by Chris Chatteris SJ
I happened to be in Lusaka where on Wednesday, 27 January, Lemekani Nathan Nyirenda, the young Zambian student recruited from a Russian prison into the Wagner mercenary army fighting in Ukraine, was buried in Rufunsa, east of the capital. According to Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group, Nyirenda chose to fight to ‘repay (Africa’s) debts’ to Russia, and he ‘died a hero’. The same tragic fate overtook a Tanzanian national, Nemes Tarimo, in October last year.
It is impossible to let the statement of a sinister oligarch like Prigozhin go unchallenged. Russia supported African independence movements, but how many Russians laid down their lives for these noble causes? Furthermore, Russian support of African independence movements was never entirely selfless – much of the motivation was about countering the influence of the Western countries on the African Continent. Let us not be sentimental about it – Africa was a plaything of the protagonists of the Cold War, not a spontaneous outbreak of Afrophilia.
In addition, we should not forget that it was the whole of the Soviet Union which was on the side of African independence, rather than just Russia and that the Soviet Union in those days included Ukraine. So how could Nyirenda and Tarimo repay Africa’s debts to Ukrainians by fighting against them?
The heroism of these two young men is rather to be found in the fact that they overcame their fears of the mortal dangers that awaited them in the terrible ‘meat-grinder’ of the Russian-Ukrainian war. And one can only imagine how brutal life among the hardened felons the Wagner group has been hauling out of Russia’s prisons must have been.
However, the two young men went ahead anyway, motivated by the promise of ultimate freedom, a return home and perhaps also by the prospect of some financial compensation for their families, whether they survived or not. We can only hope that the Russian state will honour any such promises made.
It is doubtful whether these will be the last foreign Wagner recruits to fall in this conflict. Military analysts are divided about how long the conflict will last. However, the prospect of a long war will require the Putin regime, which is losing soldiers at a mind-numbing rate, to scour the ‘Russian world’ for even more cannon fodder. Interestingly but very sadly, ethnic minorities in the Russian Federation have already borne the brunt of the losses.
And when it comes to mercenaries like the Wagner group, one must remember that for the leaders like Prigozhin, their raison d’être is war itself. When the war ends, their ‘business’ becomes redundant, and their power and influence in the Russian political system is diminished. Hence it is in the interests of the Prigozhins to keep the conflict going, and the longer it goes on, the more cannon fodder they will require.
Putin is now caught in this trap of the need to prolong the conflict. His political career has become totally identified with the war, and if he loses it, his career, and perhaps his life, will be over. But it is also almost certain that he cannot win the war decisively against the arrayed forces of the Western economies and their output of superior weaponry. Hence his best option for survival is to draw out the war at a low level of intensity and hope for an eventual victory of sorts.
Meanwhile, as these cold, power merchants play their long political and military games, the cannons will consume many young men, including perhaps more young Africans.