From bus driver to soldier in Ukraine: The journey of an imprisoned Ivorian recruited by Wagner Group

We investigated this Ivorian mercenary who appears as a cartoon character in a propaganda clip attributed to the group Wagner (left) and in a video in which he appears alongside Yevgeny Prigozhin (right). Both clips were published in January 2023.
We investigated this Ivorian mercenary who appears as a cartoon character in a propaganda clip attributed to the group Wagner (left) and in a video in which he appears alongside Yevgeny Prigozhin (right). Both clips were published in January 2023. © Observers

A video posted in early January 2023 showed the leader of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner with a mercenary who was described as Ivorian. By analysing posts shared on social networks and talking to people who knew him at different times in his life, the FRANCE 24 Observers team managed to discover the mercenary's identity and retrace his journey. It all began as an Ivorian bus driver who came to Russia "to find a better life" and was sentenced to prison for drug trafficking, from where he was allegedly recruited by the Wagner Group.


His face began raising questions on social media on January 1, 2023, when a video was shared online showing Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner Group. It was published by the Russian news agency Ria Novosti and then shared on Twitter, Telegram and Facebook.

The oligarch and founder of the Russian mercenary group appeared next to a man "from the Ivory Coast", despite the man himself asserting that he comes from Moscow. 

In the video, the mercenary says he joined Wagner to "defend" his second homeland, even though he "does not yet" have Russian citizenship.

"We should give citizenship to these defenders of our country," Prigozhin said. 

According to the Ria Fan news agency, run by Prigozhin himself, the mercenary had fought near Bakhmut, a town in eastern Ukraine that has been at the heart of the conflict since August 2022.

Prigozhin, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin, also describes in the video the way that the Ivorian was recruited, apparently from prison.

"He said he was from the Ivory Coast and asked if we needed French translators. I said, 'First to the assault unit and if you survive, you will be a French interpreter'. He is alive and well, thank God," Prigozhin smiled.

He doesn't mention, however, why the man was incarcerated. "You should ask how he fought, not why he was in prison," Prigozhin said.

The Wagner Group, a private Russian paramilitary group, has been operating outside the law since 2014. The group has deployed around 50,000 mercenaries to Ukraine, according to the US National Security Council.

A future 'great president of the Ivory Coast'

Yevgeny Prigozhin released more information about the mercenary on January 4, via a post on his company Concord's press service page on VKontakte. He said the man's name is Aboya.

"I think he will make a great president of the Ivory Coast. But he doesn't know it yet. I will discuss these plans with him later," wrote the Wagner boss. 

The Ivorian mercenary also appears – this time as a cartoon character – in a propaganda clip criticising the French presence in Africa. The clip was attributed to the Wagner Group and shared on social networks on January 14, 2023. 

In the video, French soldiers depicted as skeletons attack the Ivory Coast, which is then defended by soldiers from African armies and the Wagner Group. Among them is a man with the flag of the Ivory Coast and the name "K. Aboya" on his nametag.

Screenshot of a cartoon attributed to the Wagner Group featuring an Ivorian soldier with the name "K. Aboya".
Screenshot of a cartoon attributed to the Wagner Group featuring an Ivorian soldier with the name "K. Aboya". © Observers

But who is this mercenary? And how did an Ivorian end up fighting in the ranks of the Wagner Group in Ukraine? Thanks to the comments under some of the posts featuring the video and to open source tools, it was possible to determine his identity. This was confirmed to us by five of his relatives, all of whom requested anonymity.

When contacted by the FRANCE 24 Observers team, the man did not respond to our requests. For security reasons, we will not publish his first and last name and we will refer to him here as "A". 

Taxi and bus driver in Abidjan

Originally from the east of Côte d'Ivoire, A had been living in Yopougon, a suburb west of Abidjan. 

One of his former colleagues remember him starting work as a taxi driver in the early 2000s. He then joined SOTRA, the Société des Transports Abidjanais (Abidjan Transport Company), in 2008 as a "machinist", the title given to bus drivers. He was assigned to the bus depot in Cocody, a suburb north of Abidjan, according to several other drivers.

On his Facebook page, there are plenty of posts showing this period of his life. Some show the buses parked in what seems to be a depot, for example, or colleagues driving their buses. In another post, he complains about passengers leaving graffiti on the bus.

A screenshot of one of A's Facebook posts from 2014 showing SOTRA buses.
A screenshot of one of A's Facebook posts from 2014 showing SOTRA buses. © Observers

To supplement his salary, he also ran side businesses, such as a video store, where he showed movies, and PlayStation lounges, where people could come play video games.

Those who knew him during this time described him as a "quiet, smiling, cheerful guy" and a "respectful young man".

Setting off on "an adventure" to Russia

A left Ivory Coast in 2014 or 2015, 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 his former friends explained to our team. "It was a way to start a new, peaceful life. Here we think that when you work abroad, you earn more money."

"He left to see new horizons, like many young Ivorians who want to try their luck in Europe," another of his acquaintances also reported.

On his Facebook page, his first post geo-located in Russia dates from August 1, 2015. Several photos show him in Moscow, in front of the State Historical Museum in December 2015, filming the snow in January 2016, on Red Square or in the Evropeyskiy shopping centre in July 2016.

Screenshot of a post shared on A's Facebook account in 2016, showing him in Moscow's Red Square.
Screenshot of a post shared on A's Facebook account in 2016, showing him in Moscow's Red Square. © Observers

In Russia, he started going by another name, as his VKontakte profile shows.

He was employed for about a year as a taxi driver in a company run by another Ivorian, whom he met through mutual friends. Several photos published on his Facebook account show him beside or inside a car.

Screenshot of a post shared on A's Facebook account in 2015.
Screenshot of a post shared on A's Facebook account in 2015. © Observers

According to a relative who knew him in Moscow, he "liked Russia" where he earned more money than in Ivory Coast. He reportedly talked about "settling down there".

Photos posted on his Facebook profile show him with other Ivorians, but also with Russians, including at football matches he occasionally attended.

Drug trafficking

But in Russia, A is also said to have started dealing drugs, as one of his former friends told the FRANCE 24 Observers team. According to the friend, this decision was partly motivated by the difficulty of working within the legal framework as a foreigner. 

This is what led him to Russian prisons. In a video dated August 10, 2017 published on the Moscow police's YouTube channel, he appears in the back of a car, next to a policeman.  

The representative of the Russian interior ministry who speaks in the video claims that the police found "182 rolls" containing "marijuana", or 100 grams of the substance, during their search. The man, described as "from West Africa", reportedly "denied any involvement with the drugs found". 

"The criminal case was opened under the article of attempted sale of narcotic substances. The article provides for up to eight years imprisonment," the journalist explains in the video.

Screenshot of a video shared by Moscow police documenting the arrest of a man "from West Africa" who was allegedly in possession of marijuana.
Screenshot of a video shared by Moscow police documenting the arrest of a man "from West Africa" who was allegedly in possession of marijuana. © Observers

Russian prison

He was sentenced to a prison term, where life was "difficult", according to a relative he spoke to while there. It is there that he is said to have improved his command of Russian, explaining the proficiency he showed in the recently shared video.

According to information published on January 2, 2023 on the Telegram channel of, an initiative launched by human rights activist Vladimir Ossetchkine, A was held in the IK-7 penal colony of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service in Mordovia, a region located 600 km east of Moscow. 

He was allegedly recruited by the Wagner Group "on the night of September 20", along with a group of other inmates, according to Gulagu, an organisation that aims to combat torture and corruption in the Russian prison system. The men were then reportedly "taken to an airfield, where a military IL-76 of the Russian ministry of defence's flight unit was waiting for them."

The Gulagu site has printed testimonies of employees from this prison who reported incidents to its hotline.

"Progozhin and his entourage arrived at the Mordovia Federal Penitentiary Service. He [Prigozhin] was in the penitentiary colonies IK-7, IK-17, maybe elsewhere. [...] In IK-7, out of about 180 people, about 120 personal files [detainees] were taken," reads a message from September 17, 2022.

"In Mordovia's IK-7: as of today, 19/09/2022, about 80 people have already been relocated to a separate barracks," another message reads.

However, there is no information about the agreement that the Ivorian made with the Wagner Group. Did he sign up for a specific period of time? What reward was promised to him? Some of his friends and family see this commitment as a way of "getting out of prison" or "obtaining a Russian passport", but there is no certainty.

In any case, these acquaintances say they were "surprised" when they saw the video.

Ivorian foreign ministry 'awaiting' clarification

The Ivorian government spokesman Amadou Coulibaly said on January 4 that "the ministry of foreign affairs will certainly address this issue".

"He is an Ivorian citizen who, even if he has committed an offence and was in prison, should benefit from the support of the Ivorian state. But given the conditions in which he is – in a war situation – it is very difficult for us to use diplomatic relations," he also said.

We reached out to the spokesperson for the Ivorian ministry of foreign affairs, who told us on January 17, that the ministry was "awaiting further information" on the case but that "none of its diplomatic missions had been formally informed of the case or the desire of an Ivorian to participate in this kind of military operation".

Death of a Tanzanian and Zambian recruited by Wagner

But as the spokesperson told us, this isn't the first time that an African has been recruited by Wagner. In the past few months, there have been several documented cases of Africans fighting in the ranks of the Wagner Group.

On January 24, 2023, Tanzanian authorities announced that a Tanzanian student fighting for Russia had been killed in Bakhmout. Wagner had recruited him from prison, where he was serving a sentence for drug possession. He had agreed to serve six months on the front line in exchange for his sentence being erased.

In September 2022, another African student, also recruited by Wagner from prison where he was too serving a drug-related sentence, died in Ukraine. He was from Zambia.

It has become clear that Russian prisons are now a major source of recruitment for the Wagner Group. A video posted in September 2022 showed Prigozhin recruiting mercenaries from the Mari El prison in Russia. 

And videos like this serve a purpose. According to Lukas Aubin, research director at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) and Russian geopolitical analyst, these videos "let prisoners know that if they want to serve their sentence faster, they can engage with Wagner".

'Giving the impression that Russia is not isolated'

So why would Prigozhin want to appear in a video next to an Ivorian mercenary? According the Aubin, the Ivorian is above all a "symbol".

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. This is part of the current process of building alliances between Africa and Russia.

In reality, even if it is difficult to estimate, the images we've seen don't show a massive phenomenon: it seems like there are not many foreign fighters. Moreover, this mercenary is of African origin, but he was recruited in a Russian prison.

So this video is also a way to create a call for other fighters from Africa to join the Wagner group.

The researcher thinks that Prigozhin may be trying to "hide the struggles the Wagner Group encountered on the ground", when it was at the forefront of an attempt to take the town of Bakhmut. Wagner lost 4,000 soldiers in the battle, according to US estimates reported by CNN.

'Putting pressure on Ivorian authorities'

But for Colin Gérard, a researcher at the Geode Institute, this video also has a specific target: the Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara, who has set himself up as an adversary of the paramilitary group.

Since its arrival in Mali, the Wagner Group has presented Ivory Coast and President Ouattara as one of their next targets. This is clearly seen in the recently shared cartoon attributed to the Wagner Group [see above].

The video can therefore be interpreted as a way of putting pressure on the Ivorian authorities by showing them that they have Ivorians in their ranks. It is also in this sense that we can understand Prigozhin's comment that this mercenary will make 'a very great president'.

This video may also be part of Yevgeny Prigozhin's attempts to bolster him public image and status. 

Prigozhin started to build up his status as a public figure in 2019, with the creation of the press service of his company Concord, but we have seen a real explosion of communications from the Wagner Group since the beginning of the Russian invasion [in Ukraine].

This war is an opportunity for him to put himself forward, and to show himself as a true Russian patriot, by taking advantage of the weaknesses of the Russian army. This has made him enemies, because in the ministry of defence and in the Russian intelligence services, people are beginning to fear that he is gaining too much power.

Recruits from Russian prisons are believed to account for 40,000 of Wagner's 50,000 members, according to December 2022 estimates by White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

According to Olga Romanova, journalist and president of the NGO Russia Behind Bars, which advocates for prisoners' rights, about 50,000 prisoners have been recruited to date, but "only 10,000" are still fighting, as "the rest have either been killed or wounded, or went AWOL, or deserted, or surrendered".