By Richard Lamu

On June 15-16, world leaders will convene in Switzerland for the Ukraine Peace Conference in central Switzerland, aimed at securing comprehensive, just and lasting peace in Ukraine following Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022. The war has so far left devastating effects on Ukraine, while other parts of the world, including Africa, are also bearing the brunt.

Amidst preparations for the high-level peace conference came a shocking investigative report by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) which reveals deep-seated plans that give an indication that the Russia-Ukraine war may still be far from over. Young Africans are being lured into Alabuga city to work at a factory where drones are being made, and sadly, several of them were injured in a recent drone attack aimed at stopping the manufacture of enemy drones. Among those injured are young people from Zimbabwe. The Southern African country’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa last week met Russia’s Vladmir Putin during the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) where he clearly expressed displeasure with the West’s support of Zambia. 

Russia last week hosted the 27th St. Petersburg International Economic Forum attended by over 120 countries, among them Zimbabwe, where Putin revealed that the development of relations with African countries is Moscow’s priority.

This announcement by Putin comes on the backdrop of mercenary military group Wagner’s rebranding into what is now called Africa Corps, with the same modus operandi that aims to expand Russian influence on the continent.

Wagner Group Is Now Africa Corps

The meeting between Mnangagwa and Putin during the SPIEF and their subject of discussion reveal the European country’s African agenda. Russia’s push for more development cooperation with African countries also extends to the use of Wagner, a mercenary military group which has since rebranded into “Africa Corps”, present in Africa countries such as Chad, Central African Reublic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, among others. 

In August 2023, Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who had been Russia’s pointman in Africa since Wagner began its operations on the continent in 2017, died after his private jet crashed about an hour after taking off in Moscow. The focus of Wagner, now renamed Africa Corps by Russia’s defence ministry, is the deployment of paramilitary forces, running disinformation campaigns and propping up influential political leaders. Operations of the Africa Corps in Africa are now effectively under the direct supervision of the Russian ministry of defence. The choice of names – Africa Corps – is certainly a smokescreen for what Wagner has been known for for many years, as its mercenaries operating in Africa maintain their loyalty to Kremlin, reports say. 

Under Africa Corps, the new leadership of the Group is most likely going to uphold the distinctive modus operandi that included the intertwining of boots on the ground with propaganda and disinformation while pushing forward some economic interests in mining.

Mines and minerals expert Edward Simukonda has urged mineral-rich countries like Zambia to take immediate action to prevent the exploitation of their resources by the Africa Corps (Wagner Group).

“If we don’t stand up and act now, Africa is doomed, because we cannot fight them once we allow them in, we’re bound to lose,” he warned. 

Simukonda also noted that the new technology driving global development relies heavily on minerals mined in Africa, making it very crucial for African countries to come together and defend their lands against external threats. 

Simukonda’s concerns are justified considering Russia’s push to marshal as much support as possible from African countries that are mostly economically disadvantaged and weak on the democratic front.The fear on the continent lies in possibilities of Russia utilizing its influence to take charge of mineral explorations in countries undergoing some instability amidst human rights violations.  

In Central African Republic, Russia recently offered them diplomatic support, military and political assistance through Wagner after 20 years of politico-military crises. The result of this support was a campaign of terror, with Wagner affiliated mining companies being given mining licences and export permits.

Nason Msoni, leader of Zambia’s opposition All People’s Congress Party, has warned that Africa will suffer if it allows foreign forces like Africa Corps to invade and exploit their mineral-rich resources. He has cautioned Africans to be vigilant against institutions that promise peace “but actually bring harm. “There is need for careful consideration in such friendships to avoid potential harm to the nation,” he said.

Russia Hosts St. Petersburg International Economic Forum

During a meeting with Putin on the sidelines of the SPIEF, Mnangagwa told Putin that the west was consolidating its power in Zambia while his country was being ignored, remarks which have unsettled Zambians who feel the Zimbabwean leader’s comments were meant to appease Putin in his quest for financial support.  

Stanslous Kunda says in an interview that so much of what Mnangagwa claimed during his one-on-one close encounter with Putin appeared like he was “using his own domestic and desperate situation back home in his country to talk about more specifically Zambia that he was hanging to dry as a western puppet”.

He adds that “for an intelligent officer himself” to make careless in running his mouth like that was “shocking”.

The Ukraine Peace Summit

With ongoing aggression against Ukraine, the Peace Summit to be hosted by Switzerland aims to bring about a peace deal. It is unclear yet if Zambia and Zimbabwe will send representatives to the conference as foreign affairs officials declined to confirm.

However, Swiss President Viola Amherd said there was no guarantee the conference would be a success and that it would not immediately result in a peace deal.

“We will not sign a peace plan at this conference. We think there will be a second conference, but we want to start the process with this one,” she said.

Switzerland has been lobbying other states to encourage the broadest possible coalition to participate while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on April 6: “We expect to have 80 to 100 countries… this is the number of countries, I believe, that will be able to at least try to force Russia to a fair peace.”

Young Africans In Russia’s Alabuga

At the time Mnangagwa was doing the bidding for Zimbabwe before Putin at the SPIEF, some Zimbabweans had been victims of an attack in Alabuga where a large number of young African youths have been employed to produce enemy drones. The influx of youth into Alabugacomes amidst escalating tensions, as the area houses a facility for the licensed production of Iranian Shahed-series one-way attack drones, which are being used in the conflict against Ukraine. Russia has been accused of coercing young students into building drones for use in Ukraine. If confirmed, this could likely make the facility as well as the students working in it as a legitimate target for Ukraine.

Early May, an WSJ investigative report revealed that cellphone footage captured a Ukrainian unmanned aerial vehicle slowly winding toward its final destination in a new installment in the spreading drone wars, with a drone itself being used to hit a site where enemy drones were being made. This was in Alabuga, where young individuals from various African nations are converging seeking employment and education. 

The Alabuga authorities announced that students from Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya were to embark on training for new professions and commence Russian language lessons. Of specific interest is also the fact that young women between the ages of 18 and 22 are the ones being recruited. Investigations have been launched to determine why the specific age range of young African women is the target.

The strike resulted in injuries to nine individuals and impacted a dormitory within the Alabuga SEZ. Tatarstan’s regional head, Rustam Minnikhanov, assured that there was no significant damage and that the enterprises’ operations continued uninterrupted.

But a report by RIA Novosti indicated that citizens from nine countries, including Russia itself, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Republic of Congo, Kenya, Nigeria, Kyrgyzstan, Sri Lanka and South Sudan, were among the injured.

Memories are still too fresh about how Zambian student LemekaniNyirenda and Tanzania’s Nemes Tarimo were both killed while fighting for Russia in Ukraine. What remains to be known is how many more of the young Africans have been drafted into the Ukraine war using Russia’s mercenary group. 

So far, Zimbabwe and other African governments whose citizens were injured in the Alabuga drone attack have not issued any specific public diplomatic response as African nations have largely maintained neutrality in the conflict. 

The Alabuga incident also highlights another way the war in Ukraine affects Africans, apart from the recent deaths recorded involving twoyoung African students – Nyirenda and Tarimo – killed in the Ukraine war where they were fighting on behalf of Russia after being recruited by Wagner Group. Economic hardships and the promise of hefty payments and even citizenship may keep a lot of young Africans jumping on this ‘opportunity.’