Is Sudan’s government complicit in a gold rush from thin air?
And then gold came, all of a sudden. Industry figures put Sudan’s gold production as four tonnes in 2009. Sudanese government figures have jumped that to 41 tonnes of gold last year, worth about $2.5 billion. Though how they know that, since he also says that most of that is outside any kind of government ambit, is hard to say. There was only one foreign company active in Sudan, the French ArialGold. now the government says 128 companies are active.
It’s hard to make those figures add up. A recent report by France24 from the country’s only industrial mine, operated by an affiliate of Areva, quoted the French engineers on site as saying it had produced about two tonnes a year in the last few years, and the operation turned over about 65 million euros. And it’s not clear even if the rosiest of predictions came true that it would balance the government books. Nobody knows with precision in Sudan but oil probably made up two thirds of government income before South Sudan’s independence in 2011. That dropped to virtually nothing last year when the South shut oil production in. The government will earn some revenues from the re-opening of the pipe, but not much compared to its yawning needs. It has to all intents and purposes given up providing much in the way of public services like health and education.
The rise of the official shift towards developing a gold industry coincided with an astonishing bombardment of media coverage about young men seeking their fortune in the deserts. Most of the gold now produced is artisanal, which means the government sees little to no tax revenue from it. It finds is way to Port Sudan and a network of traders who know how to place it into world markets.
But the question is, what is the connection between the popular gold rush, and high government policy?
Ask ordinary Sudanese if they actually know anyone who’s struck it rich and they all do. The guys from Gedaref who came back and moved out of their tin shacks into an actual house with bricks and a roof. The young man from a poor family who could suddenly afford a big four -by-four. It’s never anyone close, though, always someone from the town or the neighbourhood. As a distribution, the chances don’t seem that high.
The structure of the industry takes care of that. The vast majority of those working the wells and scratching in the dirt are on a daily subsistence allowance and a notional cut of anything they find.
The allowance barely covers their costs – since all food and provisions cost twice to three times as much in the desert as they do even in Khartoum. A small bottle of water might cost $3 in a country where the average income per head is $40 per month.
The workers sign on for a trip of two to three months with an ‘investor’, a guy with enough capital to get them there in a truck, own a few metal detectors and some kit to break up rocks. Different outfits just set up an operation wherever they feel lucky – there are no licenses or rights awarded and no local authorities to arbitrate. There are no facilities. Most miners sleep on bare ground and live for a couple of months out of a knapsack. No cover, no privacy, nowhere to wash.
The mines can be up to 20 metres deep but are often less, depending on the equipment available. Out of a vertical shaft, they will dig many horizontal tunnels, and the haphazard nature of this development is what makes the wells vulnerable to collapse. Up to 100 people died in one such complex of tunnels in Jebel Amir in Darfur in April. The team owner puts guards at the top of the wells to search all miners ending their shifts, to ensure they aren’t withholding any nuggets.
The whole context is anarchic. There are frequent disputes within and between mining teams. An unknown number of people died at the same mine which collapsed in Darfur back in February when two Arab tribes fought for ownership of it. Mahmoud says he has seen a single mountain with perhaps 2,000 men mining it when news – or rumour- spread of a couple of decent finds. Mining is said to have picked up in areas controlled by Malik Agar, a former rebel reconciled to the regime under the peace agreement in 2005 and now split again and waging insurrection as the Sudan Revolutionary Front – the rebels, too, would like as much ready cash as they can lay hands on. And insecurity in the mining regions is such that many Sudanese citizens consider it normal and inevitable to be stopped and robbed on their way out of mining districts. Mahmoud himself had been forced off a bus near El Obeid and robbed. Luckily, he says, he was on leave and in civilian clothing. As a soldier, he could easily have been shot.
And scams, of course, are rife. Mohammed’s cousin bought an ‘American’ detection machine from a shop and headed out into the desert. A couple of days later, he realised he had a cheap Chinese knock-off which had been re-labelled, and went straight back to Khartoum. But, one week later, the shop had disappeared without trace.
Gold mining has also entered folk-lore in these five years. There are plenty of songs about it. Stories about how a team found a rich seam before dusk but they were all dead in the morning – the jinns, or spirits, of the place had killed them. Another story about how a team is heading back empty-handed after months of scratching in the dirt. As they are having their last meal, one of the rocks heated by the fire starts to glow with liquid gold. There is a human canvass being painted which is epic and, it has to be said, tragic more often than not.
So what is the government role?
Mustafa, a businessman who once worked for a senior presidential adviser, tells me there are rumours that when artisanal miners strike a rich seam, officials come and ‘poison’ the wells with so much arsenic ordinary folk are scared off. That’s how the government locates deposits which it intends to exploit itself commercially later on.
What’s undeniable is that the vast majority of land in northern Sudan is owned by the state. And that with growing and restive urban populations, it doesn’t hurt to have millions of them fixated on the idea that there is a way out of grinding poverty.
Sudan is a country whose political leaders of virtually all ideologies have frequently shown themselves to be world class cynics. Governments who arm murderous militias and then claim they had nothing to do with resulting massacres. Rebels who cut off food aid to civilian populations under their control so the international community declares famine and sends supplies, which they then appropriate. For decades, with the lives of tens of millions of people.
In that context, it’s not at all hard to believe that the government has actively promoted gold fever as the cheapest way of prospecting. Why spend any of your own money exploring if you can get half a million men so desperate that they will drive out into the desert to do it on spec? Then you can strike the deals, favour your own companies, maybe even throw a little money into the Treasury at the end of the day.
It’s a country where, really, anything is possible.