In Sudan, the continent’s third-ranking gold-producing nation, two ambitious generals have laid siege to the destitute populace, vying for military prowess, fiscal supremacy, and regional clout. The Russian Wagner militia has long thrived in these kinds of environments.
The Sudanese capital, Khartoum, experienced its sixth consecutive day of aerial bombardments, detonations, and gunfire on Thursday, notwithstanding the brief discussions of a provisional truce under American mediation two days prior. Pitted against each other are the conventional armed forces led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the de facto president, and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) commanded by Vice President Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, colloquially known as Hemedti.
Sudan, primarily Muslim and one of the world’s most impoverished nations, teeters on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. As Ramadan draws to a close, the populace grapples with acute scarcities of food, potable water, and essential services, such as electricity. Hospitals, too, hang by a thread. The death toll is nearing 300, with an estimated 3,000 injured. International observers have not been immune to the violence; three UN personnel have been killed, while a Belgian EU official, an EU ambassador, and a US diplomatic convoy were targeted.
The 46 million Sudanese citizens face yet another surge in violence, embodying the archetypal trajectory of a “failed state” wherein the collapse of a longstanding dictatorship precipitates a fierce contest for political, military, and economic hegemony fueled by the strategic ambitions of regional and global players. Since gaining independence from British rule in 1956, Sudan has been beleaguered by successive coups and civil wars. Omar al-Bashir, who assumed power in 1989, was eventually toppled by pro-democracy protests. His military successors, Burhan and Hemedti, briefly shared power with civilian politicians in a transitional council, only to eventually sideline them following another coup in 2021. Now, a difficult endgame looms between the two generals.
Their origins diverge: Burhan represents Khartoum’s military elite, who have long exploited the nation’s land resources. While oil was their initial focus, the discovery of gold—making Sudan Africa’s third-largest producer—has captured their attention, particularly since South Sudan’s secession in 2011 deprived them of substantial oil reserves.
Hemedti, the paramilitary commander, hails from humble beginnings as a camel trader in Darfur. He evolved into a purveyor of violence during the 2003 genocide against non-Arab Africans in western Sudan, which claimed roughly 300,000 lives. Hemedti ascended through the ranks of the Janjaweed militias, later incorporated into the RSF by Bashir as a private army.
As allegiances wavered and fortunes fluctuated, gold was discovered in Darfur, prompting Hemedti to forge foreign alliances, most notably with Russia. In 2017, a beleaguered Bashir sought assistance from President Putin, leading to the dispatch of Russian geologists and the formidable Wagner militia. Meroe Gold, a front company for the Wagner Group, professionalized a gold mine north of Khartoum, despite US sanctions imposed in 2020 and EU sanctions in February.
Investigative journalists from The New York Times and CNN have reported the smuggling of gold via Dubai and 16 plane-loads of the precious metal transported to Russia’s military base in Syria. Russia is allegedly utilizing these gold reserves to finance its Ukrainian war efforts and insulate its economy and currency from international sanctions.
Sudan functions as a link for Libya, Chad, and the Central African Republic, where the Wagner Group supports local dictators in return for mineral riches. Meanwhile, the Kremlin nurtures ambitions for a naval base in Port Sudan, strategically situated along the Red Sea, between the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aden.
In exchange for support during the 2019 and 2021 coups, Wagner supplied weapons and training to Hemedti’s RSF fighters. The latter also profited from deploying his militias as mercenaries in Libya and Yemen, earning favor with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the United Arab Emirates.
The ramifications are unequivocal: an already volatile region—from the Sahel’s Islamist terror to Ethiopia’s civil war—teeters on the precipice of further instability. Despite the gold, the Sudanese people confront an increasingly bleak existence.