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Taj el-Bisary, an independent researcher for aid groups, visits the Darfur region in western Sudan, where he was born, at least three times a year. He observes that the situation there is mostly unchanged. The Sudanese government first contracted militias to combat rebel groups there more than a decade ago, yet the terrible violence gripping the region never really stopped.
Despite the ongoing conflict, one new group of people has flocked to Darfur in recent years: gold miners. From all over Africa, they have left their families, homes and countries, heading to a largely forgotten war zone to dig for gold.
When a group of nomadic miners entered the Jebel Amer region in North Darfur state three years ago, they discovered a wealth of gold deposits just beneath the surface. The shallow depth of the gold precluded the need for sophisticated and expensive mining machinery; bare hands and basic tools were sufficient. By the end of 2012, there were nearly 4,000 independent mining sites in the territory.
“The mining is good,” Bisary added. “But the local people are definitely not the beneficiaries.”
Gold has been produced for decades in Sudan’s southern Blue Nile state and sections of the northeast. When South Sudan seceded in 2011, it took with it nearly 3.5 billion barrels of Sudan’s proven oil reserves, forcing Khartoum to reframe its export economy around gold, the country’s other key resource. Just one year later in the capital, Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir inaugurated one of Africa’s biggest gold refineries, with claims that it would soon be exporting nearly 300 tons annually to customers like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Gold has since held steady as Sudan’s main export, with sales of more than $2 billion per year.
However, evidence is emerging that it has become a catalyst for the ongoing conflict in Darfur — clashes over land, tribal rights and resources that have been taking place since at least 2003. Battles for control over mining areas between rival ethnic groups and occupying militias are further complicating the government’s war against already splintered rebel groups and civilians.
The miners who produce much of this gold and the Darfuris who live nearby are often subjected to violence or exploitation. Last year Sudan had its most internally displaced people, a decade after 2 million were pushed out of their villages. From December 2014 to February 2015, some 40,000 people were forced from their homes.
Akshaya Kumar, lead researcher at the Enough Project, says the involvement of a man accused of working alongside the government to wage war on non-Arab Darfuris over the last decade is reason enough to revitalize human rights campaigners’ concern for Sudan.
Although he dropped his affiliation with the incumbent National Congress Party in Khartoum, behind the scenes Hilal and his associates collaborate with the national government as commercial partners, with gold bought from middlemen at Jebel Amer. “Hilal is not currently allied with government,” Kumar said. “But he is certainly brandishing his control over this mine as one of his biggest political bargaining chips.”
“The government was looking to enter as a buyer,” said Suliman Baldo, a Sudanese scholar at the Rift Valley Institute. “It didn’t seek to contain the conflict and didn’t hold anyone responsible from the auxiliary forces that attacked the Beni Hussein people. They let things happen … then send in companies that buy gold [and] take it to Khartoum.”
At the refinery in Khartoum, gold from across Sudan is blended into a single product and sold without labeling association to any mine or region. Buyers cannot distinguish between gold sourced from Jebel Amer in northern Darfur and gold from the country’s northeastern mines, which are relatively untouched by the kinds of conflict seen in Sudan’s west and south. As a result, campaigners say, whether intentionally or not, the country’s export customers are funding a thinly veiled war enterprise.
‘The government was looking to enter as a buyer. It didn’t seek to contain the conflict and didn’t hold anyone responsible from the auxiliary forces that attacked the Beni Hussein people. They let things happen … then send in companies that buy gold [and] take it to Khartoum.’
“We ask the U.N. to do research to find out the traders and the enablers,” said Kumar. “We want them to target the specific traders instead of all gold coming from Sudan.”
Decreasing Sudanese gold’s marketability would not only starve the rebel militias skimming “tariffs” from local and migrant miners in regions like Jebel Amer but would also hit government military spending as well.
“Gold is being used to produce weapons and to rent every criminal group and militia out there,” said Mohamed Abdulshaf, a Darfuri who works at the Sudan Democracy First Group. “Every day we hear about Sukhoi jet fighters, Antonov bomber jets and non-Sudanese mercenaries flying these planes and bombing local villages.”
“Where is the money for these things coming from?” he asked. “It isn’t coming from oil production anymore.”
Experts say Khartoum is likely to continue to develop and exploit resource-rich areas in the wake of its shrunken oil economy — even if it means setting up operations in war zones. In February, Sudan announced that it completed infrastructure on a new test oil well in East Darfur.
Analysts, including Kumar, believe the government will pursue more contracts with corporate mine operators rather than rely on an informal system that involves smuggling. Just this week, the Sudanese government took full ownership of the Ariab Mining Co., which had been partly owned by Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris.
Any approach by the international community to tracking and restricting the gold trade, therefore, would require unprecedented nuance. But tackling the problem would be hard. Shutting down the entire gold trade — say, through the use of nontargeted sanctions — would be disastrous for the many people who depend on it, some experts believe.
“There are ways to tackle this issue in principle, and the U.N. system has started working to minimize the humanitarian cost of sanctions,” said Jérôme Tubiana, an independent researcher on Darfur. “But there may be some areas, including conflict areas and rebel areas, where gold is helping some poor and affected people to survive.”
In the near future, the situation does not look set to get better. On-the-ground investigation in Sudan is increasingly difficult, given that Khartoum kicked out two U.N. representatives in December and continues to pressure UNAMID (the U.N.-A.U. Mission in Darfur) peacekeeping forces to leave.
UNAMID will not disappear from Darfur once its mandate ends in June, but it will begin reducing its footprint, raising fears that violence and power battles over resource-rich regions will increase. “The U.N. hasn’t been efficient, as everyone knows by now,” said Aicha Elbasri, a former U.N. spokeswoman in Darfur. “But its absence would mean that the government has won.”
‘We ask the UN to do research to find out the traders and the enablers. We want them to target the specific traders instead of all gold coming from Sudan.’
lead researcher, Enough Project
Abdulshaf was raised in Darfur, and his voice grows angry as he speaks about the wars in Sudan. To him, even the poor miners who travel thousands of miles to try to find wealth in Sudan are giving life to a system of oppression and violence.
“They risked their lives to engage in this,” he said, “and the government uses this to encourage them to create more product, to create more war and prosperity [for the government].”
As UNAMID prepares to disengage, outsiders worry the U.N. will see its limited influence on Sudan — and the potential reach of any new sanctions — further slip away.
Either way, Khartoum will continue to mine and export as much gold as it can.
“They believe they have the magic to give themselves more immunity,” said Abdulshaf, referring to the government. “This magic is gold.”