Sudan’s current military regime seized power in a coup d’état on October 25, last year. The coup effectively ended a shaky partnership between a civilian government and the military which had briefly experimented with democracy after Sudan’s brutal dictator, Omar al-Bashir, was overthrown in April 2019. Bashir is now serving a two-year jail term in Khartoum for excesses he engaged in when he seized power back in 1989. He is due to be transferred to the International Criminal Court in the Hague, to be tried for attempted genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region, as well as other crimes against humanity, but that will have to wait until he finishes his current sentence.
The man currently in charge in Khartoum, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who led last October’s coup, has a less than firm grip on power himself. After arresting Sudan’s civilian government, Burhan was forced to go through the motions of reinstating the prime minister he had just overthrown, in order to calm angry protesters in Khartoum. Burhan has promised to reinstate a democratically elected government next July. Hardly anyone expects that to happen. Sudan has at least 80 political parties and their inability to agree on anything much less work together is one of the reasons that the military felt obliged to step in and take over.
Sudan’s real problem, and the reason for its continuing unrest, is crushing poverty. That has been caused to a large extent by the isolation and sanctions that were mostly a reaction against Bashir’s bloody attempts to annihilate the civilian population in Darfur and his indulgence in crimes against humanity. The chaos that followed Bashir’s ouster has made it even more difficult to pull the country together. At least that was the case until the Russians stepped in.
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Under bothersome sanctions themselves, Putin has been more than willing to pump small arms and mercenaries into resource-rich Africa in exchange for easy access to gold, diamonds and whatever wealth can be extracted while easily corruptible government officials are encouraged to look the other way. Putin might not have noticed Sudan, except that before his ouster, Bashir offered Sudan to the Russians on what amounted to a silver plate. His sales pitch argued that Sudan could be an ideal key stone to Russia’s colonial ambitions in Africa. The Kremlin thought that sounded like a good idea and it did its best to advise Bashir on how to cling to power. When that didn’t work, Moscow shifted its efforts to Bashir’s successors.
Back in 2011, the southern half of Sudan declared independence from Khartoum and took most of the country’s oil with it. As a result, interest in Sudan’s other leading resource, gold, took off. For the Kremlin, Sudan suddenly became much more interesting. For the beleaguered Sudanese military coup leaders, an alliance with another rogue state targeted by sanctions, looked like just the unexpected lifeline everyone needed.
According to the New York Times, General Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, better known as Hemeti, the second in command after Burhan, flew to Russia at the end of last February. That was just before Putin invaded Ukraine. Hemeti, who commanded a group known as RSF (Rapid Support Forces), which grew out of the infamous Janjaweed militia, a loose association of marauding bandits, has been number of war crimes during the bloody repression of Darfur. The trip was ostensibly to feel out the Russians for military aid. Maybe so, but The New York Times reported that his plane also carried a load of gold bullion. It is less than clear who was aiding whom. The Center for for Advanced Military Studies (C4ads) in London, reports that Russia had started sending military trucks, helicopters and other equipment to both Sudan and the Central Afreican Republic as early as 2017. Last June, according the New York Times, a shipment included 13 tons of riot shields, just the thing to put down future protests. According to Africa Confidential, a split has divided Burhan and Hemeti, who recently declared that he thought the coup last October was a failure. Hemeti’s RSF command has been folded back into the Sudanese regular army, and it’s not sure what the future holds, but that uncertainty is exactly what Moscow needs. Most classic colonial occupations start with a foreign power coming to the aid of one party or another who is fighting to hold on in a domestic rebellion.
The organization orchestrating the current raid on Sudan’s gold is the Wagner Group, a mercenary gang of contemporary pirates, ostensibly named after Hitler’s favorite composer, Wilhelm Richard Wagner. Putin’s Russia is a long way from any pretense Communism these days, which may explain the current affinity between Putin’s oligarch-favoring Kremlin and Trump’s reformatted Republican Party. The Wagner operation is believed to be headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who also headed Moscow’s Internet Research Agency, famous for flooding US social media with cleverly concocted misinformation supporting Donald Trump, during the 2016 presidential election. Prigozhin, not surprisingly denies any connection to Wagner or Sudan’s gold operations. Be that as it may, the FBI is currently offering a $250,000 reward for Prigozhin’s arrest.
Wagner first began to be noticed when it provided mercenary troops to help Russia’s invasion and seizure of the Crimea in 2014. The organization has since evolved into a loose collection of shell companies, backed up by mercenaries and considerable Russian firepower. The goal in Africa is to sign lucrative contracts with states that have either failed or about to fail and need a bit of outside muscle, with no questions asked, in order to hold on to power. In Africa, Wagner is so firmly established in the Central African Republic that for most purposes it is the government.
Having succeeded in Central Africa, Wagner began looking at other African failing states whose governments looked like they might need some outside muscle to stay in power.
In all fairness, the inspiration for Wagner could have come from the US where a privatized military contractor, Blackwater, set the initial trend for hiring itself out to the CIA and US State Department to do jobs deemed too messy for the military to handle. The genius behind Blackwater was Erik Prince, the brother of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of education. Prince had briefly served in the US Navy SEALS and the dropped out. The obvious advantage of privatizing military operations was deniability, both in the actions taken by the company’s “operators” and in how much it all cost.
The US had previously disdained resorting to mercenaries on the grounds that the US Army and Marines were both more professional and dependable. Defeat in Vietnam, however, made warfare less attractive and it rendered the draft politically untenable. Privatizing the military had the added advantage of freeing some military operations to operate below the radar of Congress. The Geneva Conventions do not apply to private corporations. During the Iraq War, Blackwater did not take long to get both itself and the Bush administration into trouble. Those considerations don’t really apply in a semi-totalitarian state like Russia, especially after Putin managed to silence independent media. And in Africa, who is going to notice anyway?
What distinguishes the approach taken by Prigozhin and the Wagner Group in general is the blending of misinformation over social networks in addition to the menace of armed mercenaries. According to a white paper by Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the Wagner Group operates at least two networks posting information on Facebook, Twitter and other social media groups, passing out misinformation pretending to be from various politicians and political groups. The Stanford researchers, who conducted their study in 2019, found 73 pages on Facebook and 7 on Instagram, which altogether had garnered 1.72 million likes. They counted 8,900 posts on Facebook, mostly intended to manipulate and shape African opinion.
For the moment, Wagner’s operations are providing Vladimir Putin with much needed cash. Of course, it is at the expense of the Sudanese population, but it has been a long time since anyone really cared about what happens to them. Russia’s expansion across the Central African Republic also gives it access to Mali, a potential haven for Islamic militants. Mali was generally considered to be under the influence of France. Not anymore. The current government in Bamako has told the French to leave. Wagner, apparently is in.
Besides stripping these already impoverished countries of their natural resources, Russia’s investment also buys the illusion of support in international organizations. When Western countries called on the UN General Assembly to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine, Eritrea voted against the motion, seventeen African countries abstained and eight more simply refused to participate in the vote.
While this timid support for Putin’s aggression might seem hard to understand for westerners to understand, it is less so for Africans who feel that the US and Europe abandoned them and left the continent in a mess after colonialism. As Mvemba Phezo Dizolele, the head of African studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently testified to Congress, countries that have been sanctioned by donor countries, feel they have a bone to pick with the west. “For example,” Dizolele said, “Eritrea, a state that has been marginalized and treated like a pariah by donor countries has maintained strong economic and military ties with the Russian Federation. Eritrea has also taken an anti-Western stance for decades and its vote in support of Russia was as much a continuation of its rejection of what it sees as Western hegemony and interference in Africa’s internal affairs.”
Whether Putin is playing his own version of the “Great Game” or simply trying to relaunch classic colonialism, the strategy looks like it is paying off. “The Wagner Group does not cost these countries anything out of pocket since their work is financed through mining contracts,” Dizolele told the US Congress. “This is happening in the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Mali. It is especially useful to Moscow to be paid directly in unprocessed gold and minerals, given the comprehensive dollar and euro sanctions on them now.” For Ukraine, western neglect is likely to mean that Putin can finance a good deal more of the needless bloodshed that seems to be his style these days. For Africans, it means entering what could amount to a new colonial era, only this time it should be clear to everyone that the relationship is purely about cash and nothing else.
Foreign correspondent and author William Dowell is Global Insights Magazine’s America’s editor based in Philadelphia. He is also a contributing editor to Who,What,Why. Tom’s Paine is his regular column. Over the past decades, he has covered much of the globe for TIME, ABC News and other news organizations.
William Dowell is also a co-editor of the fourth, fully-revised edition of The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan published by Crosslines Essential Media, a partner of Global Geneva Group. Although this current edition was pubished in 2014 much of it is still relevant. You can procure an e-edition through this LINK on Amazon. https://www.amazon.fr/Essential-Field-Guide-Afghanistan-Humanitarian-ebook/dp/B00HZ1FNRW
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