With its scrubland, unpaved roads and mud brick huts, the Jebel Amer area in Darfur, western Sudan, can look like a poor and desolate place. Under the ground, though, lies something sought by people everywhere: gold.
In the past year or so the precious metal has begun to alter the nature of the decade-old conflict in Darfur, transforming it from an ethnic and political fight to one that, at least in part, is over precious metal.
Fighting between rival tribes over the Jebel Amer gold mine, which stretches for about 10 kilometres beneath the sandy hills of North Darfur, has killed more than 800 people and displaced some 150,000 others since January. Arab tribes, once heavily armed by the government to suppress insurgents, have turned their guns on each other to get their hands on the mines. Rebel groups that oppose the government also want the metal.
The gold mine death toll is more than double the number of all people killed by fighting among the army, rebels and rival tribes in Darfur in 2012, according to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s quarterly reports to the Security Council.
U.N. officials and diplomats told Reuters the government has been complicit in the violence by encouraging at least one militia group to seize control of mines, a charge the government denies.
Until last year the Darfur conflict pitted the government and its Arab militias against three large rebel groups. The Jebel Amer attack changed that, dividing Arab tribes against each other.
But international peace efforts are still focused on bringing the main rebel groups into a Qatar-sponsored deal Khartoum signed with two splinter groups in 2011.
At the last meeting to discuss the Qatar deal in September, Qatar’s deputy prime minister, Ahmed bin Abdullah al-Mahmoud, expressed concern about the recent tribal violence, but stressed a key factor in bringing peace to Darfur would be to get the rebels to the negotiating table, according to Qatari state media.
The conflict in Darfur began as a struggle between African pastoralists and Arab cattle-owning nomads over access to land. It grew into what the U.S. State Department described as genocide after the government began sponsoring militias to put down a rebel insurgency.
In all, fighting in Darfur since 2003 has killed more than 200,000 people and forced some 2 million from their homes according to human rights groups and the United Nations. In 2009, the International Criminal Court charged Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir with war crimes for his role in the Darfur violence, charges he rejects.
The recent resurgence in violence is rooted in Sudan’s loss of a huge chunk of its territory in the south two years ago. When South Sudan seceded in 2011, the rump state of Sudan lost most of its oil production – worth some $7-billion in 2010 – sending the economy into a spin. Sudan’s GDP contracted by 10 per cent last year, according to the World Bank.
To replace the oil the government in Khartoum has encouraged people to dig for gold. Now half a million diggers roam Darfur and the north of the country with mine detectors and sledgehammers, according to the mining ministry. The gold rush helped boost output by 50 per cent last year to around 50 tons, making Sudan Africa’s third-largest producer, equal with Mali after South Africa and Ghana, according to official data and expert estimates.
Gold exports have become Sudan’s lifeline, providing the government with $2.2-billion (U.S., net) last year and making up more than 60 per cent of all exports.
Sudan’s central bank, desperate for anything to secure foreign currency, pays artisanal miners up to 20 per cent more than the global market price, several gold trading sources told Reuters. The central bank denies this.
At the same time, around a quarter of Sudan’s annual gold output is smuggled abroad, industry sources inside and outside Sudan said. If that figure is right, the government lost up to $700-million last year – money it badly needs.