Russians probed over gold in Sudan as West vies for influence

Dozens of Russians working for a mining company in Sudan are being probed by authorities on suspicion of gold-smuggling, in a potential setback for Moscow’s ambitions in the resource-rich North African state.

Sudanese prosecutors arrested one and summoned many more Russian employees for questioning this year, including just before and after Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s visit in February, according to people familiar with the events. While his tour sought to shore up ties with friendly countries on the continent, Sudan’s moves were partly meant to appease Western powers concerned by Russia’s growing influence, said the people who asked not to be identified as they weren’t authorized to comment.

Riad Alfatih, general manager for Sudan-based Al-Sulaj Mining Ltd., confirmed that 36 Russians were among 58 employees who’d been questioned on accusations of smuggling and undermining the economy, before being released.

Officials from Sudan’s ruling military, state mining body and judiciary didn’t respond to requests for comment, nor did Russia’s embassy.

Sudan, where veteran dictator Omar al-Bashir was ousted amid mass protests in 2019, has emerged as a frontline in the tussle for influence in Africa between the West and Russia. The US, European Union and others are trying to coax the military back into sharing power with civilians, promising the return of crucial financial aid for the nation located on a stretch of the Red Sea that’s a choke-point for global shipping.

Al-Sulaj in 2021 bought a gold tailing-processing facility owned by Meroe Gold for $1.8 million, Alfatih said. Sudan-registered Meroe was sanctioned the previous year by the US Treasury for its alleged ties to the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary company founded by an ally of President Vladimir Putin.

Alfatih said Al-Sulaj, which runs the site near Atbara, a city 280 kilometers (174 miles) north of the capital, Khartoum, has no ties to Wagner.

Internal Intrigue

The apparent crackdown also represents a show of force by Sudanese military leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan against his deputy, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, who has forged close ties with Russia and many believe has presidential ambitions, the people said.

Tensions have been apparent for several years between Burhan and Dagalo, who controls a powerful militia with origins in the bloody conflict in Darfur of the early 2000s. But Dagalo’s Moscow links have become a particular bone of contention for Western nations in the aftermath of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the people said.

The US, EU and others are pushing Sudan to merge Dagalo’s Rapid Support Forces into the regular army, likely curbing his powers. Representatives for the RSF didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Al-Sulaj’s general manager said Russian and Sudanese employees were summoned by Sudan’s attorney general between Jan. 14 and Feb. 14 to discuss the allegations. The gold-processing facility outside Atbara was shuttered on Feb. 7, he said.

It’s unclear if prosecutors will take the case forward.

“Even if someone in the company smuggled some gold, that doesn’t mean all the company is doing something illegal,” Alfatih said. “Our company is committed to all Sudanese laws and regulations that organize mining activities in the country.”

Al-Sulaj’s security head was arrested Jan. 14 and accused of carrying 5 kilograms (161 ounces) of illicit gold, according to Huweda Mursal, a legal adviser for the company. She said the metal had been bought from an Atbara market, not smuggled from the factory.

“We believe that there is basically no case here,” she said, adding that an appeal had been lodged.

Sudan exported about 27 tons of gold worth $1.6 billion in the first nine months of 2022, according to the latest data published by the central bank. The government has previously said as much as 80% of Sudan’s production is likely smuggled across its borders.