Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo

Sudan's protest leader Ahmad Rabie (Left) and TMC chief General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (right) sign a "constitutional declaration." As Russia invaded Ukraine, Sudan’s top military official, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, was visiting Moscow.

| File | AFP

Wagner Group: The glue binding Sudan and Russia

Sudan’s military junta has steered clear of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And even at the UN General Assembly on Wednesday, Khartoum abstained from a vote condemning the Russian “aggression”.

Yet the military itself has been closer to Moscow. Last week, as Russia invaded Ukraine, Sudan’s top military official and the presumed power behind the throne, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, was visiting Moscow.

Dagalo is the deputy chairman of the Sovereign Council, the body that runs the country’s affairs. He also heads the Rapid Support Forces (RSS), which emerged out of the feared Janjaweed forces that terrorised people in Darfur. The RSS have had ties to the Russian private paramilitary company Wagner.

Though it portrays itself as a private entity, its connections to the Kremlin are deep, as a recent sanctions list by the US State Department showed. Founded by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, aka President Vladimir Putin's chef, it has been on African soil and the Middle East, often performing mercenary tasks.

There are no official statistics on the number and whereabouts of Wagner Group members in Sudan, but some estimated their number at 300, engaging in joint activities with the Rapid Support Forces in training programmes. Their usefulness to the authorities have, however, brought atrocities.

In the Central Africa Republic, where they have guarded a troubled president, they are also accused of merciless killings. In November last year, the US Treasury sanctioned Putin’s chef and several senior leaders in Wagner for operating above the law.

Wagner had also been in Mozambique ostensibly to help fight insurgents but they met a strong insurgent group that forced the Russians out sooner. In Libya, they have been famed for shooting to death captured political prisoners, forcing the UN Security Council to call for the departure of foreign forces.

In Sudan, activists pushing for a return to civilian government have recently disappeared and it is suspected they vanished at the hands of Wagner mercenaries.

Facebook said last year it had shut down the pages of nearly 1,000 accounts and pages that had 1.1 million followers and were run by people it said were linked to the Rapid Support Forces. Those accounts were active in jamming the news of the protests in the Sudanese street, having receiving backing and training on surveillance from Wagner.

Wagner’s initial interest in Sudan was to search for gold in 2017, through the companies “Meroi Gold” and “M Invest”. They joined hands with the Rapid Support Forces through (Al-Junaid) Company. It was no surprise that Wagner found itself in Darfur and South Kordofan, which are rich in gold, uranium and other precious metals, and are far from government control and in the hands of armed groups.

Activists in Sudan launched a campaign on social media platforms to monitor and expose what they called external security groups that monitor activists and suppress demonstrations, peaceful protests, processions, civil society organisations and resistance committees in the state of Khartoum.

In a statement posted on social media, the activists said that these foreign parties are working in full coordination with some security agencies and remnants of the former regime.

The statement referred to a Russian private army that came to Sudan during the era of ousted President Al-Bashir, and they are still operating today. The statement said that the group belonging to Wagner was working to support the former regime in suppressing peaceful protests, as their armoured trucks appeared alongside the security forces of ousted al-Bashir at that time.

Activists spotted cars without licence plates with white foreigners in them, but their nationalities were not verified, and they were monitoring demonstrations in the vicinity of the Republican Palace.

Wagner's group participated in providing security support, which facilitated the suppression of the demonstrations and protests that erupted on December 19, 2019. It was remarkable that Russian-made trucks carrying foreign soldiers in military uniforms participated in suppressing protesters in Khartoum’s neighborhoods, and sometimes in the heart of the capital on Qasr Street before the fall of Al- Bashir.

Al-Bashir had previously requested protection from Russia against the United States at the beginning of his December 2018 visit to Moscow, during which he met Putin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Sudanese authorities have not said anything about the presence of these mercenaries in Sudan. The Russian foreign ministry previously denied Moscow’s role in Sudan chaos.

It noted that Russian security companies in the country are private operators that have no relationship with the government in Moscow, although it said their specific job is to train security forces.