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General Hemeti's trip to Moscow seems to have produced little more than a spate of reports about Khartoum's gold smuggling
Spiralling wheat prices and the crashing Sudanese pound are firing up still more determined protests against the military regime, testing the unity of the junta's component parts, particularly between the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Over 85 civilians have been killed since the military seized power last October.
At the junta's core are the persisting tensions between head of state General Abdel Fattah al Burhan, commander of the SAF, and his deputy, Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo 'Hemeti', commander of the RSF. As they preside over the imploding economy, Burhan and Hemeti argue over tactics and how to win outside support. Along, with Mali's junta and Zimbabwe's militarised regime, Sudan has emerged as one of Russia's loudest cheerleaders since Moscow launched the invasion of Ukraine. Hemeti has led that relationship while Burhan is more circumspect about it (AC Vol 62 No 18, Hedging the Eagle and the Bear).
On 14 March protestors in cities such as Atbara, Nyala and Damazin, as well as Khartoum and Port Sudan hit the streets again demanding that the generals hand over to a civilian led-transitional authority.
They were joined by thousands of workers and students protesting at the ruinous economic conditions: staple food prices are running at between 100-200% higher than they were a year ago, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET).
Even before Russia's invasion of Ukraine last month, Sudan's economy was on a knife-edge. The civilian-military administration in power since the 2019 overthrow of President Omer Hassan Ahmed el Beshir had unlocked billions of dollars in loans and debt forgiveness, ending its decades-long status as a pariah regime (AC Vol 62 No 15, Between money and the military).
That was all reversed by a coup on 25 October led by Gen Burhan against his civilian partners, which prompted international organisations to freeze financial assistance (AC Vol 62 No 22, General Al Burhan's power grab). At least US$2.7 billion of aid was frozen ($2bn from the Bretton Woods institutions and $700 million from the United States). Sudan now has only a month of hard currency for strategic imports.
Since October, exports and the value of the currency have plummeted, while inflation is running at around 250%. Now, the UN World Food Programme is warning that half the population will be at crisis levels of food insecurity this year, due to rocketing grain prices. Sudan imports about a third of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine.
In February 2021, the civilian-military government under Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok was able to unify the different exchange rates of the Sudanese pound, stabilising it at about 450 to the dollar.
Thanks to the show of confidence by all international partners and a July 2021 meeting of Paris Club creditors, at which debt relief of $14bn was agreed, the Sudanese pound remained stable until the 25 October coup. Since then, the currency has lost at least 24% on the parallel market, and deterioration of the exchange rate may accelerate in the next weeks.
On the eve of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine, Gen Hemeti met with senior Russian officials including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Deputy Defence Minister Alexander Fomin. The main purpose of the visit was to convince Russian oligarchs to invest in Sudan. No noticeable progress was made on this, nor on plans dating back to the Beshir era for Russia to establish a naval base in Port Sudan.
Hemeti backs the idea of the naval base, saying upon his return to Khartoum that 'we have no problem in dealing with anyone, Russian or otherwise,' who wishes to open a base on Sudan's Red Sea coast. But Burhan is more ambivalent about the Moscow ties. He is trying to convince western states to resume some financial backing for Khartoum. Such a decision on the naval base would require a consensus among the top generals, not only an agreement between Burhan and Hemeti.
Many suspected that Hemeti – who was accompanied by his Minister for Mining and Oil Mohamed Bashir Abunmo, as well as by Finance Minister Jibril Ibrahim – had another aim on his Russia trip: to secure additional wheat supplies, paid for in gold, to stave off the mounting social economic crisis.
The idea was partly fuelled by international reports that Russia has been smuggling gold from Sudan to built up a vast reserve of bullion, with the help of operatives from the mining and mercenary empire of Yevgeny Prigozhin's Wagner Group. Unofficial data from the United Arab Emirates reported that over $1.7bn of Sudanese gold landed in Dubai last year, just under half the value of all the country's exports. But there is little accurate data tracking it after it arrives in the UAE. Most industry exports reckon that official figures account for less than a quarter of total gold sales. Khartoum's central bank recorded gold exports of 26.4 tonnes from January to September in 2021 but estimates over 100 tonnes would have been smuggled out during that period.
For the junta, the issue is not just securing enough wheat but also financing the subsidies to cushion Sudanese from the spiralling prices.
On the streets, protests by Sudan's Resistance Committees are set to continue despite ever harsher crackdowns. Hemeti's RSF, which operates independently of the formal chain of command, is blamed for some of the worst atrocities. But regular soldiers in the SAF were blamed for the gang rape of a young woman on 14 March which sparked a new wave of protests.
While the strength of the Resistance Committees has been their grassroots base, fuelled by popular hostility to military rule, political differences between different factions are sharpening. Some in Khartoum closer to the Sudan Communist Party published a charter on 27 February calling for the end of the military regime and ruling out any negotiation or compromise (AC Vol 63 No 5, Schisms in the junta are widening). But their approach may prove too radical for many other civilian politicians and activists, scuppering attempts to forge unity among those who had grouped together in the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) after the overthrow of President Beshir in 2019.
After months of local initiatives in the countryside, undertaken by University of Khartoum teaching staff, a national gathering of Resistance Committees and political parties is set to take place on 20 March at the University of Gezira, about 100 miles south-east of Khartoum. The University of Khartoum's vice-chancellor has made strong efforts to make the initiative as successful as possible.
While the radicalism of the Resistance Committees is alienating some of those desperate for a resolution to the impasse, others in the opposition have launched into introspection. The 25 October coup, and a subsequent botched accommodation between Burhan and former Prime Minister Hamdok, exposed some civilians' plans as lacking in realism. Several civilian politicians resigned from their party positions, acknowledging indirect responsibility for the coup.
The biggest challenge for the civilian opposition is forging some kind of unity. For the first time, the Islamist Popular Congress Party – formed by Hassan al Turabi, the long-time ideological guide of the Beshir regime – will be talking with components of the FFC, including the centrist National Umma Party.
Burhan, meanwhile, will keep an eye on mediation efforts led by the UN Special Representative for Sudan, Volker Perthes. A rambling 36-page report in late February was short on concrete proposals, and gave little hope of any progress before the year's end. It starts underwhelmingly: 'this report may disappoint those who expected a solution from the UN, the objective of this process remains to support a Sudanese solution towards emerging from the current political crisis towards realising the goals of their revolution.'
It then claims to have identified areas of consensus among those its authors consulted, reassuring allcomers that 'the UN is committed to supporting civilian-led democratic government as the ultimate objective of the transitional period in Sudan'.
Researched over five weeks, the UN report authors talked to soldiers, politicians, civil servants, resistance committees, women's groups, militia fighters, Sufi leaders and business people. Although the research went beyond the condemnation of military violence against civilian protestors and calls to end the economic mismanagement, it failed to reflect the dynamic and creative ideas buzzing around political discussions in Sudan. As Burhan and Hemeti lead the junta back to the worst days of violent repression under Beshir, many Sudanese are questioning what the 2019 revolution was for. They are not putting much faith in the ability to the UN to change matters.
It may be the fruitlessness of Perthes's efforts that most attracts Burhan, as this buys the junta leader more time to string along the western-dominated Friends of Sudan group of international donors and multilateral institutions.
On 7 March, a deal was reached to give the African Union (AU) more of a role in the mediation. The UN's Perthes and AU's Mohamed el Hacen Lebatt are to cooperate to bolster efforts to end the stalemate and stand-off between the generals and the civilians.
Both are agreed on the urgency of 'ending the coup' and returning the country to an agreed transition to elections. The alternative, they argue is economic ruin and the 'country falling into the abyss'. Yet such strong words bely the diplomatic weight carried by either Perthes or Lebatt and their ideas for a transition. That helps explain the continuing popularity and bravery of the pro-democracy demonstrators in the teeth of fiercer military repression.
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