The Gangster Games in Russia and Sudan

Summary: more grim days in Sudan underline the tragedy unfolding in the country as the world remains transfixed by events in Putin’s Russia. 

While the world watches Russia as it plays out its version of the Hunger Games, let us call it the Gangster Games, the war in Sudan rumbles on. And it has a Wagner connection. We detailed in our 26 October 2022 newsletter how Yevgeny Prigozhin uses his Wagner soldiers to secure gold mines in Sudan and the role the UAE has as a transit point for gold smuggled out of the country and headed to Moscow to help sustain Putin’s war effort.

The question now is the extent to which Prigozhin’s mutinous dash up the motorway to Moscow and then his abrupt withdrawal may have damaged Wagner’s lucrative gold smuggling operations. It is worth reminding ourselves just how much gold is being looted out of Sudan using one of the two warlords now engaged in a brutal battle for control.

As detailed in a report last year by Africa Confidential, in 2021 US$1.7 billion worth of Sudanese gold arrived in Dubai. However, it added:

Most industry experts reckon that official figures account for less than a quarter of total gold sales. Khartoum’s central bank recorded gold exports of 26.4 tonnes from January to September in 2021 but estimates over 100 tonnes would have been smuggled out during that period.

The warlord working with Wagner and closely tied to the Abu Dhabi ruler and president of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed, is Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemedti. As we noted in our newsletter Hemedti via his family’s 30% stake in an Emirati bank is well placed to benefit from the gold coming out of mines controlled by Prigozhin.

What now for the Sudan to Moscow gold train? Our Arab Digest contributor and King’s College defence and security lecturer Andreas Krieg provided insight yesterday on BBC Radio 4’s The World at One. He noted that Prigozhin’s numerous African ventures operating under the Wagner Group banner are part of a “self-funding network deliberately set up by the Kremlin as they moved into Africa.” And he went on to point out the role the UAE plays: “the entire African network is run and facilitated by infrastructure in the UAE where they have a banking sector and logistics companies and those infrastructures still exist.” Krieg argues that Prigozhin’s African businesses “don’t require the Russian state or Putin to continue operating.”

We don’t yet know whether Prigozhin remains in control of Wagner, indeed even where he is despite the claim that he has secured sanctuary in Belarus (an odd choice given that the country is effectively a client state of the Kremlin.) As the dust settles the question hangs in the air, though if Prigozhin is out of the game mercenaries being mercenaries should be happy to continue to keep the Sudan gold train up and running as long as the price is right.

Alhussein Ahmed with his two-year-old daughter, Amna (left), and Amna with her 10-month-old brother, Shakir, who is still waiting for his UK passport.
Alhussein Ahmed with his two-year-old daughter, Amna (left), and Amna with her 10-month-old brother, Shakir, who is still waiting for his UK passport [photo credit: Alhussein Ahmed]
But for ordinary Sudanese caught between Hemedti’s Rapid Response Forces (RSF) and his rival, the Sudanese army boss General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, it is the war, not what is happening to Sudan’s gold, that is their constant reality.

On Sunday the Sudan air force resumed strikes on Khartoum aimed at imbedded RSF forces, many of them in residential areas. Hemedti’s forces responded with barrages of anti-aircraft fire. As reported by Al Jazeera, Omdurman which lies across from Khartoum on the west bank of the Nile River was pummelled from the air. A civilian told Reuters by phone:

Since the early morning in north Omdurman we’ve had air strikes and artillery bombardment and RSF anti-aircraft fire. Where are the Jeddah talks, why did the world leave us to die alone in Burhan and Hemedti’s war?

Those talks, jointly sponsored by the US and Saudi Arabia have yielded nothing but broken promises from Hemedti and Burhan.  They are currently “on pause.”

Hemedti’s forces are continuing their vicious attacks on civilians in Darfur with the latest reports speaking of corpses strewn along roads headed towards Chad as people attempt to flee the RSF onslaught. A OHCHR spokesperson  called on the RSF leadership “to immediately, unequivocally condemn and stop the killing of people fleeing (the capital) El-Geneina, and other violence and hate speech against them on the basis of their ethnicity.” The UN says the RSF is targeting and killing people from the non-Arab Masalit tribe:

“Our UN Human Rights officers have heard multiple, corroborating accounts that ‘Arab’ militia are primarily targeting male adults from the Masalit community.” (The spokesperson) added that the interviewed reported witnessing lifeless bodies strewn along the road, accompanied by the putrid smell of decay. Numerous witnesses described encountering dozens of corpses in an area known as Shukri, approximately 10km away from the border, where it is believed that one or more Arab militias maintain a base.

Here in the UK questions are being raised about hundreds of British children of Sudanese descent who remain trapped in Sudan. The Guardian reported on the attempts by Alhussein Ahmed to get his wife and two children, one who is two and the other ten months, out of the country. His wife’s passport and birth certificate are at the Home Office and caught up in a huge backlog. Without them she can’t travel with their children. Ahmed, a Liverpool charity worker, told the Guardian

I’m so worried about my children that I can’t sleep at night. When you call you can hear planes and shooting, you worry you’re not going to hear from them again. Sometimes you can’t get through because they have no electricity to charge their batteries or there’s no network.

As the war grinds on with peace talks paused and the world’s attention focussed for now on Russia and the Putin-Prigozhin feud the Sudanese people continue to pay a terrible price for the ambitions of two warlords engaged in their own version of the Gangster Games.

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