With Weapons and Gold Mining, Wagner Cashes In on Sudan Chaos
While Sudan’s rival generals battle for control of the country, Russia’s Wagner Group mercenaries continue to cash in despite the chaos.
As other mining companies suspended operations in the country, Wagner’s affiliate Meroe Gold continued operation of its gold mines. Many are run with the support of Rapid Support Forces (RSF) leader Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti, in territory he and his family control.
In exchange for that partnership, Wagner is suspected of providing Hemedti and the RSF with surface-to-air missiles and other weapons in their fight against the Sudan Armed Forces controlled by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
Some of those weapons have come from Wagner bases in the Central African Republic (CAR), which borders Sudan’s Darfur region, where Hemedti and the RSF have their base of operations.
CNN and the research group All Eyes on Wagner recently documented flights from Wagner’s base in the al-Jufra area of southern Libya and its base in Syria. Those flights landed at an RSF base in northwest Sudan. That base fell a few days later to SAF forces, but other Wagner flights landed at the airport in Merowe, which the RSF controls.
Under the junta government led by al-Burhan and Hemedti, Wagner smuggled an estimated 32.7 metric tons of gold worth nearly $1.9 billion out of the country between February 2022 and February 2023. That’s roughly equal to the 34.5 metric tons — worth just over $2 billion — that Sudan exported from legitimate mining operations in 2022, according to Sudan’s central bank.
When the Wagner Group arrived in Sudan in 2017, the country reported extracting 107.3 metric tons. As recently as 2020, Sudan reported that 90 metric tons of gold were mined with about 28% exported. Government estimates say between 50% and 80% of the gold produced in Sudan is smuggled out of the country.
In 2021, 16 planes loaded with Sudanese gold left the country to be laundered in the Middle East before ending up in Russia’s war chest. Gold is also smuggled out of Sudan through the CAR, where Wagner has extensive influence on the government.
In February 2022, a Sudanese customs inspector discovered a ton of gold hidden in a plane whose manifest reported it was carrying cookies — an item Sudan doesn’t typically export. Despite Wagner’s deep involvement in Sudan’s gold mines, the country’s export statistics report Russia exporting no gold from the country.
Analysts believe Russia is eager to keep a friendly regime in power. “A civilian government in Khartoum, particularly one not intertwined with Russia’s smuggling nexus, would likely prosecute these crimes more vigorously,” geopolitical analyst Samuel Ramani wrote for the Middle East Institute.
Before the October 2021 coup, then-Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok criticized the military’s extensive network of companies that funds Sudan’s military and its leaders outside the government treasury. Hamdok and his civilian allies on the transitional Sovereign Council were about to publish a report on corruption in the military-tied companies when al-Burhan and Hemedti staged their coup. One of al-Burhan’s first acts post-coup was to raid the investigators’ offices and confiscate the documents there.
Since entering Sudan in 2017, Wagner has maintained relations with both Hemedti and al-Burhan. Wagner trained RSF troops in Darfur in addition to partnering with Hemedti and his family on gold mining operations.
In June 2022, the Darfur Bar Association reported having testimonies from people whose relatives were killed by Wagner mercenaries in the region near the border with the CAR. Wagner has driven out artisanal miners on both sides of the border to lay claim to the mines there.
“Where Wagner thrives is where there is a gap in security provision,” Africa analyst Ben Hunter of risk intelligence company Verisk Maplecroft told Semafor.
Despite Wagner’s recent support for the RSF, according to Ramani, Wagner — and by extension, Russia — is less concerned with whether Hemedti or al-Burhan comes out on top than it is with maintaining an authoritarian government in Sudan that will protect its interests.
“Russia’s primary goal is not to see one or another side win the civil war but rather to thwart a democratic transition in Sudan,” Ramani wrote recently for the Middle East Institute. “Continued authoritarian rule facilitates profits from Sudanese gold mines and the construction of a Russian Red Sea naval base in Port Sudan.”
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