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Sudan’s expanding crisis risks dragging half of Africa with it into perpetual chaos

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Natale Labia writes on the economy and finance. Partner and chief economist of a global investment firm, he writes in his personal capacity. MBA from Università Bocconi. Supports Juventus.

Even by the standards of a country familiar with episodes of brutal violence and near-constant political instability, the situation in Sudan has deteriorated precipitously. Since 15 April, at least 400 people have been killed in the fighting, including four UN aid workers, with more than 3,500 injured. Electricity and water supplies have been cut and food and medical supplies are running out.

US President Joe Biden said at the weekend that “this tragic violence has already cost the lives of hundreds of innocent civilians… it needs to stop”. Sadly, the situation in Sudan looks far from being resolved. 

It is impossible to know whether even the uneasy 72-hour humanitarian ceasefire, which began on the morning of 25 April, will last long enough to secure the evacuation of foreign nationals.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Sudan’s Generals baulk at talks as thousands flee violence

The two protagonists of this conflict are well known. On one side is General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, president of Sudan’s military government and head of the army, who has the backing of Sisi’s Egypt and boasts powerful ground and air forces. Opposing him is another member of the ruling transitional military council — Lt-Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known as Hemeti, Sudan’s vice president. He oversees the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, one of the region’s biggest militia groups, and has close ties to the UAE and Russia. 

What is perhaps less well known are the socio-economic shifts that have led to the emergence of these tyrants. 

As the International Crisis Group has revealed in a fascinating study, the political economy of Sudan — and indeed the broader Sahel region — is increasingly based on a burgeoning artisanal gold mining industry. As it has swept from east to west, the gold rush has been rearranging populations and upending economic, social, political and military relations across the Sahel. 

Control of gold has been key for the juntas who have seized power in Guinea, Burkina Faso and Mali. It has also attracted the Russian paramilitary mercenary racket known as the Wagner Group to the region, notably in the Central African Republic. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: West raising red flags over Wagner’s expanding mercenary reach in CAR and other African nations

Economic historian Adam Tooze argues in a recent note that this dynamic now seems to be playing out in the larger and more strategic Sudan. 

While gold has been mined in Sudan since ancient times, the Islamist regime that ruled the country from 1989 based itself from the late 1990s onwards not on gold, but oil. According to Human Rights Watch, it was squabbles over oil revenue that led to the Darfur genocide and the brutal civil war of the 2000s. 

Since the independence of South Sudan in 2011, oil revenue in the north collapsed, making gold the new focal point for aspirant warlords. According to the International Crisis Group, Sudan is now the third-largest gold producer in Africa, after only South Africa and Ghana. CNN estimates that in 2022, over $13.4-billion worth of gold was smuggled out of the country, largely to Dubai for processing.

Both al-Berhan and Hemeti are miscreants and thugs; al-Berhan perhaps a slightly more eloquent one. If they have decided that this is a zero-sum fight to the death for full control over gold revenues, the outlook for Sudan and its 45 million inhabitants is bleak. The Sudanese armed forces, commanded by al-Berhan, are believed to number around 200,000. The RSF is around 70,000; however, they are better equipped, more experienced and in all likelihood more motivated.

It is also clear that the RSF counts among its allies the Wagner Group. It is alleged that Wagner is helping the RSF smuggle gold to Dubai, the proceeds of which are being used not just to fund Hemeti’s forces in Sudan, but also Wagner’s own operations in Ukraine. Hemeti visited Moscow last February, just as the invasion began. 

This is merely the latest in a spate of coups and conflicts across the Sahel and Horn of Africa, in which Sudan plays a critically strategic role. Of Sudan’s seven neighbours, five are beset with armed conflict of some kind. 

The geopolitical complexities which have emerged in the Sahel in the last two to three years cannot be overstated. A conflagration in Sudan risks spilling over and creating a broader regional conflict, in a similar way to the Great African War which engulfed the entire Great Lakes region between 1998 and 2003, leaving an estimated 5.4 million people dead. 

The humanitarian consequences of the Sahel experiencing a similar descent into anarchy would be catastrophic. The resulting migration crisis that would besiege Europe and indeed South Africa, and would make current flows look inconsequential.

Such is the complex confluence of external factors exacerbating the situation that any solution would have to be brokered by foreign (borderline rogue) actors such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Russia and the UAE. Given the current breakdown of global order, that currently seems extremely unlikely. 

While one can only hope some resolution is found, it seems more likely to get worse before it gets better. BM/DM

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  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    If this happens, does that mean that, combined with the half already in perpetual crisis, the whole of Africa will be in perpetual crisis?

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