The Sinews of Sudan’s Latest War
I welcome feedback on this piece! It’s the first of a series on the subject and I want to gauge interest in it from the blogging world. I will probably improve it to subsequently move it to the policy community. If people really like it I could transition it to a subscription or tipped model.
Section One: The Sinews of War
“There is an opinion in some quarters to send Marcus Antonius to govern Gaul (…) What else is that but supplying an enemy with (...) all the _ sinews of war, money in abundance _ (…) Will you furnish a wicked and desperate citizen with an army of Gauls and Germans, with money, and infantry, and cavalry, and all sorts of resources?”—Cicero
The war in Sudan has now raged for 4 months. On April 15th, the two armies that had been jointly ruling Sudan turned on one another. The Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary army mounted a series of raids on the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) air bases, headquarters and seats of government. Since then, the two sides have been locked in total war, which has devastated Sudan’s capital, led to the return of ethnic massacres in Darfur, and threatens to create yet another failed state in the Horn of Africa.
Figure 1: Khartoum on Fire in June. Photo is taken from above the meeting of the White and Blue Niles, looking out at downtown Khartoum which contains the presidential palace, several ministries and the SAF headquarters.
This is the first of a series of reports surveying the sources of funding available to the armed groups of Sudan. Who controls them? How much money can they produce? Is this revenue controlled by senior leadership, or the personal loot of local commanders? Along the way, readers will gain a glimpse into the strange world of armed group finance. Most of the upcoming releases will be pitched for the Sudan-focused policy community, who are already quite interested in Sudan. This post gives a context to the deep dives that should be minimally accessible to a general audience. For an explanation of why the war began, see this other post.
Those interested in a straight military account or general commentary are already well served. While the 2023 Sudan conflict has not enjoyed the deep OSINT attention lavished on the Ukraine conflict, Sudan is blessed with talented analysts following the military and political developments. SeeDaniel Van’s work,Ayin Network and Beam Reports. Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker is another organization doing excellent public work on the political economy of the war.
Section Two: Why should we care about money?
“When you see you are about to lack money, and therefore your Army has to be dissolved in any case(...) one ought always to fight, even at your disadvantage”—Machiavelli, The Art of War
Prior to the conflict, the RSF and SAF jointly ruled Sudan. The SAF is a true national army, with an airforce and armored divisions equipped for set-piece battles, and its base in Sudan’s wealthier center along the Nile. The RSF is a paramilitary organization with its social base in North Darfur, one of Sudan’s least developed regions. Prior to the war, the RSF realized that fighting in Sudan’s rural periphery would advantage the SAF who have total air dominance. Instead they stationed tens of thousands of fighters in Sudan’s capital, the metropolis Khartoum. When fighting began with a series of coordinated RSF attacks, RSF and SAF positions were entwined all across the capital. Over the past few months the RSF has won several early victories in Khartoum and in Darfur, forcing the SAF presence in the capital to several isolated fortresses and their air power.
Despite major gains for the RSF, neither side has eliminated their opponent’s ability to fight. The RSF, once derided as a militia of bandits from Sudan’s poorest regions, now patrols most of Khartoum and maintains supply lines from its social base in Northern Darfur. This is a stunning upset and a failure for Sudan’s “real” army, the SAF. But the SAF retains its major advantages, the legacy of being a proper national army; tens of warplanes, hundreds of tanks and greater legitimacy with foreign states. They also control most of Sudan outside Khartoum, including Sudan’s only ports and more developed north. Both sides have lines for supply and rearmament, the SAF via Port Sudan and the Egyptian Border and the RSF from arms markets in CAR and Chad. Without a peace agreement or a major rout by one side, the war is positioned to continue for as long as each party can pay and equip their armies.
Figure 2. A Map of the Current Territorial COntrol in Sudan, produced by Wikipedia. The RSF (Green) controls most of their home territory in Darfur (the southwestern corner, and patrols most of the capital Khartoum (center-right). The SAF is dominant in the rest of Sudan except for contested areas between Darfur and Khartoum
Do they really need to fund a centralized war chest, or can they rely on volunteers and the promise of looting? The answer is yes, the long-term strategies of both the RSF and SAF require them to maintain about 100,000 professional military personnel on payroll. They could in theory respond to a financial crisis by falling back to unpaid militias. Volunteer militias do play a role in modern civil wars operating with the support of a smaller corp of professional officers and incentivized by booty or defending their homes. For example, in nearby South Sudan a rebel group called the Nuer White Army can create local overwhelming forces by gathering tribal militias with the promise of loot, with only a much smaller core of professional soldiers.
But while such forces offer emergency firepower, they will not stay in the field away from home for more than a few days. The RSF’s goal is to occupy Khartoum, a city of 5 million residents a 15-hour drive from their core territories in Darfur. Without pay and equipment their soldiers will return home and the SAF will quickly reoccupy Khartoum, allowing the SAF to reorganize. For their part, the SAF rely on a sophisticated army equipped for set-piece battles with airpower, armor, and artillery corp. This specialization and technological sophistication does not come cheap, and without it the SAF would struggle to counter RSF’s superior infantry performance.
In short, both the RSF and SAF need to project professional forces outside of their home territories to achieve their war aims. They therefore need a centralized funding apparatus to pay, feed and equip those troops. They may offer additional decentralized benefits, such as looting, the promise of office perks and access to stolen real estate, but these will be supplemental.
“Wait a second, Tim” you may be thinking “Sure they need cash but the armed groups are already rich? I hear that Hemedti has ten tones of Gold in Russia that he can ship in [^1] and the SAF owns the Burj Khalifa. Surely the two parties can pay down savings until the end of the war?”
The problem with this line of reasoning is that the length of the war is partly a function of the ability of each group to self fund. This war is unlikely to end from one side simply conquering the other, in the style of 1940s regular warfare. Unconditional surrender or collapse of one party is unusual in modern civil wars, most modern wars end in either a negotiated agreement or a gradual de-escalation.[^2] Also the RSF currently has more momentum but their army of 100,000 is not ready to occupy a country of 45 million people. So we can expect a negotiated peace, or at least a gradual de-escalation cementing the existing battle lines.
In those “consensual” end games, each party will carefully consider how long their rival can keep fighting as they set their negotiating posture. If you knew your rival was burning finite assets to defend himself, you would take an aggressive negotiating position. For example in Yemen the Houthi’s made repeated and fierce attacks on the Marib Oil Fields in 2021[^3] because they realized the controller of the large fields would have greater leverage in the long-term peace agreement. Serious negotiations for a post-war future began only after those assaults were exhausted.
Moreover, suppose that you were a warlord with large overseas asset reserves. As the war begins you send large payments to your comrades in the trenches. But you see the battlelines freeze in place while the costs of conflict are consuming more than your in-country revenues. If you think your rival can continue indefinitely, why exhaust your capital on a costly but unwinnable fight?
Section Three: How much money do they need?
“An army marches on its stomach”—Unknown, attributed to Napoleon
In a future post I will do a more in-depth accounting of their respective financing needs. Here I give a cursory accounting based on their past receipts from the 2021 Sudanese budget, with speculation from their various other operations.
In 2021 the SAF received apportionments of $ 288 million in 2023 USD.[^4] However, this underestimates the real consumption of the SAF. Firstly, the SAF will consume much more munitions and equipment due to the ongoing fighting. Also the SAF previously controlled a network of industrial facilities for the production of both military and civilian products called “Defense Industries Systems” or DIS (technically, the RSF owned a 30% share as well). Most DIS installations are destroyed or captured so the SAF will need make up for domestic production with imports. Also the SAF’s government influence provided plenty of discrete ways of gaining income, of which I can discuss more another time. On the other hand the SAF may receive some direct military aid from nearby powers who want to see a Sudan follow a state-building path. As a rough guess, assume these factors combined increase the SAFs expenses by 70%, to about $ 500 million.[^5] This is close to an estimate made by one former officer of $1.5 million per day, or $550 million.
The RSF had a smaller share of the 2021 budget at $ 136 Million, 32% of defense disbursements. The RSF leadership also, in theory, owned 30% of the DIS, and received some benefit from that (this is consistent with an informal agreement to split the state’s resources 70-30[^6]).
The RSF, as a paramilitary group, was less integrated into the formal state budget and kept more of its revenue outside the Ministry of Finance system. We know they controlled and taxed the Jebel Amer gold mine in North Darfur, which is rumored to be Sudan’s most lucrative although no hard data exists on it. This mine certainly did not pay taxes to Sudan’s general budget.[^7] The UN Council of Experts did produce an estimate of the revenue made by a smaller rival warlord at a nearby mine at $ 25 million.[^8]. The RSF also ran a variety of side-businesses, including sending thousands of mercenaries to Yemen and Libya, thousands of whom returned from Libya at the start of the war. If we suppose this business empire supports a further $ 150 million in military costs that brings the RSF’s budget estimate to about $ 300 Million, but with even more uncertainty.
Section Four: Following the money
“Gold will not always get you good soldiers, but good soldiers can get you gold”—Niccolo Machiavelli
The past months have seen fewer and fewer major changes to the distribution of territorial control in Sudan. Supposing that the war bogged down on the current lines of control, can the RSF and the SAF summon enough cash to maintain their operations from their current territory? Unfortunately, my analysis leads me to think the answer is yes. In later posts I will go into greater detail about these sources, but we can roughly count the following 5 sources of finance:
The gold mines of Darfur
Control: 100% RSF [^9]
Revenue: $50-150 million
Darfur has several abundant sites of gold extraction. Jebel Amer is the most famous, and has been held by the RSF since 2017.[^10] There are no good figures on how much is produced there or how much the RSF can take in taxes. However, the nearby Jebel Marra goldmine is controlled by a rival for an annual earnings of $25 million, from data reported on by the UN Panel of Experts in 2019. [^11] Given Jebel Amer’s reputation, it probably yields more income, perhaps $50-100 million per year (I added an extra $50 to account for possible other mines under RSF control). The mines do rely on mercury and arsenic imports, which have been disrupted by the war. But in the long run I expect new routes will be opened given the proximity and porousness of the Chadian border.
Taxation and looting in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital of (formerly) 5 million residents.
Control: 80% RSF, 20% SAF
Revenue: Unknown [^12]
Sudan’s capital and economic center Khartoum has seen the fiercest fighting so far in the war. This was a strategic choice by the RSF, who prefer to fight in the dense urban jungle where the SAF’s advantages in armor and airpower are mitigated. Now the RSF patrol most of Khartoum, outside of a few neighborhoods that the SAF have fortified around key military sites.
At first, this gave the RSF a major windfall from looting Khartoum’s banks, businesses and even personal vehicles. There are countless videos online of regular people attempting to defend their SUV’s from militiamen hoping to ship them off to sell in neighboring countries. Of course the bonanza from looting will last only a short while, until most of the value is destroyed and the remainder transferred to the offshore accounts of RSF officers and the pockets of RSF soldiers. But even then, there are plenty of ways to squeeze value out of a city of several million, even when its economy is damaged by constant war.
The oil fields in Heglig and oil export pipelines
Control: 70% SAF, 30% RSF
Estimated Annual Revenue: $250-550 million
Sudan produced about 60,000 barrels of oil per day in 2022, mostly in Heglig on a contested area of the southern border.[^13] Sudan also contains the pipelines that ship oil from South Sudan out to the rest of the world, for which they can charge about $25 per barrel. Altogether, the revenue from oil production is in the mid 9 figures. The SAF control the export terminals and much of the main pipeline, but the RSF has access to the pipeline in Heglig and Khartoum and could interrupt it easily. So far the RSF have not publicly threatened to do so, possible because cutting off South Sudan’s only export could trigger a civil war there, bringing international condemnation on the RSF.
The gold mines of the Northern States
Control: 100% SAF
Estimated Revenue: $ 200-350 Million
The Nile North of Khartoum is a narrow strip of green surrounded by a stark desert, but that desert is rich in gold. This area is a social base for the SAF and Sudan’s most technically sophisticated gold-producing region with foreign concessionaires and a domestic reprocessing industry, both of which pay a much higher taxation rate than the typical itinerant desert refiner with a pot of mercury and a dream. Taxes on gold production from these regions have historically sat in the $300-400 million range, although it may take time for the SAF to reconstruct the public goods and taxation necessary.
Control: 90% SAF, 10% RSF
Estimated Annual Revenue: $ 50-150 Million
Tariffs on exports, or taxes on internal trade, can be a major source of financing for an armed group. [^14] Customs duties were expected to provide $382 Million in 2022 budget in the 2021 estimates. [^15] The conflict has likely decimated exports, but in the long run life will resume at a lower level. Armed groups may also increase the de facto tariff charged.
Sudan’s main export route is Port Sudan, which is firmly under SAF control. They also control the Egyptian and Ethiopian border. In theory the RSF could tax the export routes into Chad and CAR from their positions, but Sudan trades very little with those countries. Less than 1% of Sudan’s 2021 trade went to African countries other than Egypt, presumably because Sudan and its immediate neighbors have similar comparative advantages.[^16] As a result the SAF controls most of the export points currently, and to capture this revenue the RSF would have to set up internal checkpoints preventing producers reaching Port Sudan, which is a challenge given the long and porous frontlines.
Section 5: What does this mean for the strategic situation?
“Necessity, (compulsion) arises when you see that, by not fighting, you must lose in an event; for example, when you see you are about to lack money, and therefore your Army has to be dissolved in any case(...). In these cases, one ought always to fight, even at your disadvantage”—Machiavelli, the art of war
So far, I have given a very rough and ready summary of the needs of Sudan’s armed groups and the available financing. Both parties to the conflict need to consistently earn income to maintain their cores of professional soldiers given their strategy of contesting Sudan’s capital. Using the past state budgets to give a rough baseline, I estimated the funding needs of each party at around $520 Million for the SAF and $300 for the RSF.
From section 4, it appears that enough money is floating around for the armed groups to maintain their positions. The SAF, despite losing ground in Khartoum in several early offensives, remains in control of some of Sudan’s most lucrative rent sources in North Sudan’s mines and export routes. In the long run these can maintain the organization, and might even allow the Government of Sudan to pay the civil service (inshullah).
The RSF position is mysterious, as befits a secretive paramilitary run by an oligarch shy of state control, but it appears tenable. The RSF operates a more spartan force composed of light and mobile infantry, freeing them from maintaining expensive equipment and munitions. If the RSF were restricted to only their gold operations in Darfur, the current force seems unsustainable. But the RSF remains able, if necessary, to attack oil infrastructure or trade routes in the future. Moreover, their seizure of Sudan’s economic heart in Khartoum will inevitably provide opportunities for both taxation and “living off the land”.
The first takeaway is that the outlook for peace is grim. It is not obvious that either party is near the breaking point. This is mainly a result of their relatively low mobilization rates; each keeps roughly 100,000 men under arms in a country of 45 million, so the tax rate needed to support them is modest. It is tragic that so few can do so much hurt to so many, and it is doubly tragic that this state of affairs may continue.[^17]
1This is a reference to an old rumor. I have seen no hard evidence that Hemedti keeps a significant amount of personal wealth in gold stored in Russia. Also, if Hemedti did move that much gold out of Sudan it would be sensible to diversify these assets into bonds or real estate to balance his existing exposure to gold. But I digress…
2 From 1990 to 2005 just 20 of 147 conflicts ended in the total victory of one side. Kreutz, J. (2010). How and when armed conflicts end: Introducing the UCDP Conflict Termination dataset. Journal of Peace Research, 47(2), 243–250. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022343309353108
4 Approved Budget for 2021 of the Republic of Sudan. Adjusting for the average 2021 exchange rate and inflation from 2021 to 2023
5 I am using the round numbers to express the uncertainty here. I could see the SAF maintaining current effectiveness requiring anywhere from $350 to $750, and would expect serious strains at $ 250 (in millions per year).
6 I have not seen this confirmed.
7 Anonymous source
9 I am excluding neutral and SAF-aligned armed groups also active in Darfur from control and revenue, because there role is uncertain and subject to change.
11 See Page 36 of S/2020/36 at https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/un_documents_type/sanctions-committee-documents/?ctype=Sudan&cbtype=sudan
12 I don’t have a succinct way to estimate this yet.
14 For an interesting case, see Schouten, Peer. “Roadblock politics in central Africa.” Environment and planning D: Society and space 37.5 (2019): 924-941.
15 Ministroy of Finance and Economic Planning, Approved Budget for 2021
17 Of course, the war could end for plenty of reasons other than the financial exhaustion of one party. A return to powersharing or a partition of Sudan are both continued possibilities.