A leader of the militia that terrorized Darfur is pocketing $54 million a year from gold sales. Why won’t Moscow release a confidential report documenting his abuses?
- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. He previously wrote FP’s Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He was also the silver medal recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize for a three-part series documenting the U.N.’s systemic failure to protect civilians in Darfur, Sudan. Colum’s investigations have uncovered an American spy operation in Iraq, Russia’s monopoly of the $1 billion-a-year U.N. aircraft leasing market, and a Chinese diplomatic campaign to silence U.N. investigators scrutinizing Chinese arms deals in Africa. His deep digs into the U.N. bureaucracy have exposed sexual misconduct by U.N. blue helmets from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and documented monumental dysfunction in the U.N. office charged with rooting out misconduct and corruption. He now devotes his reporting chops to documenting President Donald Trump’s efforts to reorder the international system. Born in Los Angeles, Colum received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. Before moving to FP, Colum reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. He has appeared frequently on national news programs, including the Lehrer NewsHour, as well as on MSNBC, NPR, and the BBC.
Musa Hilal, an alleged Sudanese mass killer who helped place Darfur on the map of modern genocides, has added a new title to his resume: multimillionaire gold digger.
A key leader of the Janjaweed, the horseback marauders who terrorized Darfuris in 2003 and 2004, Hilal and his armed crew earn about $54 million a year in profits from Jebel Amir, one of the largest unregulated gold mines in Darfur, according to a confidential report by a U.N. Security Council panel.
But the report’s release has been blocked by Russia, which is seeking to redact key details on the Sudanese gold trade. Russia has also refused to extend the contracts of the panel’s five members, effectively putting them out of work. Neither move has previously been reported.
In December, Russia dismissed the report as “extremely biased” and based on “speculation,” according to a diplomatic source. Moscow said it would only accede to the report’s publication if the “most controversial paragraphs are edited out.”
The United States and its Western allies rejected the Russian demand, saying it would set a precedent that would ultimately undermine the independence of U.N. sanctions panels like the committee charged with overseeing the measures taken against Khartoum after the genocide in Darfur. The panel’s findings highlighted the failure of U.N. sanctions to constrain the ongoing fighting between Sudanese authorities, their armed proxies, and opposition groups that has kept the troubled region mired in a state of chaos and violence for more than 15 years. The panel’s report claims that the gold trade has put more than $123 million into the pockets of armed groups throughout Darfur, in addition to Hilal’s earnings.
Moscow views the panel’s push to scrutinize Sudan’s gold industry as part of a politically motivated campaign to punish and weaken Khartoum, rather than promote peace and security in Darfur. A spokesman for the Russian mission to the United Nations, Alexey Zaytsev, told Foreign Policy by email Monday that Moscow put a “hold” on the publication, “pending further consultations in the council,” but didn’t block it.
“The reports by this panel have rarely been balanced or objective,” Zaytsev said. “But the degree of lopsided, unrestrained, and generally unfounded criticism of the Sudanese authorities in the latest report just ran over the top.”
The report, he added, risked “depriving thousands of Darfuri miners of their means of existence.”
The Darfur conflict has its roots in a 2003 uprising by ethnic minorities against the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum. The Sudanese government, working in concert with Hilal’s Janjaweed militia, carried out a scorched-earth campaign that displaced more than 2.5 million people and resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000 Darfuris.
In response, the International Criminal Court charged Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, with three counts of genocide and issued an arrest warrant that has never been executed. Five other Sudanese nationals were accused of multiple counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Hilal was never charged by the court, but in 2006, his name was placed on a U.N. Security Council list of individuals banned from travel outside Sudan and subject to a financial asset freeze for impeding the peace process and attacking civilians.
“We all thought he should have been a real target of an ICC investigation, given the facts we documented in our own interviews and fact-finding,” said Richard Dicker, an expert on the International Criminal Court who heads the international justice program at Human Rights Watch.
The panel found that violence was continuing in Darfur, reinforcing reports by Human Rights Watch that a government-backed armed group, the Rapid Support Forces, committed atrocities, including widespread sexual assault.
The report also documented a 225 percent increase in attacks against the joint U.N.-African Union Mission in Darfur, or UNAMID, in 2015. The Sudanese government refused the panel’s request to interview a suspect in a May 24 attack on the peacekeeping mission in the town of Kabkabiya, where Arab militias opened fire on four Rwandan peacekeepers, killing one. Sudan’s refusal to make the suspect available “adversely affects the panel’s ability to gather information, including biometrics” needed to complete the investigation into the attack, according to the panel report.
The Sudanese Air Force, meanwhile, continues to deploy attack helicopters and Antonov An-26 bombers in violation of a U.N. arms embargo, according to the report. The panel also uncovered “clear evidence” that Sudan has deployed cluster munitions in Darfur.
Hilal’s gold mining gives him access to substantial amounts of money and could mark a new phase in the Darfur conflict.
Gold has become an increasingly vital source of natinal wealth for Khartoum since South Sudan separated from Sudan and declared independence in 2011, taking with it most of the oil fields.
Unregulated gold mining has emerged as a major source of revenue for Darfur’s armed groups. Between 2010 and 2014, more than $4.5 billion in gold was smuggled from Sudan to the United Arab Emirates, according to the U.N. panel report. In 2008, gold accounted for only 1 percent of total Sudanese exports. By 2014, that number had risen to 30 percent, the report stated.
Hilal seized control of the Jebel Amir mines in January 2013 after the Sudanese Armed Forces withdrew from the site to avoid a violent confrontation with his forces.
The report found that Hilal has since turned the area into a gigantic ATM. He charges gold mining merchants $164 per month to do business at the site while vendors interested in providing services to gold prospectors must pay up to $197 per month to operate a stall. Every butcher on the site, meanwhile, must pay $3.28 to Hilal for every slaughtered sheep. All told, the report found that Hilal and his armed followers make $54 million a year from their control of the gold mines.
Hilal has had a complicated relationship with the Sudanese government since 2003, when he was released from prison and helped to lead a government-backed campaign against rebel forces. In 2008, he was named a special advisor to the president, an appointment that brought him to the center of national power in Khartoum.
Hilal has since returned to Darfur to develop his personal power base. In January 2014, he defected from the ruling National Congress party to form the Sudanese Awakening Revolutionary Council and is believed to have ambitions to become Darfur’s governor. Today, Hilal effectively controls more than 400 mines in Jebel Amir, and his permission is required for prospectors or other vendors hoping to enter the area.
The new U.N. report found that Hilal continues to collaborate with Sudanese forces and engage in millions of dollars’ worth of deals with the Central Bank of Sudan. The panel charges that the bank, which facilitates the gold trade, failed to comply with its obligation to freeze Hilal’s assets while the government also permitted him to travel beyond Sudan’s borders with impunity.
In an interview, Sudan’s U.N. ambassador, Omer Dahab Fadl Mohamed, told FP that Hilal hadn’t sold gold to the UAE through the Sudanese banking system. “He doesn’t have an account and did not export gold through the Central Bank of Sudan,” Mohamed said.
Mohamed said the move to sanction Sudan’s gold trade is the latest in a decades-long effort, led by the United States and its allies, to “deprive us of our natural resources.” Nearly two months ago, Sudan summoned the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Khartoum to protest a move by Washington to include illicit gold prospecting in a U.N. list of activities subject to sanctions.
He said that Sudanese mining statistics show that only 13.3 percent of the country’s gold exports come from Darfur, with only “a limited amount” of that coming from Jebel Amir. He said that the Sudanese government has recently taken control of the Jebel Amir mines, something disputed by the U.N. panel, which has said it believes Hilal is still running them.
As for the panel’s claim that Sudan failed to enforce the U.N. travel ban on Hilal, Mohamed said: “The problem we’re facing with Musa Hilal is that he is leading a nomadic lifestyle. It is difficult for us to track his movements.”
Photo credit: EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/MCT via Getty Images