Blood and GoldHow the Sudanese are Dying for Putin’s War in Ukraine
Brian Latham reveals the role of Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin in the violence in Sudan
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Fighting in Sudan may yet influence the war in Ukraine because Sudanese gold smuggled by Russia’s Wagner mercenaries buys the weapons and munitions Russia needs. Wagner has been in Sudan since 2017, invited there by former dictator Omar al-Bashir.
Bashir had met Putin in Moscow that year and, sensing the Sudanese population was growing restive, offered investment opportunities to Russia in exchange for support. The ‘’investment’’ came in the form of a mining company, Meroe Gold, owned by Russia’s M-Invest. Both companies are sanctioned by the US government and the EU, and both are owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin – who also owns Wagner.
After Bashir’s ouster in the April 2019 coup, Wagner officials flirted with Sudan’s shaky Sovereign Council, now led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan who also commands Sudan’s official military. Relations between the Russian mercenaries and al-Burhan, a career soldier, broke down and Wagner began flirting with his deputy, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, more commonly known by his nickname, Hemedti.
Sudan’s current conflict pits al-Burhan against Hemedti, his deputy, and a former camel trader who joined the Janjaweed militia implicated in massacres in Darfur before becoming a professional soldier. With only three years of education, Hemedti rose through the ranks on guile and strategy. He’s also one of Sudan’s richest men.
Wagner needs the protection of Sudanese power and influence because it’s also smuggling gold from the neighbouring Central African Republic. That small, landlocked country is imperilled by a war against rebel groups who control much of the territory and Wagner was hired to ‘’protect’’ gold mines. In reality, Wagner uses CAR labour to mine gold and smuggles it out through Khartoum, Sudan’s now fractured capital.
Wagner uses an old, established smuggling route that sees the gold end up in Dubai, where there are few regulations controlling its trade. The gold then either goes on to Moscow or is sold for dollars that finance its war in Ukraine. Without that gold, the mercenaries, who’re accused of massacring and raping Central Africans, have only new and comparatively small gold concessions in Mali.
To maintain that smuggling route, Wagner has men positioned along the Sudan-CAR border. With many of its other borders closed, and war roiling through most of the country, there’s no easy alternative for shifting illicit gold.
The Gold Conduit
For now, though, the renewed conflict in and around Khartoum isn’t going Hemedti’s way, which must worry Wagner and Prigozhin. On the city’s dusty streets, there’ve been rumours that Hemedti has been killed during skirmishes between his Rapid Support Forces and the official military mainly going the army’s way. Worsening the situation, the former warlord has very limited communication with his RSF militias so, even if there is a truce or ceasefire, it would take time for the RSF to be told to lay down arms.
So far, the death toll is low, at least by the region’s standards, with about 100 dead. The worry is that what’s little more than skirmishes could escalate to a civil war that might see Russia up the ante to protect its gold. Sudan is Africa’s third-biggest producer of the yellow metal, Mali its fourth, though some sources give slightly different rankings. Either way, data depends on official production figures, while Wagner deals in the illicit flow of the resource.
Officials from the Russian mercenary group were recently in Burkina Faso, also battling Islamist militants, and also among Africa’s top 10 gold producers. It’s a pattern that worries Western governments and their spies. Prigozhin also won a lucrative chrome mining license in Madagascar after Wagner blatantly rigged that country’s election in favour of Andry Rajoelina. Workers at that mine soon went on strike, saying Prigozhin wasn’t paying them.
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Russia’s intent, according to African diplomats, is to destabilise both Chinese and American influence in Africa. And while they’ve had limited success in the Sahel, Sudan, the CAR, and Madagascar, there’s little Wagner or the Russian state can offer the vast continent.
Wagner’s finances are stretched to breaking point because it’s paying an ‘’unfair share’’ of the cost of war in Ukraine, so controlling a few gold mines in Africa, none of them huge, isn’t enough. Beneath that, lies a disinformation campaign spreading pro-Russian, anti-western fiction to African newspapers. It finds a ready readership in West Africa, if nowhere else. Much of the continent makes cynical remarks about Cold War II.
Still, US diplomats were shot at, and an EU diplomat beaten in the last 24 hours, which points to a Western alliance more than usually involved in resolving an African conflict. That’s also bad news for Russia and Wagner, both anxious to maintain a degree of control in the troubled African nation because they’re both scratching for cash to fund aggression in Ukraine. The tragedy for the Sudanese people is that they’re dying for an unjust war 3,500 miles away.