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The Wagner Group in Darfur – Can Australia Do Anything?

16 Mar 2023
By Elhafiz Adam and Dr Helena Grunfeld
Darfur Village Abandoned after Heavy Clashes. Source: United Nations/

The brutality of the Wagner Group mercenaries fighting on behalf of Russia in Ukraine have thrown a spotlight on this private military company in western media. But in many African countries this mercenary group has been a household name for some time.

According to U.N. investigators and rights groups, Wagner’s mercenary troops have targeted civilians, conducted mass executions, and looted private property in conflict zones. Its campaigns to influence public opinion by infiltrating social media with information promoting Russia’s interests and through the Internet Research Agency troll factory, have also reached African populations, according to research by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime. In Sudan, Wagner advisers urged the government to run a social media campaign to discredit protesters in the popular revolt that surged from late 2018.

The Wagner Group’s activities in the Darfur region exploit and reinforce existing conflicts, assisting an authoritarian regime to resist attempts at democratisation while at the same time profiting from minerals in this resource rich region. This should be of great concern to the West, not only because of the atrocities the group commits against an already traumatised people, or that political instability anywhere should be a reason for concern, but also because these activities undermine the sanctions on Russia, imposed after its invasion of Ukraine.

The population of Darfur, located in the western part of Sudan, has been subjected to a systematic policy of genocide, which for decades has been responsible for the deaths of some 300,000 people. The survivors, on top of such psychological and physical experiences, now also deal with new and heightened anxieties from the escalation in violence associated with the presence of the Wagner Group on their lands. The area is rich in gold and also has uranium.

The Wagner Group started operating in Sudan in 2017 and was originally associated with former president Omar Al-Bashir. Al-Bashir has been wanted by the International Criminal Court since 2009 for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide in Darfur. The group now works with the military leaders involved in deposing him (in 2019) and was instrumental in overthrowing the semi-democratic council that governed Sudan until October 2022. The partnership between Sudan’s military that seized power in that coup and the Wagner group has intensified since then.

Initially recruited to provide military training and intelligence to special forces, and to the paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the Wagner Group has also fought alongside these forces – the successor forces to the feared Janjaweed militias –  responsible for the genocide in Darfur. The Wagner Group is also assisting the regime in its continued suppression of Sudan’s pro-democracy revolutionary movement, as well as helping run pro-RSF social media pages. They do this unconstrained by human rights responsibilities. Payment for these services is in the form of access to mining rights through front companies with ties to Sudan’s military and the RSF in Darfur and other areas of the country. The RSF has interests in many sectors of the Sudanese economy, including gold, and runs a considerable business empire.

General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemeti, leader of the RSF and Deputy Chairman of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, is a key player in Sudan’s gold mining operations. He visited Russia in the early days of the Ukrainian war. About 70 percent of Sudan’s gold production is smuggled out of the country, with Hemeti and his family benefiting from much of it.

The gold is officially mined by Meroe Gold Limited, a Sudanese company within the Wagner network, although Mr. Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of Wagner, has denied that he has anything to do with this company. Leaked documents obtained by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, working in partnership with Le Monde, details how Meroe’s parent company M Invest — owned by Wagner’s owner Prigozhin — paid millions of dollars to a company operated by Sudanese military intelligence in exchange for access to residence permits and weapons for its Russian personnel. Meroe also appears to have received special treatment from the Sudanese presidency. Another concession extended to Meroe is exemption from the requirement by foreign companies with mining exploration licenses to establish a production company to exploit resources after discovery, in which the Ministry of Minerals is granted 30 percent of the shares. Some of the gold is smuggled directly to Russia or via the United Arab Emirates. The economic and military benefits of this synergy between the Wagner Group and the military leadership of Sudan are paramount to both parties.

In Darfur, the Wagner Group is looting rich gold mines. In 2022 its mercenaries killed scores of miners in at least three major attacks. The Darfur Bar Association (DBA), a legal group that focuses on human rights, has photographs of Russian mercenaries in the streets and cafes in the South Darfur village Um Dafuq, located within the proximity of traditional artisanal gold mines. This is the main camp of the Wagner Group and it has become a no-go area for locals. The DBA recorded testimony from relatives of people in South Darfur who allegedly were killed by Wagner mercenaries in the borderlands with the Central African Republic.

In 2020, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) introduced sanctions on Wagner entities located in Sudan, including M Invest and Meroe Gold. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Treasury Department threatened sanctions on anyone who helped launder the US$130 billion gold stash in Russia’s central bank. It took until early February 2023 for the Council of the European Union to follow suit with sanctions on M Invest and Meroe Gold. While Prigozhin, his wife, and two children are included in Australia’s consolidated list of sanctioned individuals and entities, M Invest and Meroe Gold are not, but should be.

But sanctions are not the only tool for supporting the people of Darfur and other regions of Sudan in their struggle against oppressive regimes supported by the Wagner Group. Democracies, including Australia, that value human rights and liberal democracy should be deeply worried about the addition of the Wagner Group to the traumas suffered by the Darfuri population and should think creatively of what else they can do.

The protests leading to the removal of Omar Al-Bashir from power in 2019 were led by civil society organisations. They continue operating despite repression and are capable of taking initiatives. There is also impressive civil society work going on in Darfur, despite the trauma suffered by the population there. These organisations need support, including training in how to organise and unite into a cohesive structure to counter not only the exploitation of resources on their land, but also the misleading social media campaigns orchestrated by the Wagner Group.

While it may appear to be wishful thinking that these actions would have any effect on the powerful Wagner Group and the Sudanese military leadership, any sign of solidarity with the Darfur people would boost their morale.

Elhafiz (Bassy) Adam is a member of the executive committee of the WAREFUR International Organisation, an organisation working for human rights and justice in Darfur.

Dr Helena Grunfeld is an associate member of WAREFUR International Organisation.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.