After weeks of peaceful sit-ins outside the military headquarters in Khartoum, the uneasy truce between Sudan’s security forces and thousands of protestors demanding change was finally ruptured at dawn on 3 June. Members of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – a militia widely condemned for human rights violations in its suppression of rebels in the western province of Darfur – fanned out across the city and proceeded to kill over 100 demonstrators.
A grim warning had been given just days before by Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagolo, the leader of the RSF and vice-president of the Transitional Military Council (TMC), the body that has controlled the country since the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir in April. “My patience has limits,” he said.
Hemedti, along with the head of the army, Abdul Fattah al-Burhan, has emerged as a key figure within the TMC. With a violent past and control of a paramilitary force estimated to number as many as 40,000, many fear that he has set his ambitions on more than simply preventing Sudan’s transition to democracy.
His reported vast personal wealth – accrued from the gold trade, along with outsourcing his militia to the former regime and Saudi Arabia to fight the war in Yemen – underpins his power.
In 2017, Sudan produced 107 tonnes of gold, making it the third-largest producer on the continent after Ghana and South Africa. Some 70% of output is estimated to be smuggled abroad, although the true size of the illicit trade is hard to quantify. Through his militia, Hemedti controls one of the country’s most lucrative gold mines – Jebel Amer in North Darfur.
By origin a member of the Rezeigat tribe in the Darfur region, Hemedti rose from humble origins as a trader of cloth and camels. In 2003, he joined the Janjaweed, a local militia that was waging a brutal campaign against Darfuri rebels on behalf of the government under the leadership of tribal chief Musa Hilal. The conflict has left 300,000 dead, according to UN estimates.
Through his role in the war, he gained favour with President Bashir, who in 2014 put him in charge of the RSF, which had been formed as an offshoot of the Janjaweed. The group was given the status of a regular force but retained its violent modus operandi, and Bashir began to use it as a bulwark against the strength of Sudan’s military.
“That’s when Hemedti became quite strong,” says Omer Ismail, senior advisor at the Washington-based NGO Enough Project. “Bashir was not confident in the army because the economy was deteriorating rapidly and there were many problems.”
Yet along with a position of almost unparalleled power, Hemedti’s ascendance was accompanied by access to riches. In 2015, a report drawn up for the UN Security Council found that Hilal’s militia was making up to $54m a year from control of the Jebel Amer goldmine. The following year, Hemedti moved against Hilal, who had come into conflict with the government, and seized control of the lucrative mine. Ismail estimates that his earnings may now outstrip those of his former boss.
With this money, the militia kingpin has been able to recruit jobless youths from the across the Sahel to the RSF, resulting in an ever-growing force which Ismail claims is presently “occupying” Sudan: “I would say that Sudan is occupied now because the troops that he is using to control and monopolise power, most of them are not even Sudanese. They are recruited from Chad, Mali and Niger. They are from the Sahel.”
As the RSF continues to sow terror, much of the gold coming from the Jebel Amer mine, which supports a surrounding settlement of around 70,000 people, is exported clandestinely to various international buyers via a shady and complicated web of smuggling activities.
“Almost everything makes its way east to Khartoum,” says Ismail. “From there it is almost exclusively sold to traders in the UAE.”
With very little capacity for smelting and refining gold in Sudan, the metal travels onwards in rough kilogram bricks to countries including Dubai, which act as a gateway for much of Africa’s illicit gold trade.
Comtrade data shows that the UAE imported $15.1bn worth of gold from Africa in 2016, more than any other country and up from $1.3bn in 2006. The share of African gold in the UAE’S gold imports increased from 18% to nearly 50% over the same period and the industry accounts for approximately one fifth of the country’s total GDP.
The substantial offtake of Sudanese gold in Dubai’s markets suggests that economic considerations are part of the UAE’s chequebook diplomacy, which saw a joint $3bn aid package pumped into Khartoum alongside Saudi Arabia.
Hemedti has close links with both Gulf countries as the agent who recruited around 15,000 of his troops to fight the war in Yemen against Houthi-led militia. Ismail speculates that he may receive anywhere between $2,000 to $3,000 a month per person as payment for outsourcing his troops.
Other gold routes, according to Ismail, include the “40-day route” through the desert, historically used to smuggle slaves and ivory to either Tripoli in Libya or Cairo in Egypt. Ismail estimates that the country has around 440 remote airstrips used in the clandestine trade.
“They put the gold in a Land Cruiser and smuggle the gold outside the city of Khartoum,” he explains. “Then one of the smaller companies who have licences to fly out of Sudan will set up a local flight. They will put the gold in the belly of the plane. The gold will then come back through Khartoum airport and onwards to its final destination.”
One of these destinations is Russia. Ramping up its presence across Central Africa and the Horn, Moscow has begun gold mining operations in Sudan over the last two years – predominantly in the northeastern region away from Darfur.
Sim Tack, global security analyst for Stratfor, says that the Wagner Group, a Russian private-military outfit with close links to the Kremlin, has been providing security to Russian companies working in the region.
“Russia has become very involved in mineral extraction in Sudan,” he says. “We have seen big accounts of Russia doing this in the Central African Republic (CAR) but at the same time they are doing it in Sudan. Sudan is the entry point into Africa which Russia is using to support its presence in CAR.”
Data from the Russian central bank cited by Bloomberg show that its gold reserves have nearly quadrupled over the past 10 years, and that 2018 marked the most “ambitious year yet” for Russian gold-buying.
Much of Russia’s activities across Sudan and the CAR are shrouded in secrecy, and the Enough Project’s Ismail believes there is “no way of knowing” how large the trade is.
As for Hemedti, it’s clear that the vast amount of money earned from his gold-mining activities is a key enabler of the fearsome power he continues to wield in Khartoum and beyond.