable method, the peoples of the African continent to realize their freedom and sovereignty #EndSlavery.”
Hooked up was an image of a well-liked Soviet-era political poster that includes an African man breaking the chains binding his palms together with the phrases: “Africa fights, Africa will win.”
The tweet displays the Russian authorities’s declare that it maintains Soviet anti-imperialist insurance policies in direction of the International South. Whereas participating in an ideological battle in opposition to the US in the course of the Chilly Conflict, the Soviet Union targeted its sources on constructing a sphere of affect in Africa.
The Soviets supported varied left-leaning governments and teams all through the continent and equipped arms, navy coaching, and funds to anti-colonial actions in Southern Africa, together with Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa within the Nineteen Seventies and Nineteen Eighties. Soviet specialists went to varied nations on the continent to coach residents of newly unbiased nations in governance, know-how, and sciences. On the identical time, the USSR invited hundreds of African college students to pursue larger training in varied Soviet republics.
The Kremlin’s use of Soviet-African relations to craft a picture of optimistic engagement with the continent has labored. African leaders and folks have largely embraced the Russian narrative on the conflict in Ukraine.
Throughout the UN Normal Meeting vote on a decision calling for Russia to take away its troops from Ukraine in early March, of 35 nations that abstained, 17 had been African; and one of many 5 that voted in opposition to was Eritrea.
Over the approaching months, various African leaders welcomed Russian overseas minister Sergey Lavrov to their nations and reiterated their assist for Moscow.
The Russian authorities has additionally sought in charge the worldwide meals disaster exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine on Kyiv – a story that has additionally been embraced by many Africans. In June, after receiving an official invitation from Putin, African Union President Macky Sall travelled to Russia to fulfill with the Russian president to debate the grain shortages.
Just a few weeks later, Russia struck a cope with Ukraine and the UN to launch grain blocked in Ukrainian ports. In official authorities rhetoric, the settlement was offered as an indication that Moscow protects African pursuits.
Extractive insurance policies and racist views
However the Kremlin’s narrative on Africa belies a really completely different actuality. Though it claims to assist Africa’s struggles in opposition to former colonial and present neocolonial powers, Russia itself has engaged in predatory practices on the continent that smack of neocolonialism.
It’s fairly ironic that Prigozhin alleges Nyirenda noticed the Wagner Group as a supply for good provided that it has been on the forefront of Moscow’s extractive insurance policies in Africa. Wagner has change into notorious in Sudan and the Central African Republic for each its employed weapons and its involvement in illicit mining operations.
The group has additionally had a hand in navy conflicts plaguing the Central African Republic, Mali and Mozambique. The United Nations has accused the Russian mercenaries of committing a number of human rights abuses, together with harassment of civilians, wrongful detainment, torture and abstract executions.
Russia doesn’t deal with Africans that significantly better inside its personal borders both. As Nyirenda’s case illustrates, Africans who come to Russia to review or work don’t discover the post-colonial, anti-imperialist paradise Moscow claims to be.
Africans have confronted racism and anti-Black violence, which was significantly lethal within the 2000s and 2010s. In a 2006 report, Amnesty Worldwide mentioned African college students and asylum seekers they met in Russia “averted going out after darkish and one coated his face with a shawl so his pores and skin color was much less conspicuous to passers-by”. Additionally they detailed a number of murders of African college students, together with the 2004 stabbing of Bissau-Guinean pupil Amaru Antoniu Lima and the 2006 capturing of Senegalese pupil Lamsar Samba Promote.
In media experiences, African college students have shared tales of being denied service by taxi drivers, being barred from shops and golf equipment, seeing “Slavs solely” necessities in rental adverts, and being ignored when reporting violence in opposition to them to the police.
When African college students making an attempt to flee the Russian invasion confronted racism in Ukraine, the Russian authorities took benefit, encouraging anti-Ukrainian sentiment amongst Africans by amplifying their tales. However the Russian authorities have remained largely silent on racism and discrimination inside Russian borders.
Anti-Black racism in Russia, after all, is nothing new. Africans didn’t really feel that rather more welcome throughout Soviet occasions both, with African college students typically encountering racism and violence due to their pores and skin color. In 1963, African college students staged a uncommon protest after the killing of a Ghanaian pupil allegedly as a result of his relationship with a white Soviet girl.
Just like the miscegenation fears within the American South in the course of the Jim Crow period, the Soviets wished Africans to maintain their distance from Slavic ladies. Combined-race youngsters typically confronted racist abuse and had been known as “Pageant Kids” and “Olympics youngsters”, referring to worldwide occasions throughout which overseas guests supposedly fathered youngsters with Soviet ladies.
This sentiment endured after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Forward of the 2018 World Cup that Russia hosted, Tamara Pletneva, head of the State Duma Committee on Kids, Ladies, and Household, reminded Russian ladies to not enter into relationships with guests who weren’t of the identical race.
Afro-Russians nonetheless routinely face racism in Russia. Russian-born footballer Bryan Idowu, who has performed for a number of Russian soccer golf equipment, has been vocal concerning the racist abuse he confronted on and off the sector. Regardless of being a well known participant, he says he has been racially profiled by the police, routinely getting stopped and searched.
In June 2020, amid the Black Lives Matter protests urgent for an finish to institutional racism in the US and Western Europe, a viral video of a Russian taxi driver refusing service to an African pupil highlighted simply how little the Russian public was prepared for such conversations. After the driving force was fired by the corporate he labored for, an internet marketing campaign in his assist was launched underneath the hashtag #RussianLivesMatter.
In the meantime, Maria Magdalena Tunkara, an Afro-Russian blogger who tried to clarify BLM to her Russian viewers, confronted a brand new wave of on-line harassment and demise threats.
On this context, Lemekhani Nyirenda’s life in Russia and his demise in Ukraine are consultant of Russia’s two-faced method to Africa and Africans. Whereas the Russian presence in Africa may be very a lot extractive and Russian views of it fairly racist, the continent continues to buoy Russia’s worldwide repute, simply because it did in the course of the Chilly Conflict.
Moscow launders its repute via African want. Many African states rely on Russian agricultural exports or on Russian navy coaching and provides and have few causes to show in opposition to it.
Till there’s a concerted and targeted Western effort to enhance relations with the continent that features reckoning with the long-lasting impacts of European and US imperialism, Russia will proceed to have an outsized affect in Africa and can proceed to downplay and ignore the anti-African racism and xenophobia in its midst.
The views expressed on this article are the writer’s personal and don’t essentially mirror Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.