Al-Burhan in Khartoum in 2021 (Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

April 19, 2023   4 mins

Aircraft are bombing Sudan’s capital Khartoum; soldiers are occupying civilian houses; most of the country’s hospitals have run out of basic supplies. On the surface, this might appear in the West to be just another African war — the culmination of a struggle between two rival army officers vying for control. And, in some ways, it is.

Since a coup in 2021, Sudan has been run by a council of generals, led by the two men at the centre of this dispute: army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and his deputy-turned-enemy Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (known as Hemedti), the head of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

Al-Burhan and Hemedti represent a long-standing divide in Sudanese society, between the people living along the Nile and those on the marginalised periphery. Al-Burhan is a traditional army recruit who rose up the ranks. Raised in a small town in Northern Sudan, he looks to and is allied with Egypt.

Hemedti is very different. He comes from the western region of Darfur and his family extends into Chad. He belongs to the Rizeigat, a nomadic Arab tribe, and made his name with the Janjaweed militia (literally “devils on horseback”) by attacking settled Darfuris. In 2013, he transformed the Janjaweed into the RSF and has extended his power ever since. Today, he is one of the richest men in Sudan: a smooth operator, with vast holdings in mining and property.

This conflict, however, is much bigger than the two personalities at its heart. Indeed, there is a third character in this violent tragedy, a man who prefers to watch from afar.

Vladimir Putin already exercises influence across much of the arid Sahel through the Wagner Group. Although best known for its current activity in Ukraine, Wagner is also active in a number of African states, including Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad and Libya. In this conflict, Hemedti is the man who could add Sudan to that list.

During the Cold War, Africa was transformed into a superpower battleground, with the USSR and the USA slugging it out from Egypt and Ethiopia to Angola and Mozambique. Since then, Putin has continued to regard Africa’s conflicts as a cheap route into the continent. Using every trick in the book, from troops on the ground to digital propaganda, the Wagner Group has become one of the most powerful forces on the continent, allying with embattled political leaders and militia in exchange for cash or lucrative mining concessions.

Wagner’s chance to make inroads into Sudan came in November 2017, when then Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir visited Putin’s residence in Sochi. Publicly, the agreement reached by the two leaders was focused on their joint opposition “to US interference in the domestic affairs of Arab countries”; less publicly, it paved the way for the extension of the Wagner Group into Sudan.

What form this took only became clear last July, after an investigation by CNN revealed that Russian aircraft had been flying Sudanese gold out of the country to the Syrian port city of Latakia, where Russia has a major airbase. The purported aim was simple: Russia was desperate to fortify its reserves against increasingly punitive Western sanctions. In total, CNN estimated that up to $13.4 billion worth of gold was missing, though Bloomberg later put the figure at $4 billion. Either way, the sums of money are enormous.

These transactions were being organised by Meroe Gold — a subsidiary of M-Invest, owned by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group. In return, Prigozhin provided training and arms for the Sudanese military and, increasingly, to Hemedti. As CNN pointed out, in early 2022, a day after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Hemedti flew to Moscow, “ushering in a new phase in the RSF’s relationship with the Wagner Group”.

These reports were corroborated a few months later, when journalists from Le Monde and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) were sent a trove of documents relating to Wagner’s activities in Sudan. Their publication revealed just how deep this relationship had become. M-Invest was shown to have paid millions of dollars to a company operated by Sudanese military intelligence. And the dividends for Prigozhin were huge. In return, Wagner was granted permission to land on a military base in Khartoum and to use “the signal code of the air force for the purpose of operating internally and externally”. It was, in effect, a licence to fly weapons into the country and gold out of it — without being officially declared or detected.

For a short while, they managed to get away with this — until July 2020, when the US sanctioned Meroe for its links to Prigozhin. Last month, the Council of the European Union followed suit, claiming that: “These companies, together with Lobaye Invest Sarlu and Diamville in the CAR (Central African Republic), are sanctioned in view of their role in illegally trading gold and diamonds looted by force from local traders.”

Yet the measures appear to have had little impact on the activities of any of the parties concerned: there is simply too much at stake. This is also partly why, in 2020, as scrutiny of Wagner’s foreign companies intensified, Meroe handed its interests to a new company called Al Sawlaj for Mining Ltd, which has no assets and lists just one employee — a former Meroe Gold manager.

While few at the time noticed this shift, on 13 April, just three days before the latest fighting erupted, Bloomberg carried an intriguing story. The Sudanese authorities, it emerged, had charged a Russian national working for Al Sawlaj with gold smuggling. This signalled, claimed the report, “an escalation in a simmering power struggle between Sudan’s military and a rival militia whose leader has forged close ties with Russia”.

One can probably assume that “the rival militia leader” with close ties to the Kremlin was Hemedti. By the time his confrontation with al-Burhan erupted, he was estimated to have had as many as 100,000 troops at his disposal. Hemedti had become, in other words, a serious political rival with a military force to boot. And from Moscow’s point of view he was more compliant than al-Burhan, who was happy to receive Putin’s foreign minister, but was nowhere near as close to Russia.

In Sudan, then, it appears we have yet another conflict sparked by a struggle for a nation’s wealth and weapons. But if that were the spark, the Wagner Group was the match. A new Cold War is playing out in Africa — and Africa seems unlikely to win.

Martin Plaut is former Africa Editor of the BBC World Service and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. He has advised both the British and American governments.