The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

The Wagner Group is exploiting the chaos in Sudan for its own benefit.

When fighting erupted in Sudan last April between the country’s army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemetti, the consequences were devastating. The fighting has resulted in hundreds of deaths, injuries, and widespread destruction of Sudan’s already fragile infrastructure. With the situation deteriorating rapidly, concerns are growing that the country may descend into a civil war. To bolster its military position, the RSF militia has sought support from the Wagner Group, the notorious and brutal Russian private military group. This alliance, which is still expanding, poses a threat to Sudan and the entire region by enabling a militia to take control of the state.

The RSF militia is a rebranded version of the Janjaweed militia, infamous for its atrocities and war crimes. It was utilized by the deposed regime of Omar al-Bashir in places like Darfur, South Kordofan, and the Blue Nile. The militia was officially established in 2013 when the parliament passed a law legitimizing and organizing its activities. Hemetti leads the militia and over the years, it has been involved in numerous human rights violations, including the wholesale destruction, and burning of villages in Darfur, the killing of peaceful protesters in Khartoum, the unlawful detention of activists, and the recruitment of child soldiers to fight in the Yemen war on behalf of the Saudis. During the ongoing fighting in Sudan, their violations have extended to looting residential areas, repurposing churches and hospitals as staging grounds to launch attacks, and utilizing rape as a weapon.

Wagner Group’s presence in Sudan dates back to 2017 following a meeting between the deposed Sudanese president and Vladimir Putin. Wagner’s companies, M-invest and Meroe Gold have been operating in Sudan and receive preferential treatment from the military leadership. They have facilitated the smuggling and transfer of Sudanese gold to Russia, as Russia seeks to evade sanctions imposed on it due to its invasion of Ukraine.

In recent years, the RSF militia has developed strong ties with the Wagner Group, although both parties have attempted to keep this relationship discreet. In April, the Wagner Group denied any involvement in Sudan and claimed no interest in the country, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Similarly, the RSF militia has officially denied any links to the Wagner Group, despite the existence of substantial evidence proving the opposite.

The military cooperation between Hemetti’s militia and Wagner’s mercenaries takes various forms. In the initial days of the war, an investigative report by CNN revealed that the Wagner Group facilitated the transfer of military aid from Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar to the RSF militia. This assistance included surface-to-air missiles that would help the militia counter the Sudanese army’s air superiority. Wagner was also accused by U.S. and French intelligence agencies of supplying anti-aircraft guns and light weapons to the RSF militia from the Central African Republic, where the two groups had previously fought together.

The shadowy relationship between the RSF militia and the Wagner Group has raised concerns among Western policymakers, who have sought measures to halt it. In March, a news report exposed that the U.S. exerted pressure on Sudan and Libya to expel the Wagner Group. The U.S. also imposed sanctions on Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner Group’s founder, for exploiting Sudan’s natural resources and recently warned Sudanese officials against hiring Wagner. In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU decided to impose sanctions on Meroe Gold. Furthermore, a former Tory leader called for Wagner’s access to Sudanese gold to be cut off.

If the RSF militia emerges victorious, it is foreseeable that Wagner will establish a strong foothold in Sudan, leading to collaboration between both groups to suppress any popular movements aimed at restoring democratic governance. Additionally, Sudan may be exploited as a base to destabilize neighboring countries. It is in the interest of the West and the Sudanese people to take proactive measures to prevent this grim scenario from unfolding.

Mohamed Suliman is a senior researcher at Northeastern University and also holds a degree in Engineering form the University of Khartoum.