Skip to main content

Sudan war: Army and RSF both profiting from smuggling of vital goods

Sudan's warring parties are both involved in the smuggling of food, fuel, medicine and Starlink internet devices
Supporters of the Sudanese armed popular resistance, which backs the army, ride on trucks in Gedarif in eastern Sudan on 3 March 2024 (AFP)

Fighters from Sudan’s two warring parties are exploiting the ongoing conflict to profit from the smuggling and sale of vital goods including food, fuel and medicine. 

Under the pretence of confiscating their enemy’s supplies, associates of both the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which have been at war since April last year, are also looting merchants, robbing civilians, accepting bribes and imposing levies on goods at roadside checkpoints.

According to multiple sources, officers and soldiers from the army and RSF are directly involved in the smuggling of an array of goods, as well as in renting Starlink satellite internet devices to civilians in areas in which access to the internet has been cut. 

Sudanese traders, local eyewitnesses and businesspeople all spoke to Middle East Eye about this wartime economy, as the one-year anniversary of the conflict approaches on 15 April.

The war has displaced over eight million people and the current humanitarian situation in many parts of Sudan is dire, with children dying every day and 25 million suffering from hunger or malnutrition.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


There has, for several months, been a critical shortage of medicines and medical equipment in the capital Khartoum, Darfur, el-Gezira state and other areas either directly affected by the war or held by the RSF. 

A trader in pharmaceutical drugs, who asked not to be named for security reasons, told MEE that most medicines in Sudan now are smuggled in from neighbouring countries and sold on the black market.

“Around 70 to 80 percent of medicines coming into Sudan right now come from neighbouring countries and are being smuggled illegally by traders with the help of soldiers and offices from the army or RSF,” the trader said.

Looted goods for sale in Sudan's 'Dagalo' markets
Read More »

According to the trader, there are many different routes these products take, including from Chad into Darfur, the vast western region of Sudan that is the powerbase of the RSF, or from Central African Republic (CAR) to Um Dafuq in South Darfur. The drugs are then taking to markets across the region.

Other routes include those from South Sudan through an area known as “the Boot” up into Sudan’s White Nile state, and from Ethiopia into Sudan’s eastern Gedarif state. “There is also a route for medicines and food smuggling from Egypt to the northern and eastern states of Sudan,” the trader said.

Another trader, from el-Obeid, the capital of North Kordofan, which has been under an intermittent RSF siege since last summer, said that smuggling networks are either run directly by army or RSF soldiers, or are run with their protection, for which the fighters are paid a commission.

“These smuggling networks are supplying North Kordofan and other neighbouring states with the medicines. RSF soldiers are bringing them from a place called Alnaam on the South Sudan-Sudan border, then bringing them to the west of el-Obeid, where the medicine traders come and buy them to distribute them inside and outside the city,” the trader from el-Obeid told MEE.

A pharmacist from el-Obeid said that the smugglers are mainly army or RSF soldiers or officers, adding that ordinary merchants are also involved in the smuggling and are getting protection or cover from fighters from either warring party. 

Neither the army nor the RSF responded to Middle East Eye’s requests for comment.

Army and RSF cooperation 

Another trader who spoke to MEE confirmed that the warring parties are responsible for the food markets that exist in the areas they control.  

“The RSF is bringing in the food it needs through South Sudan, Chad and CAR to the areas it controls, especially in Darfur and Kordofan, while its soldiers are trading food and other supplies widely,” Mahmoud Hussien, a trader from Gedarif told MEE.

Hussien said that army officers are involved in smuggling food and groceries from Ethiopia or Egypt, which border army-controlled areas in eastern and northern Sudan.

'Sometimes we buy fuel from the RSF, as they are selling the fuel from the refinery they seized'

- Sudanese fuel smuggler

“The normal or civilian smugglers - or even the traders - need to have the cover of the RSF or SAF, according to the area they want to bring the goods to,” Hussien, who has brought food in from Ethiopia to Gedaref, explained.

There is also “a lot of evidence” of coordination between army and RSF checkpoints on the ground, Hussien said, adding that taxes are imposed on any goods or vehicles passing through checkpoints controlled by either side.

Alhadi Mohamed, another trader, told MEE that he brought groceries from Ethiopia to Ad-Damazin, the capital of Blue Nile state, but that an army checkpoint outside the city had confiscated the shipment, accusing him of helping the RSF.

“They clearly looted me,” Mohamed said, “with the excuse being that I’m supporting the RSF, which is totally incorrect as I’m a normal trader and I brought these items from Ethiopia like the other traders. But this hasn’t just happened to me, it’s happened to others as well.

“Other traders I know brought items to el-Gezira state but had them confiscated by the RSF, which accused them of helping the SAF by bringing supplies to them,” he said.

Another trader in Gedarif state, who asked not to be named, said that a shipment of pesticides and agricultural seeds had been confiscated by army soldiers after the trader was accused of working for the RSF. 

The fuel trade

The shortage of fuel brought about by the war has been such that some Sudanese have returned to a traditional form of transport: the donkey cart. 

But fuel is also a main feature of illicit smuggling networks. Not only is it being brought in from outside the country; fuel from a refinery controlled by the RSF on the outskirts of Khartoum is being sold on the black market.

One fuel smuggler, who asked not to be named for security reasons, told MEE that they had been smuggling fuel from Ethiopia and South Sudan to army- and RSF-controlled areas, striking different deals with checkpoints on both sides.

“We brought the fuel - which is very expensive in Sudan - from Ethiopia and South Sudan and we need to increase the prices to cover the expenses of the transportation, as well as the money that we paid to the SAF or RSF checkpoints along the road,” the smuggler said.

'The RSF is using the Starlink internet and they are even trading the Starlink devices'

Hassan Ahmed, eyewitness

“We have another source of fuel because sometimes we buy it from the RSF, as they are selling the fuel from the refinery they seized in Khartoum many months ago,” he said.

“Some RSF officers managed to steal the fuel from the refinery in the el-Jeili area. We bought it from them at a low price and sold it in neighbouring states, including some army-controlled areas in Gedaref and Kassala states,” the smuggler told MEE.

“You can just pay and pass through any checkpoint with whatever you are carrying.”

Nasr Aldin Adam, a trader from el-Fasher in North Darfur, said that the smuggling of fuel from Libya had flourished across Darfur since the war began.

“After the war erupted, most fuel and other supplies to Darfur comes from Libya. The RSF is mainly bringing the fuel through Kufra in southeastern Libya and selling it in Kutum, Kabkabiya or el-Fasher in Darfur,” he said. “When the traders smuggle it themselves, they have to deal with the RSF or pay their checkpoints.”

In neighbouring Libya, eastern commander Khalifa Haftar has been facilitating the supply of the RSF. Both military operations are supported by the United Arab Emirates. 

Starlink rental service

With the internet cut in some parts of Sudan (accusations of blame have been thrown around by both sides), Starlink satellite internet devices, which are made by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, have also become part of illicit trading networks.

Zain telecommunication company has succeeded in restoring the network in Port Sudan and other states in the east and north of Sudan controlled by the army, promising that coverage will return to the entire country soon. 

How the UAE kept the Sudan war raging
Read More »

An eyewitness from el-Gezira state said that the RSF has exploited the internet blackout –for which many blame the paramilitary group – to trade in Starlink devices, which can deliver broadband internet via satellite and are the only form of communication in the state right now.

“They are using the Starlink internet and they are even trading the Starlink devices… they are selling the service for 3,000 Sudanese pounds [$5] per hour and are making a huge amount of money from it,” Hassan Ahmed said. 

“People need to communicate with each other and with their relatives, and even depend on the internet to get some transactions from their friends or relatives elsewhere through mobile banking services,” he said. 

Ahmed, who fled to neighbouring Gedaref state, said that because they are the only people in el-Gezira state with cash, RSF soldiers are trading in these mobile transactions and are “taking a big commission. If you complain, they take all your money.”

In al-Hasaheisa, a city in el-Gezira, there are now four internet service shops run by RSF soldiers, he said.

Mohamed Taj Aldin, from el-Geneina in West Darfur, told MEE that the entire state’s internet service was controlled by the RSF, as they are bringing Starlink devices in from Chad, South Sudan and CAR. 

“All the devices have been smuggled into the state by RSF soldiers or through traders close to the RSF, or those who get protection from the RSF. We paid between 2,000 and 3,000 Sudanese pounds per hour for using the internet,” he told MEE.

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.