CNN published an investigation that had been seven months in the making disclosing how “Russia is plundering gold in Sudan to boost Putin's war effort in Ukraine” with the complicity of Sudanese military rulers. Following the publication, some Sudanese have called for new marches of the millions to protest against Russia’s looting of gold today.
Sudan is the third largest producer of precious metals in Africa. CNN’s investigation shows the extent to which Russia smuggles gold out of Sudan, bypassing the county’s official gold export regulations.
The publication starts with a striking example:
“Days after Moscow launched its bloody war on Ukraine, a Russian cargo plane stood on a Khartoum runway, a strip of tarmac surrounded by red-orange sand. The aircraft's manifest stated it was loaded with cookies. Sudan rarely, if ever, exports cookies.
“A heated debate transpired between officials in a back office of Khartoum International Airport. They feared that inspecting the plane would vex the country's increasingly pro-Russian military leadership. Multiple previous attempts to intercept suspicious Russian carriers had been stopped. Ultimately, however, the officials decided to board the plane.
“Inside the hold, colourful boxes of cookies stretched out before them. Hidden just beneath were wooden crates of Sudan's most precious resource. Gold. Roughly one ton of it”.
This example is one of at least 16 known Russian gold smuggling flights out of Sudan in the past year and a half, CNN explains.
Interviews with high-level Sudanese and US officials suggest the existence of ‘an elaborate Russian scheme’ to plunder Sudan’s gold reserves to strengthen Russian wealth in the face of Western sanctions.
“The evidence also suggests that Russia has colluded with Sudan's beleaguered military leadership”, CNN writes, “enabling billions of dollars in gold to bypass the Sudanese state and to deprive the poverty-stricken country of hundreds of millions in state revenue”.
'We've long known Russia is exploiting Sudan's natural resources. In order to maintain access to those resources Russia encouraged the military coup' – US official
In exchange for easy access to Sudan’s gold, Russia has lent powerful political and military backing to Sudan's military junta, which faces widespread criticism for its violent response to the country's pro-democracy protests and is highly unpopular with the Sudanese public.
"We've long known Russia is exploiting Sudan's natural resources," one former US official told CNN. "In order to maintain access to those resources Russia encouraged the military coup."
Former and current US officials told CNN that Russia actively supported the October 25 military coup which overthrew PM Abdallah Hamdok’s transitional civilian government.
Especially in the face of Western sanctions after its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian government has ‘a lot to gain’ from its relationship with the Sudanese military.
The investigation also explained that both Russia and the military are “jointly benefiting from Sudan's stolen gold”.
CNN’s article portrays an ‘intricate’ gold smuggling network. At least 16 of the flights intercepted by Sudanese officials last year were operated by military plane that came to and from the Syrian port city of Latakia where Russia has a major airbase.
“Gold shipments also follow a land route to the CAR [Central African Republic], where Wagner* has propped up a repressive regime and is reported to have meted out some of its cruelest tactics on the country's population”, CNN writes.
Last month, Radio Dabanga reported that the Darfur Bar Association (DBA) confirmed the presence of Russian ‘Wagner’ mercenaries in South Darfur, which it claims to have documented ‘since last year’. The mercenaries are specifically accused of attacks on artisanal gold miners in Um Dafug locality, close to the border with the Central African Republic (CAR).
According to political analyst Magdi El Gizouli, Hemeti’s visit to Russia in March this year was “arranged by the Russian Wagner mercenaries in order to find a way out for their ally in Sudan, and to ensure his continuation in power so that they can continue to plunder the country’s resources”.
Both the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), commanded by Chairman of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council and coup-leader Abdelfattah EL Burhan, and the infamous Rapid Support Forces (RSF), commanded by Deputy Chairman of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council Gen Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemeti’ Dagalo, hugely benefit from Sudan’s gold exports.
The RSF have long been associated with the control of gold mining in Darfur and have built up a vast business empire that captures not only a large part of the country’s gold industry but also have huge interests in many sectors of the Sudanese economy. The anti-corruption NGO Global Witness published a report in 2019 about the financial networks behind the RSF.
Voices that criticise the exploitation carried out by Sudan’s military leaders and the Russian government have been heavily repressed. So have the journalists working on this investigation.
“Several local journalism networks whose work CNN has drawn on for this report (…) have been targeted in recent months, driven into exile under the threat of assassination. Ten protesters were gunned down in demonstrations in June alone, three of whom were prominent pro-democracy activists. CNN security sources believe they were deliberately targeted”, CNN explained.
“High-level Sudanese officials repeatedly urged CNN's Nima Elbagir to steer clear of protest sites. Since CNN began this investigation, Elbagir has been put on the military junta's hit list, according to multiple Sudanese security sources”, the news outlet writes.
She wrote on social media that “this investigation was 7 months in the making, what was most shocking to us is the extent of Russia’s subversion of the Sudanese state, it’s entrenching of Sudan’s Generals at the expense of the hopes for Democracy. While the US – and the world – watch on”.
Sudanese pro-democracy groups, including the influential resistance committees, called for new Marches of the Millions to take place today, on July 31, to protest Russia's exploitation of their country's gold resources.
Gold mining in Sudan
The current amount of gold prepared for export is unprecedentedly high as the company procured more gold in ten days than is usually exported by the country in one year.
At the moment, Sudan contributes roughly 90 tonnes of gold to the global market per year, making it the 10th largest gold producer in the world. Most of this gold is mined in the Hassai Gold Mine in Red Sea state, where iron ore and other base metals are also mined.
Gold can also be found in North and South Kordofan, Darfur, Northern Sudan, River Nile state, and other places along the Nile River and Blue Nile River. Other mineral reserves in the country include chromite, gypsum, phosphates, zinc, lead, nickel, aluminium, and cobalt.
'Estimates are that between 50 per cent and 80 per cent of Sudan’s gold is smuggled out of the country'
Gold export is important for Sudan’s economy. In an interview with Radio Dabanga’s Sudan Today programme, Professor of Economics at El Nilein University in Khartoum Dr Hasan Bashir explained that export volumes could have been 10 times the size of current exports and highlighted the continued smuggling of large quantities of gold from the country.
Sudan is the second largest gold producer in Africa. The production however is often driven by unregulated, artisanal (individual subsistence) mining, and routine gold smuggling across international borders is a constant problem. Estimates are that between 50 per cent and 80 per cent of Sudan’s gold is smuggled out of the country. It is also known that proceeds have been used to finance the internal conflict.
To combat this problem, the Central Bank of Sudan announced stiffer control measures in March this year.