Russia Turns to Prisons as it Searches for Military Manpower
Nemes Tarimo was given a choice: fight for Russia’s Wagner Group against Ukraine or face years in a Russian prison.
The lure of a pardon was too great for the 37-year-old Tanzania native to decline. Tarimo was an information communication technology student at the Russian Technological University in Moscow when he was jailed on drug-related charges in January 2021.
“Nemes informed me and some other family members about joining Wagner, and we advised him not to,” one of his relatives told the BBC.
Russia’s Federal News Agency reported that Tarimo died October 24 while on a combat mission in Ukraine. Tarimo’s family wasn’t notified until December, when they were informed by his friends. His body wasn’t returned to Tanzania until late January.
Similar deals have been made to African nationals held in Russian prisons as Kremlin forces struggle to overcome staunch Ukrainian resistance.
The story of Lemekani Nyirenda, a 23-year-old nuclear engineering student from Zambia, is similar to Tarimo’s. Nyirenda was recruited last year by Wagner while serving a more than nine-year prison sentence in Russia on a drug charge. He died in Ukraine in September.
In early January, a pro-Wagner cartoon included the image of a Wagner mercenary from Côte d’Ivoire; the fighter also was used in a propaganda video alongside Yevgeny Prigozhin, who founded the mercenary group.
In the video, the Ivorian mercenary, K. Aboya, says he joined Wagner to defend his second homeland. The comment seemed to please Prigozhin.
“We should give citizenship to these defenders of our country,” Prigozhin said in a report by France 24.
Prigozhin acknowledged that the Ivorian was recruited in prison.
“He said he was from the Ivory Coast and asked if we needed French translators,” Prigozhin said in the France 24 report. “I said, ‘First to the assault unit and if you survive, you will be a French interpreter.’”
In Côte d’Ivoire, Aboya worked as a taxi and bus driver. He left the country in 2014 or 2015 after taking out a bank loan to go to Russia.
“He wanted to ‘go on an adventure,’ to ‘look for himself,’ as we say here,” one of Aboya’s friends told France 24. “It was a way to start a new, peaceful life. Here we think that when you work abroad, you earn more money.”
In 2017, Aboya was arrested on charges of drug trafficking and faced an eight-year prison sentence.
Lukas Aubin, research director at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations and a Russian geopolitical analyst, said the video with Prigozhin was meant to inform other prisoners that fighting for Wagner will win their amnesty.
“You’d show an Ivorian soldier to give the impression that Russia is not isolated and has allies, especially in Africa, including on the ground,’ Aubin told France 24. “This is part of the current process of building alliances between Africa and Russia.”
The mercenary group is also reportedly recruiting fighters directly from the continent, including prisoners.
“Not only is Wagner recruiting individuals who want to sign up to earn money by fighting for Wagner in African states, but actually, they’re also bringing in prisoners, including rebels from the same groups that they’re actually helping to fight in countries like the Central African Republic (CAR),” Catrina Doxsee, of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told theworld.org.
Some of the CAR recruits were rebels held for attacking and killing CAR soldiers during an April 2022 assault.
“They [Wagner] said they needed urgent manpower in Mali and Ukraine,” a military officer, who works with CAR’s Army, told The Daily Beast. “I think more than 20 people we’ve been holding [for very serious crimes] have been released.”
In the CAR, Wagner mercenaries have increasingly operated independently from the Central African Armed Forces (FACA) and have participated in at least 50% of political violence events almost every month since May 2021, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Since December 2020, 70% of events involving Wagner without the presence of FACA forces have been acts of civilian targeting.
Wagner has been active in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Libya, Madagascar, Mali, Mozambique, Sudan and Zimbabwe.