Out for Gold and Blood in Sudan
Out for Gold and Blood in Sudan
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.
Op-Ed / Africa

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.”

Sudan’s Imperilled Transition: Policy Recommendations for the U.S.

In a 1 February 2022 hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Crisis Group’s President & CEO Dr. Comfort Ero testified on the escalating situation in Sudan and outlined four main recommendations for the U.S. to help restore the civilian-led transition to democracy.

Good morning/afternoon, Chairman Menendez, Ranking Member Risch and distinguished members of the Committee. My name is Dr. Comfort Ero, and I am the President and CEO of the International Crisis Group. Previously I served as the organization’s Africa program director and I have spent my professional and academic career focusing on peace and security issues in Africa. The International Crisis Group is a global organisation committed to the prevention, mitigation and resolution of deadly conflict. We cover over 50 conflict situations around the world and our presence in Sudan dates back more than two decades.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°281, Safeguarding Sudan’s Revolution, 21 October 2019; Jonas Horner, “After the Coup, Restoring Sudan’s Transition”, Crisis Group Commentary, 5 November 2021; Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°168, The Rebels Come to Khartoum: How to Implement Sudan’s New Peace Agreement, 23 February 2021.Hide Footnote

I very much appreciate the opportunity to speak to you about the deteriorating situation in Sudan today. The country is at a dangerous crossroads. Not for the first time in its history, the military has turned its back on the demands of the Sudanese people for more just and representative rule by violently seizing power. The coup on October 25 brought a sudden halt to a civilian-military coalition that since 2019 has been charged with steering Sudan toward elections and full civilian rule.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Safeguarding Sudan’s Revolution, op. cit.; Horner, “After the Coup, Restoring Sudan’s Transition”, op.cit. It was a major reversal in a transition that had brought hope to so many in the Horn of Africa and beyond. I will share with you my analysis of the current situation in Sudan and recommendations for steps the United States might take to help guide it back on the path toward greater democracy and stability.


By way of background, the transition that was interrupted on October 25 followed 30 years of rule by the notorious strongman Omar al-Bashir.

  • After coming to office in a coup in June 1989, Bashir maintained his hold on power by repressing political opposition, fighting costly counter-insurgencies in the country’s peripheries and underwriting his factious security sector with patronage-driven expenditure that ate up, by some estimates, 70 per cent of the national budget.[fn]Shortly after taking office, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who was mandated to lead the civilian-military transition in August 2019, listed as an ambition driving down military expenditure to 20 per cent of the national budget. He said in some years, that budget line had stood at 80 per cent. “Sudan PM seeks to end the country’s pariah status”, AP, 25 August 2019.Hide Footnote
  • The patronage system that Bashir built eventually bankrupted the country and contributed to the strongman’s ouster. A small cabal of favoured cronies including Bashir’s Islamist allies from the National Congress Party, senior military officers (many of them drawn from the tiny riverine elite that has dominated Sudan’s military and politics for decades) and newly minted allies such as the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which was blamed for some of the worst violence in the western region of Darfur, benefited substantially from Sudan’s rigged, lopsided economy.[fn]“Who are Sudan’s RSF and their Commander Hemeti?”, Al Jazeera, 6 June 2019.Hide Footnote These same actors continue to try to preserve their privileges atop Sudan’s political, economic and security establishment.
  • Popular frustration over political repression, rising prices and a sclerotic economy that could not absorb Sudan’s ranks of unemployed youths helped trigger the protests that eventually drove Bashir from power. The uprising began in the south-eastern towns of Damazin and Sennar, where crowds took to the streets on 13 December 2018 in response to a tripling of bread prices. By the time the protests reached Atbara, the historic bastion of unionism in Sudan, demonstrators were demanding regime change. Against long odds and despite heavy repression, the protesters eventually overwhelmed the security forces, who staged a palace coup against Bashir on 11 April 2019.  
  • The military tried to maintain the upper hand but was forced under pressure both from the protest movement and external actors to compromise and accept to share power with civilians. International revulsion over a 3 June 2019 massacre of protesters encamped outside the military headquarters was particularly important in forcing the generals to cede to the will of the Sudanese people.[fn]“Sudan commemorates the June 3 Massacre”, Dabanga Sudan, 3 June 2021.Hide Footnote Under the terms of a 17 August Constitutional Declaration, the country would be governed by a hybrid civilian-military coalition for 39 months leading up to elections.
  • The task before that coalition was enormous. The new cabinet headed by the technocrat and diplomat Abdalla Hamdok was charged with breathing new life into Sudan’s anaemic economy, reforming political institutions to lay the ground for elections and delivering justice to the many Sudanese victims of atrocities during Bashir’s rule – and in the weeks following his fall. Despite the formidable obstacles the authorities faced, that coalition represented the country’s best hope for emerging into a stable, prosperous and democratic future and was a source of hope for those supporting democratic renewal in other countries in the region.
  • Always reluctant participants in the alliance, the generals barely disguised their opposition to the Hamdok administration’s reforms and were particularly opposed to efforts to deliver justice and to reshape the country’s economy. In defiance of the United States government and others who warned them against doing so, they seized power and ousted the civilians.

The October 25 Coup and Its Aftermath

Today, unfortunately, the picture looks grim. The military violently applied the brakes on the transition in the early hours of October 25 when they placed Hamdok under house arrest, rounded up numerous other civilian officials in the administration, declared a state of emergency and dissolved key institutions including the cabinet. Since then, Sudan’s military chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has taken a series of steps to reverse the reforms the civilian-led administration had rolled out, including by disbanding a committee charged with reclaiming public assets, by packing the Sovereign Council, which serves as the country’s executive, with his allies and by appointing Bashir-era figures into key posts including in the judiciary and security forces.[fn]Crisis Group EU Watch List 2022, 27 January 2022.Hide Footnote The military attempted some window dressing when it reinstated Hamdok on 21 November, a move Sudanese protesters rightly dismissed as an effort to legitimise their power grab. Some efforts to stimulate talks among Sudanese actors to find a way out of the crisis continue although the prospects of a resolution appear dim.

[Sudan] has been on a downhill trajectory since the coup.

Overall, the country has been on a downhill trajectory since the coup. On 2 January, Hamdok resigned in frustration after failing to persuade the generals to stick to their commitments under the August 2019 constitutional charter, and in particular to give him a free hand to appoint a new cabinet. In the meantime, the public’s frustration has been growing. For the past few weeks, Sudanese people across the country have taken to the streets to signal their revulsion at the military’s power grab. The general’s response to the protests has come right out of the Bashir playbook. The security forces have repeatedly fired into crowds, killing dozens, according to human rights groups and the UN.[fn]“Bachelet condemns killings of peaceful protesters in Sudan”, UN, 18 November 2021.Hide Footnote A late December decree by military chief Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan gave the police effective immunity for their actions. Still, the Sudanese people continue to risk their lives by staging protests, work boycotts and other strike actions.

While it is not yet clear who will come out on top in this contest between the security forces and the street, there is evidence to suggest that the generals have gravely miscalculated the strength of their hand. This is a different Sudan from the one in which the army captured control of the state at least five times in the past, including in 1989 when Bashir took office.[fn]"A history of Sudan coups”, Statista, 25 October 2021.Hide Footnote Sudan has one of the youngest populations in the world.[fn]“After the Uprising: Including Sudanese Youth”, Chr. Michelsen Institute, 2020.Hide Footnote Six in ten Sudanese are aged between fifteen and 30 – and the current generation rejects the notion that the country should go back to being governed by an unaccountable, out-of-touch elite.[fn]Sudan’s Political Impasse”, The Horn (Crisis Group podcast), 26 January 2022.Hide Footnote This mobilised, youthful population showed its power at the end of 2018 when it rose up in protest at Bashir’s repressive, kleptocratic rule. The protest movement captured the imagination of pro-democracy campaigners well beyond Sudan with its diversity, with the prominent role that women played – sometimes outnumbering men in demonstrations – with its tenacity, and ultimately with its success. Against what many viewed as tall odds, it brought a halt to Bashir’s rule. Since the coup, this movement has again shown its strength by mobilising millions of Sudanese to take to the streets and send a clear signal to the generals that they will not, as past generations of officers did, get away with imposing their will on the Sudanese people.[fn]“Deaths Reported in Sudan as ‘March of Millions’ Demands Restoration of Civilian Rule”, Voice of America, 30 October 2021.Hide Footnote

Getting the transition back on track would serve both the people of Sudan’s democratic aspirations and the interests of the United States.

Getting the transition back on track would serve both the people of Sudan’s democratic aspirations and the interests of the United States and other regional and international actors in the strategically important Horn of Africa – where Sudan sits between major regional powers Ethiopia and Egypt and shares a border with seven countries, several in the throes of conflict themselves. Support for Sudan’s transition would comport with the U.S. government’s stated commitment to champion democratic values and to “demonstrate that democracies can deliver by improving the lives of their own people”[fn]“President Biden to Convene Leaders’ Summit for Democracy”, White House, 11 August 2021.Hide Footnote . It would also be the surest pathway to medium- and long-term stability in the country.


The United States is one of Sudan’s most important external partners. It provides about half a billion dollars in assistance annually and was a champion of efforts to reconnect Sudan’s economy with international financial institutions. Given these ties and the United States government’s relations with all the main regional actors, the U.S. is well positioned to support efforts to reverse the military’s power grab and set Sudan back on a path toward elections and representative government. Specifically, it could:

  • Press the generals to immediately halt violence against protesters and coordinate targeted sanctions to hold them to account: As outlined, Sudan’s security forces have responded to peaceful protests by indiscriminately shooting into crowds and sometimes reportedly even pursuing fleeing and wounded demonstrators into hospitals.[fn]“Sudanese security forces ‘hunt down’ injured protesters in hospital”, France 24, 25 January 2022.Hide Footnote This pattern of behaviour, on top of its grave human cost, threatens to poison relations between the parties and render a resolution even further beyond reach. In coordination with partners including the African Union (AU) and the European Union, the United States should make clear that the generals will face consequences including asset freezes and travel bans if they continue to kill unarmed demonstrators. The White House should simultaneously convene an interagency process to design a targeted sanctions programs aimed at key figures in the military and outline that it is willing to deploy these against individuals that continue to sanction the killing of protesters or obstruct progress toward elections more broadly.
  • Support Sudanese-led efforts to rerail the transition: The United States has already signalled its backing for efforts to stimulate negotiations among the generals and civilian groups including the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the coalition that spearheaded the protest movement and neighbourhood resistance committees, which play an integral role in the day-to-day organisation of protests and have proved a particularly effective channel of resistance to the military coup. The United States should warn the generals against taking precipitous measures that could derail these potential talks, including refraining from unilaterally appointing a new prime minister. It should further insist that these talks are maximally inclusive and in particular that they should take on board the views of the resistance committees. The 2019 power-sharing agreement should be the blueprint for a compromise that could restore civilian-military governance and lead to elections.
  • Withhold financial assistance until the military reverses its coup: In the immediate aftermath of the military takeover, the United states suspended $700 million in assistance to Sudan. This was the right step given the generals’ brazen decision to terminate the power-sharing agreement. The United States should make clear to the generals that this support will not resume unless they accept to return to the path toward elections laid out in the 2019 power-sharing agreement. In the meantime, the United States should advance with efforts to repurpose some of its support to civil society groups and also to work with partners including the UN to offer direct assistance to Sudan’s long-suffering people.
  • Urge all regional actors to back a return to a civilian-led dispensation: Many on the Sudanese street perceive some external actors, namely Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as tacitly backing military rule.[fn]Sudan’s Political Impasse”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Such perceptions will ultimately be damaging to those countries’ standing in Sudan if it is able to reinvigorate its transitional process. But it is still possible for these key regional actors to play an important role in helping Sudan return to a civilian-led transitional process, thereby protecting their relations with the Sudanese people. Given his strong background in regional diplomacy, Special Envoy Satterfield should be well positioned to engage these actors and urge them to use their privileged relations with Sudan’s generals to convey to them that the power-sharing agreement they torpedoed remains Sudan’s best and perhaps only chance for stability, a goal they all profess to share. With the welcome appointment of a new ambassador to Khartoum, the United States could play a key role in marshalling a coalition of actors within and outside Sudan that can help steer the country back toward the path to elections.

Sudan is at a historic hinge-point. The military’s power grab has derailed a transition that was an inspiration well beyond Sudan, and still could be, if the generals step back and allow Sudan’s civilians to steer the country to elections. With a piling set of challenges – not least an economy in deep distress, resurging violence in Darfur and elsewhere, and a tottering peace deal with armed groups – the generals can hardly afford to stonewall the Sudanese people’s demands for change. The world – and the United States – should stand with Sudan’s people in their quest for a more democratic and accountable government, an outcome that represents the country’s best hope for achieving long-run political, social and economic stability.

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