The collapse happened in a closed mine in West Kordofan, where miners wanted to continue to extract gold. A lot of mines around the region are under military control.
A Sudanese gold mine collapsed on Wednesday, leaving 38 people dead, the second incident at the same mine this year. In January, another accident killed five miners.
Oddly, the collapse took place in a closed mine, according to authorities
Dire economic conditions are pushing people, like villagers in Fuja, located in West Kordofan, to dig in mines without adequate safety conditions in place.
“When you say gold mining, this gives the wrong picture of the modern deep industrial mining that goes into deep wells like South Africa and Australia or open-pit mining, which covers a large area [using surface mining techniques],” says Suliman Baldo, a Sudanese scholar and a human rights activist.
“But in Sudan, most of the mining is done by artisanal miners, that is to say that ordinary citizens are operating in different areas of the country to extract gold,” Baldo tells TRT World.
The collapsed mine was one of these sorts of operations.
It’s estimated that nearly two million Sudanese work as artisanal miners across the country, out of a total population of 44 million, responsible for about 80 percent of the North African state’s gold production. However, Baldo thinks that artisanal mining might make up a bigger share of the total production, around 95 percent.
Artisanal miners usually dig deep trenches, following a particular vein of gold and their route goes horizontally and down. “They keep digging without any safety measures without reinforcing the site with wood or other measures that would prevent them collapsing,” Baldo says. Their experience helps them identify different veins of gold in the rock mass, he says.
“Once these trenches go beyond 20 metres of depth, they become very dangerous,” Baldo says. As a result, mines like the one in Fuja collapse, which happens every year, he says.
There are no real efforts from Sudanese Ministry of Mining to enforce the country’s Mining Law, which bans artisanal miners from digging trenches beyond certain depths, according to Baldo.
While Sudan has the second biggest gold reserves across Africa, it’s still one of the poorest countries on the continent - so what happens to that wealth?
Some die, some get richer
While many artisanal miners continue to die in “wells” dug by hand, some people like Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo, one of the country’s most powerful generals, seem to be getting richer by “processing” the mineral and selling tonnes of gold bars to countries like the UAE.
“I’m not the first man to have gold mines. It’s true, we have gold mines, and there’s nothing preventing us from working in gold,” a confident Hemeti said in 2019 during a BBC interview.
While it’s true that there is no real force which can prevent him from operating mines, the only problem appears to be the fact that Hemeti is not a private entrepreneur looking for opportunities in Sudan’s lucrative gold mine business. Instead, he is the country’s most powerful paramilitary leader, the head of the infamous Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
Hemeti’s explosive rise to power also partly explains why he is running gold mines. Hemeti grew up in Sudan’s turbulent Darfur region, which carries much of the country’s gold reserves. He was one of founders of the RSF during the Darfur conflict to suppress the rebellion, and is accused of being responsible for tens of thousands of deaths.
As a kind of reward for his service to Sudan’s former leader, Omar al Bashir, Hemeti was allowed to control Darfur’s Jebel Amer mountain region, which is rich with gold reserves. All of a sudden, Hemeti became one Sudan’s biggest gold mine operators.
“If you put revenues from that gold into public services like education, heath and job creation in Darfur, the conflict zone will be a tremendous asset to Sudan,” says Abdi Samatar, an academic in the Department of Geography, Environment and Society at the University of Minnesota.
“The tragedy is that the government and military people think that it’s all about themselves,” Samatar tells TRT World.
Hemeti’s elder brother, who is also the deputy head of the RSF, runs a family gold business under a company called Algunade. “Hemeti and his brother are just one among many private sector entrepreneurs that are involved in the gold processing sector,” Baldo says, explaining how their company also uses mineral waste to process gold.
“What is troubling is that they also have political power and military power and they are developing economic power. This is not good for Sudan,” Baldo says. But he still thinks they are not “monopolising” the country’s gold sector. “This is not the case.”
In 2020, Algunade announced that it gave up its rights over the Jabal Amer concession.
Apparently, the company sold around $30 million worth of gold bars to Dubai, “around a ton in weight”, in late 2018, according to official documents.
Maneuvering Central Bank
That was not the only time Algunade sold gold without monitoring from the country’s Central Bank, which normally controls gold exports. The company was able to maneuver the Central Bank thanks to Omar al Bashir’s intervention.
Bashir, who was under pressure from both opposition forces and powerful generals, thought that Hemeti could protect him from political collapse, so he allowed Algunade to export gold without any supervision from the Central Bank, according to an extensive Reuters report.
“This happened during the Bashir rule. In the last few months of his rule, Bashir gave him a licence to export gold to the United Arab Emirates directly. They did that and they made some profit out of it,” Baldo says.
But when protests first raged across the country in 2019, Hemeti had no hesitation to switch to the opposition, leaving Bashir in the lurch. Bashir has been in jail since.
In the new interim government, Hemeti is the second most powerful general after Abdel Fattah al Burhan, the country’s top military leader, who launched a coup last month to oust the civilian leader Abdalla Hamdok. But Hamdok and Burhan reached a controversial deal this month.
After the recent coup, it will be even easier “to smuggle gold to Dubai,” Baldo claims. There are also allegations that Russians are smuggling gold bars from Sudan.
According to some other people, “some ‘leading figures’ are collaborating with a Russian company in smuggling gold from the North State of Sudan,” says a Sudanese academic, who does not want to be named in the article.
“Russia’s Wagner Group is known to provide security and political services to both the army and the RSF. Wagner has a subsidiary, Meroe Gold, involved in exploration and processing of gold tailings,” says Baldo.
“They do produce sizable amounts of gold and this is how the military establishment pays for their services,” he adds.