Russian hypocrisy and the death of a Zambian student in Ukraine | Opinions

On December 11, the remains of 23-year-old Zambian citizen Lemekhani Nyirenda were finally returned to her family. A month earlier, the Zambian government had release a statement about his death in Ukraine, which raises more questions than it answers.

Then it became apparent that Nyirenda, who had studied in Russia before being jailed for drug charges, had signed up for the Wagner Corporation, a Russian mercenary company, to fight in Ukraine to get her sentence reduced.

29 post on Russian social media platform VKontakte, Wagner founder Evgeny Prigozhin claimed that he spoke with Nyirenda, who allegedly told him he volunteered for: “You, the Russian, helped us Africans achieve our independence. When we were in trouble, you reached out to us and continue to do this now. Wagner is saving thousands of Africans; to go to war with you is to pay back at least some of our debt to you.

But Nyirenda’s family insisted on an investigation into his recruitment, suspecting he might have been coerced. They also said that he had been wrongly convicted; He worked as a courier to make ends meet while studying in Moscow but was stopped and searched by the police, who found a package that he had drugs in it.

Nyirenda’s death and the way the Russian government has handled it speak volumes about the stark gap between Russia’s official rhetoric and its treatment of Africans in practice. Despite its assertion that it has an anti-imperialist approach to Africa, Russia has not hesitated to victimize Africans on the continent and within its borders.

‘Anti-imperialist’ force

As Russia became an abandoned diplomatic nation following its full-blown invasion of Ukraine, Africa’s importance to its foreign policy and public relations grew. The Kremlin has worked hard to maintain its image as an anti-imperialist force supporting the Africans’ struggle against (neo-colonialism) – something Prigozhin mentioned in the conversation. his accusations against Nyirenda.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and many Russian government officials have also repeatedly made references to Russia’s alleged support for the struggle of African nations against the colonial powers. . “Our country has always been on the side of Africa and has always supported Africa in its fight against colonialism,” he declared in June.

This allegation was featured prominently in Russian media and official social media accounts. For example, on December 2, the English-language Twitter account of the Russian Foreign Ministry tweeted: “#Russia is one of the few world powers that has no colonies in #Africa or elsewhere nor does it have a colony. engaged in the slave trade throughout its history. In every possible way, Russia has helped the peoples of the African continent achieve their freedom and sovereignty #EndSlavery.”

Attached is a popular Soviet-era political poster depicting an African man breaking the chains that bind his hands, along with the words: “Africa fight, Africa will win”.

The tweet reflects the Russian government’s claim that it upholds Soviet anti-imperialist policies towards the Southern Hemisphere. While engaged in 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 Soviet Union supported various governments and leftist groups across the continent and provided weapons, military training, and funding to anti-colonial movements in South Africa, including Angola, Mozambique and South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. Soviet specialists traveled to various countries on the continent to train citizens of the newly independent states in governance, technology and science. At the same time, the Soviet Union invited thousands of African students to pursue higher education in various Soviet republics.

The Kremlin’s use of ties between the Soviet Union and Africa to create a positive image of engagement with the continent worked. African leaders and people have largely accepted the Russian narrative of the war in Ukraine.

In the UN General Assembly vote for a resolution called on Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine in early March, out of 35 countries abstaining, 17 were African; and one of the five countries that voted against was Eritrea.

In the coming months, several African leaders have welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to their countries and reiterated their support for Moscow.

The Russian government has also sought to blame Kyiv for the global food crisis caused by the war in Ukraine – a story also accepted by many Africans. In June, after receiving an official invitation from PutinAfrican Union President Macky Sall traveled to Russia to meet with the Russian President to discuss grain shortages.

A few weeks later, Russia signed an agreement with Ukraine and the United Nations to release grain blocked at Ukrainian ports. In official government rhetoric, the agreement is presented as a sign that Moscow protects African interests.

Exploitation 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 the former colonial powers and the current new colonial powers, it is Russia that has engaged in predation activities on the continent that resonates with the world. of new colonialism.

It is ironic that Prigozhin accuses Nyirenda of seeing the Wagner Group as a source of profit because it has been at the forefront of Moscow’s mining policies in Africa. Wagner has become notorious in Sudan and the Central African Republic for both his use of rented firearms and his involvement in illegal activity. mining operations.

The group is also involved in the military conflicts raging in the Central African Republic, Mali and Mozambique. The United Nations has accused Russian mercenaries of committing a series of human rights violations, including harassment of civilians, wrongful detention, torture and mass executions.

Nor does Russia treat Africans better within its borders. As the case of Nyirenda illustrates, Africans who come to Russia to study or work do not find the post-colonial, anti-imperialist paradise that Moscow claims.

Africans have faced racism and anti-black violence, particularly deadly in the 2000s and 2010s. In a 2006 report, Amnesty International said students African agents and asylum seekers they meet in Russia “avoid going out at night and one covers his face with a scarf so that passers-by are less likely to notice the color of his or her skin”. 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 refused service by taxi drivers, being banned from shops and clubs, seeing “just for you” requests. Slavs” in rental ads and were ignored when reporting violence against them to the police.

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

Of course, anti-black racism in Russia is nothing new. Africans also did not feel more welcome in Soviet times, with African students regularly facing racism and violence because of the color of their skin. In 1963, African students organized a rare protest following the murder of a Ghanaian student attributed to his relationship with a white Soviet woman.

Like the fear of misbreeding in South America during the Jim Crow era, the Soviets wanted Africans to keep their distance from Slavic women. Mixed children often face racist abuse and are known as “Children of the Festival” and “Children of the Olympics”, referring to international events in which visitors Foreigners were supposed to have children with Soviet women.

This sentiment persisted after the collapse of the Soviet Union. On the eve of the 2018 World Cup that Russia is hosting, Tamara Pletneva, head of the State Duma Committee on Children, Women and Families, reminded Russian women not to have sex with tourists of different races.

Russians of African descent still regularly face racism in Russia. Russian-born footballer Bryan Idowu, who has played for several Russian football clubs, has spoken out about the racist abuse he has faced on and off the pitch. Despite being a famous player, he said he was profiled by the police for racism, and was regularly stopped and searched.

In June 2020, amid Black Lives Matter protests urging an end to apartheid in the United States and Western Europe, a viral video of a Russian taxi driver refused to serve a student. African members have shown how little the Russian public is willing. conversations. After the driver was fired by the company he worked for, an online campaign in support of him was launched with the hashtag #RussianLivesMatter.

While, Maria Magdalena TunkaraA Russian blogger of African descent, who was trying to explain BLM to his Russian audience, has faced a new wave of online harassment and death threats.

In this context, Lemekhani Nyirenda’s life in Russia and his death in Ukraine represent Russia’s twofold approach to Africa and Africans. While Russia’s presence in Africa is exploitative and Russia’s views on it are rather racist, the continent continues to enhance Russia’s international reputation, just as it did during the Cold War.

Moscow washed its reputation through the demands of Africans. Many African countries depend on Russian agricultural exports or on Russian military training and supplies and have little reason to resist it.

Until there is a concerted and focused Western effort to improve relations with the continent, including taking into account the long-term effects of European and American imperialism, Russia will continue to do so. continues to have too much influence in Africa and will continue to downplay and ignore opposition actions. African racism and xenophobia in its midst.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.


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