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Sudan snubs UN, opens arms to Russia

April 21, 2022

Sudan's military government is on the fast track to end the country's democratic dialogue — not only by attacking the UN's Sudan mission, but also by appeasing a long-standing ally: Russia.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (lleft) and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, deputy chairman of Sovereign Council of Sudan speak in Moscow
General Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, Sudan's second-in-command, held talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on February 24Image: Sudan's Presidential Palace/Handout/AA/picture alliance

Six months after the military-led coup, which eventually ousted Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and put a military government in place, Sudan is again at crossroads. 

Chances are high that the UN-led democratic process that followed the coup is about to end, and with it civil society's hopes for a government without military leadership. 

In response to a recent  speech by Volker Perthes, the head of the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission Sudan, Sudan's military head General Abdel-Fattah Burhan and other military members have been calling for a "jihad" against Perthes, and have threatened to "expel the UN special representative" from the country.

Perthes had said that "in the absence of a political agreement to return to an accepted transitional path, the economic situation, the humanitarian situation, and the security situation are deteriorating."

The military's harsh rhetoric has reached such a fever pitch that the UN has now officially called to stop the "hate speech." 

The true reason behind these heated exchanges is becoming increasingly evident. While Sudan's military is turning its back to any possible democratic road map under UN leadership, the country has been quietly moving closer to its fellow autocratic ally, Russia.

A map of Sudan

Traditional friendship

In the years leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, Sudan and Russia have renewed their political and economic ties.

"In fact, after the Sochi summit with Vladimir Putin in 2017, Sudan's longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir famously said that Sudan would become Russia's key to Africa," Mohammed Elnaiem, a London-based Sudanese activist, told DW. 

Back in 2017, agreements between Sudan and Russia included setting up a Russian naval base on the Red Sea, a plan which is now gaining momentum, and allowing a Russian subsidiary of the infamous private contractor Wagner Group to mine and export gold to Russia.


An Ariab company truck is loaded with earth at a mine prospecting for gold in the Sudanese desert,
Unregistered gold exports to Russia have helped to ease the international sanctionsImage: Ashraf Shazly/AFP/Getty Images

According to various databases, gold makes up around 45% of the country's total exports, varying between 26 and 30 tons per year.

Furthermore, business is thriving, as gold exports have been excluded from international sanctions which followed the 2019 ouster of al-Bashir.

Several reports have suggested an increase of unregistered gold exports to Russia in private airplanes. Moreover, according to British newspaper The Telegraph, Sudan's gold has helped Russia to ease the effects of the international sanctions over the war in Ukraine.

Politically, Sudan and Russia are also growing closer. 

On February 24 the day Russia launched its attack on Ukraine Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemeti, head of the Rapid Support Forces and vice president of the ruling military council, held talks in Moscow with senior Russian government officials, including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

"The fact that Hemeti is a representative of the Sudanese regime regardless of whether he went as its representative or as commander of the RSF is causing considerable concern in the civil society, but presumably also in the military," Christine-Felice Röhrs of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Sudan's capital Khartoum, told DW. 

Both factions most likely fear Sudan could fall back into the same international isolation as it did during the al-Bashir regime between 1993 and 2019.

"Potentially closer ties with Russia, which has become an international pariah, have set off alarm bells," Röhrs said.

Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, wearing a white turban, sits in a gold chair
Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, also called Hemeti, is said to have close ties to Russia's Wagner GroupImage: Mahmoud Hjaj/AA/picture alliance

As Theodore Murphy, Africa director at the European Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out, "Hemeti has been courting the Russians most aggressively and they've been responding very positively to those overtures."

Although the military under General Burhan's lead now fears of being outflanked by Hemeti, Murphy is also convinced Burhan would be open to working with the Kremlin. 

Therefore, Murphy sees the civil society as the only "true protection against Russian influence in Sudan, because their ideology is completely opposed to any kind of role for Russia," he said. 

Society without allies

Meanwhile, the situation for the 45 million people in the country is becoming increasingly difficult. Since the October coup, hundreds of protesters have been killed by the military.

Furthermore, ongoing price increases, international sanctions and a halt to international funding by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund of $2 billion (€1.95 billion) in aid have exacerbated the situation.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program, the effects of conflict, economic crisis and poor harvests will likely double the number of people facing acute hunger in Sudan to more than 18 million people by September.

Demonstrators march with flags of Sudan
Despite the danger, members of civil society have been demonstrating for democratic leadership without the militaryImage: Ebrahim Hamid/AFP/Getty Images

"A 10-liter canister of drinking water costs three times as much today as it did six months ago. A small package of chicken meat twice as much. The price of diesel has also doubled, and that of sugar has even tripled. In one of the poorest countries in the world, all this is becoming a question of survival," said Röhrs. 

However, for the past six months, people have been taking to the streets on a daily basis, calling for a civil government and chanting "Military, go back to the barracks." 

"For the Sudanese people, there is no way in which there can be a transition to democracy in Sudan with the military involved," said Elnaiem. 

This is why he doesn't support Perthes' push for dialogue, even though Perthes has called for a democratic process. "His attempt is to force us to negotiate and by negotiate, basically capitulate to the military junta and the coup," he said.

Elnaiem wholeheartedly ruled out a future where Sudan's civil society could ever accept an increase in Russia's influence.

"We're going to have to fight back against everyone who's trying to prevent the Sudanese people from reaching the point of having a democratic and civil state," he said. 

Russia's gold rush

Edited by: Jon Shelton

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa
Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East