Out for Gold and Blood in Sudan
Out for Gold and Blood in Sudan
Sudan: A Year of War (with Comfort Ero)
Sudan: A Year of War (with Comfort Ero)
Op-Ed / Africa 10 minutes

Out for Gold and Blood in Sudan

In April 2012, a small team of wandering miners discovered gold in the Jebel Amir hills of North Darfur, Sudan. One of the mines was so rich -- it reportedly brought millions of dollars to its owners -- that it was nicknamed “Switzerland.” Diggers rushed in from all over Sudan, as well as from the Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria. After a much-publicized visit by Sudan’s mining minister and the governor of North Darfur state, their number may have reached 100,000.

With the gold trade came criminals carrying “arms of every calibre,” a local who would prefer to go unnamed told me. “You could find any weapon in Jebel Amir, as well as imported alcohol, drugs, prostitutes.” To avoid being robbed, miners and gold traders eschew cash for checks that could be deposited in a bank in the nearby town of Kebkabiya.

Ever since South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in 2011, both governments have faced a host of problems. As the International Crisis Group has chronicled, war has come to Sudan’s South Kordofan and Blue Nile states. In Darfur itself, 450,000 were displaced in 2013, mostly because of violence at the hands of militias. These were once (unevenly) controlled by Khartoum and have since slipped out of the government’s reins in an all-out battle for gold and power.

To stop the bloodshed and mass displacement in Darfur -- since the start of 2014, another 200,000 have fled their homes -- the government will need to get serious about controlling the militias. New resources, such as gold, are just a piece of the puzzle -- behind local conflicts are decades of frustration. Darfurians of all stripes believe that successive governments have stolen their wealth. Such feelings of marginalization have spread throughout Sudan’s periphery and are at the heart of the country’s national crisis.


Over the last three years, Sudan has experienced a number of gold rushes. New discoveries and high world prices are part of the story. But Khartoum has also promoted gold mining to offset oil production lost after South Sudan’s independence. To prevent smuggling and to bring the government badly needed foreign currency, Sudan’s central bank even pays more for gold than the mineral is worth on the world market. In turn, since South Sudan’s separation, Sudan’s gold production has increased threefold. Gold sales have risen from ten percent of Sudan’s exports to 70 percent today. All in all, the country’s gold industry is now worth about $2.5 billion a year.

Needless to say, numbers that big invite competition. In January 2013, a dig in Jebel Amir -- where “each bag of 50 kg of sand contained 1 kg of gold,” according to miners -- became the object of bitter fighting between members of the Beni Husein tribe, which has held the land since colonial times, and the Rizeigat tribe, which is made up of nomads without traditional land rights in North Darfur who have increasingly started to settle on others’ territory, often using force.

Both tribes have members in the Haras-al-Hodud (“Border Guard”), a government paramilitary body initially designed to patrol Sudan’s frontiers and into which Khartoum has integrated the Janjawid militia, which it armed starting in 2003 to fight Darfurian rebels. The Haras-al-Hodud is still nominally under government control. In truth, though, many of the fighters answer only to tribal warlords and do not hesitate to battle each other. Al-Hadi Adam Hamid, a retired lieutenant general who has intermittently headed Haras-al-Hodud since 2003, explains: “Initially, our plans were to create a professional guard to protect Darfur’s borders, but in 2003, the objective became fighting the rebels… Later, many members became rebels themselves, as they felt the government abandoned them. Before they were given salaries, cars, fuel and uniforms -- now it’s over.”

In the recent matchup over Jebel Amir, the Rizeigat contingent of the Haras-al-Hodud was simply stronger. It “pillaged the mine and surrounding villages and took control of the area,” according to O, a former rebel who is now a mine owner and prefers to go unnamed. The Beni Husein claim that 839 were killed and 420 injured. Some 150,000 people, mostly Beni Husein, were reportedly displaced -- a third of all those displaced in Darfur last year.

Hamid, like many others, believes that the fighting is a sign that the government needs to regain control of its various border guards and militia groups. But that is easier said than done. Officials acknowledge that they simply don’t have the capacity. “We can’t fight our own people just because they’re holding arms. We can’t disarm certain groups while others are still armed, and we can’t disarm them all at once either,” Amin Hasan Omar, the state minister in charge of the Darfur file, told me. “The forces of the tribes are ten times those of the national army deployed in Darfur.”

He isn’t exaggerating: Officially, Khartoum has deployed 30,000 army troops and 20,000 Haras-al-Hodud to Darfur. But there is no telling how many of those troops are still fighting in their official role rather than according to their tribal affiliations. Indeed, there are presumed to be as many as 200,000 militiamen out for blood in Darfur.


Many in the region believe that government capacity is not the only problem. In the fight over Jebel Amir, all sides have accused Khartoum of fanning the conflict as a pretext for marching into the gold fields, which are mostly held by small-scale traditional operators. If Khartoum controlled the mines, the thinking goes, it could sell concessions to industrial-scale mining companies that could extract more gold and provide more reliable revenue to the state.

Government officials reject the charge. In a conversation in his Khartoum office, Amin affirmed that Khartoum needs gold, but argued that the government simply doesn’t “need to wage a war to give concessions to companies, we [already] have authority to do it.” In his mind, there is no question that “traditional mining has to either stop or share the area with industrial mining,” which, in return, can “provide services to local communities” and make the region more peaceful.

But there is virtually no way for the government to assert its rights without risking further violence. “The government has no authority at all on Jebel Amir, and mining is fully controlled by Rizeigat armed men,” one miner who continues digging for gold in spite of the violence, told me. Perhaps realizing that, Khartoum’s efforts to promote peace between the Beni Husein and Rizeigat have been half-hearted. Between January and July 2013, the governor of North Darfur organized successive reconciliation conferences between the two groups, which thousands, including Ali Osman Mohammed Taha, Sudan’s vice president, attended. The government made grand promises to send in the national army and bring aid for the displaced, but “nothing was done,” Beni Husein participants complained to me.  

One man was not afraid to boycott the governor’s peace conference -- Musa Hilal. Hilal is an important Rizeigat chief whose support many, including Beni Husein leaders, government officials, and rebel chiefs, believe is necessary for any settlement. Accusing the government of intentionally stoking conflict, in August 2013, Hilal started his own reconciliation process. The effort culminated in a conference in the town of Kebkabiya, which some 2,000 civilians and militia leaders from all tribes in the area attended. Rizeigat and Beni Husein agreed to stop fighting and reopen roads and markets. Beni Husein began returning to Jebel Amir. And Hilal even apologized for crimes committed during the fight over the mine.

The effort was remarkable, especially considering Hilal’s checkered past. At the height of the conflict between government and rebels in Darfur, Hilal was the most famous Janjawid leader. He was reported to have authority over 8,000 men, many of them members of the Haras-al-Hodud. Over time, Hilal has grown increasingly critical of the government, which he believes has short-changed the Arabs, and closer to non-Arab rebels. He’d rather spend his time promoting peace between the region’s communities -- and, eventually, start fighting Khartoum. “I didn’t rebel against the state, but if the government doesn’t want to find solutions, we will get to that goal,” he warned in an interview last year. In early 2014, he expelled the commissioner of Saref Omra, a small town to the south of Jebel Amir and, in effect, annexed the territory into his own fiefdom. Then he repelled government troops that were reportedly sent to retake control of the town and the Jebel Amir gold mine, confiscating their arms and cars as he did.

Hilal is not the first Darfuri Arab to distance himself from the central government. He is also not alone in negotiating agreements among rebel movements. Hafiz Madiri, a Rizeigat war chief under Hilal whom I met in 2008, reached a similar deal with non-Arab rebels. “We signed this agreement because we heard the people saying that all problems of Darfur come from the Arabs, that we are Janjawid, that we are killers,” Hafiz told me. “I hear people calling us Janjawid every time they see us on our horses or camels.” Like many Arabs, Hafiz rejected the name, which literally means “horsemen armed with G3 rifles.” For him, the term still connoted outlaw, just as it did when he first heard it in 1984. “There was a famous cattle rustler called Hamid and nicknamed Janjawid. Even when he was in prison in Nyala, people kept blaming him for thefts: Hamid Janjawid stole my goat, Hamid Janjawid stole my camel! We even had a camel nicknamed Janjawid because it had been stolen by this Hamid!”

Many have hoped that local reconciliation efforts like Hilal’s and Madiri’s could succeed where the government and international community had failed. But even their progress has proved fragile, as Arab tribes have turned on each other and the government for gold and other spoils. In 2012, Madiri was killed by his own nephew, who had re-joined forces with the government.


Darfur has long been seen as Sudan’s Wild West, complete with its own Jesse Jameses and Butch Cassidys. In 1998, a gang of camel-herding Arabs famously robbed a bank in Nyala, Darfur’s largest city. According to members, they dressed up as army officers so that real soldiers stood to attention when they entered the bank and when they left town, throwing banknotes from the backs of their cars to provoke a riot. B, the reputed mastermind of the robbery who prefers to go unnamed, is now the owner of a chic two-story shop selling French perfumes, Hugo Boss suits, and Lacoste shirts in a wealthy Khartoum neighborhood. He is also a close Hilal associate.

“I don’t think sheikh Musa is ready to turn against the government. What he wants is power and development for his community,” B tells me as I sit with him in front of his shop. In fact, rebelling against the government might just be the best way to get that kind of influence: In 2007, Mohammed Hamdan Dagolo “Hemmeti,” a young Rizeigat militia leader and a Hilal rival in South Darfur, turned on the government for a few months. “We didn’t really become rebels,” he told me afterwards. “We just wanted to attract the government’s attention, tell them we’re here, in order to get our rights: military ranks, political positions and development in our area.” His plan partially worked; development never really took off, but Hemmeti was rewarded for his short-lived rebellion with a government job meant to keep him in check. The then 30-year-old seemed less political than Hilal -- and less open to peace with the rebels, whom he accused of looting 3,000 camels and killing 75 herders from his tribe back in 2003.

In mid-2013, Hemmeti was appointed brigadier general and took the lead of some 5,000-6,000 kinsmen. Rebranded the Rapid Support Forces, Hemmeti’s men were trained in central Sudan and sent to South Kordofan to fight against allied local and Darfurian rebels. The Rapid Support Forces reportedly suffered heavy casualties and withdrew back to Darfur, where they attacked non-Arab communities accused of supporting the rebels. The operation displaced 30,000 within the span of a few days in February. As the Rapid Support Forces continue to spread terror, officers from the regular army fear that, like Hilal’s group and other Arab militias before them, Hemmeti’s men will eventually slip from the government’s hands.

Darfur is already awash with militias and rebels, many without a cause. Their patrons obtain government positions as the troops fend for themselves by searching for gold or other booty. “In ten years of war, we didn’t get anything. Our chiefs became ministers and left us on our own,” says O. He still hopes to find gold in his Jebel Amir mine or, he says, “we’ll take our vehicles and look for bongo [marijuana] in South Sudan to sell in Sudan. What else can we do?” It is either that or following Hilal and Madiri’s path, which could end in death, or following Hemmeti’s path, which could end in death in South Kordofan, far from Darfur.

More than a decade into the Darfur conflict, it would be reductive to simply blame the government’s militia strategy. There is plenty of blame to go around. The government, the rebels, and all the other players need to work together to stop the violence in all Sudan’s peripheries. Uneasy concessions are needed. The government will have to send clear signals that it is bringing to an end an increasingly costly counterinsurgency strategy and that it will start allocating resources to peaceful activities instead. And rebels will have to show that they are loyal to more than their own tribes -- that they are ready to address the concerns of all Sudanese. Non-Arabs will need to grant land to Arab nomads, which will bring Arabs access to much needed education, health, and development. And Arabs will need to openly acknowledge that some among them committed war crimes. All this might be possible. “We’re all Darfurians,” says B. “We know how to fight each other but also how to talk to each other.”

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