Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, Opinion: Russian hypocrisy and the death of a Zambian student in Ukraine

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. Photo by AP photographer, Salim Dawood.     


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

     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.


Read the full essay from Al Jazeera here.