Few countries in Africa are as rich in natural resources as Sudan. Its gifts include oil, gas, iron ore, silver, copper, manganese, gypsum, tungsten, mica, chromium ore, zinc, lead, kaolin, cobalt, nickel, tin, aluminum... and gold.
As fighting rages across the country, including in the capital Khartoum, analysts have been quick to identify gold as a central factor in the internal military battle between two factions of the Sudanese military.
The country’s current military government - made up of the army led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan – is at odds with the RSF, a paramilitary group set up ten years ago and led by Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemedti’ Dagalo. The pair have their eyes on Sudan’s gold... and they are far from alone.
Read more: Explainer: Why are military forces fighting each other in Sudan?
Sudan is one of the world’s top 20 gold-producing countries and while it ranks far below countries like China, Australia, and Russia in terms of the number of metric tons produced, it is widely considered to have vast untapped reserves.
Rich in troublesome gifts
Its rich and high-quality gold mines are at the centre of this latest internal war. Theft, looting, and smuggling of gold is rife, affecting most of Sudan’s gold production. They should have been a blessing, but the mines have become a curse.
At its heart, the military conflict in Sudan is a battle for the control of gold production and gold smuggling, yet Burhan and Hemedti are just two of the actors. While these are early days, it could yet turn into a civil war involving foreign proxies.
Other countries would like to exploit Sudan, yet this will be tough. Sudan’s mines are surrounded by relentless and continuous conflict, much of it related to smuggling, which affects the ability of millions of Sudanese to eat and earn.
About 14 million Sudanese (just less than a third of the total population) live below the poverty line. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) gave $800 million in aid in 2021 but nothing last year, citing the military coup. The lack of aid money has contributed to the worsening of the country’s economic situation.
Last year, the Sudanese Mineral Resources Company said 2022 had been its most productive year yet, but as the mining sector flourished, so too did smuggling, which affects around 80% of the country’s gold, according to Reuters, citing authorities.
Sudan is one of the poorest countries in the world but has gold reserves estimated at 1,550 tons. The potential is huge. The precious metal already accounts for around 45% of Sudan’s total exports by value, according to the Sudanese Ministry of Minerals.
A nation’s plundered wealth
Dr. Hassan Elsadi, Professor of Finance Economics at Cairo University, says the separation of South Sudan in 2011 and the fight over Sudan’s gold may help to explain the country’s deteriorating economy and worsening living conditions.
“Sudan used to produce between 180 and 190 tons per year before the separation, but now it produces around 95 to 100 tons per year, while South Sudan - a small country – produces the same amount of gold,” says Elsadi.
“Only revenues from 30 tons of produced gold last year entered the state’s general budget, about $1.2 billion. About 65 tons were smuggled. Conflict helps make the country a fertile ground for smuggling and weaken the state’s grip on ports and markets.