Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemedti’ Dagolo | A warlord of his own

Hailing from a nomadic Arab community in Sudan’s restive Darfur, the paramilitary commander, who seized the vacuum left by the fall of Omar Bashir to engineer his own rise, is now challenging the armed forces, pushing the country into the brink of another civil war

April 23, 2023 02:47 am | Updated April 24, 2023 11:44 am IST

“In accordance with the agreement, we will stick to every single letter we have agreed on...,” Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, head of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) paramilitary, said in an interview in August 2019, a few days after the military and a pro-democracy civilian movement signed a power sharing deal. Those were better days for the resource-rich African country. In April that year, Omar al-Bashir, the dictator who ruled Sudan through an iron fist for three decades, was forced out of power amid mass protests. The Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), the regular Army, and the RSF agreed to a time-bound transition into civilian rule. But the bonhomie didn’t last long.

While Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the SAF chief, was considered the most powerful man in the post-Bashir Sudan, the real dark horse was Mr. Dagolo, popularly known as ‘Hemedti’ (Little Mohamed). His RSF, which rose from the bloody civil war in Sudan’s Darfur region, had its own command structure, directly under Bashir. Once Bashir was gone, Hemedti emerged as a new power centre. A man of his own. When a transition government was formed in 2019, Hemedti became its second in command, after Gen. Burhan. He welcomed “the new Sudan”. But the new Sudan he envisaged was a fiefdom that’s loyal to his command.

In 2021, two years after Bashir’s ouster, Hemedti would team up with Gen. Burhan to orchestrate a coup and expel the civilian leadership from the transition government. The General and the warlord then agreed to share power in a delicate deal, but it was only the beginning of a bitter power struggle that would push the country of 45 million to the brink of a civil war.

Two years of brinkmanship led to open fighting last week with Hemedti and Gen. Burhan accusing each other of treason. The World Health Organization says more than 400 people have already been killed and thousands more injured. On Friday evening, the RSF declared a temporary Id truce, but there was no real intention on either side to end the fighting. Hemedti now warns that he would bring Gen. Burhan “to justice” or he can “die like a dog”.

The man from Darfur

Hemedti’s rise from an outsider warlord who cut his teeth in Darfur’s civil war to one of the most powerful men in the country is almost like a fairy tale in Sudan. Now in his late 40s, Hemedti, a nephew of Juma Dagolo, the chief of an Abbala (camel-herding) nomadic community of Riziegat Arabs, was an ‘emir’ (commander) of the notorious Janjaweed Arab militia, the earlier avatar of the RSF. The Janjaweed’s roots go back to the civil war in neighbouring Chad, where former Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi was backing rebel leader Acheikh Ibn-Oumar against the regime of President Hissène Habré, which was backed by the U.S. and France. When the rebels suffered setbacks in the civil war, Qaddafi turned to arm local Arab nomads in eastern Chad bordering Sudan. After the 1987 truce in Chad, the Arab militias retreated to Sudan’s Darfur region, where Khartoum was also arming Arab nomads against local African tribes. These two Arab groups made up the Janjaweed (literally Spirit on the Horse), which in the following years would emerge as a paramilitary force backed by Khartoum.

By the early 2000s, the civil war in Sudan escalated with the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA) carrying out repeated attacks against government positions. President Bashir’s response was to strengthen the Janjaweed, who unleashed brutal violence in Darfur. They would beat back the rebels but were accused of carrying out genocidal acts against the Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa peoples of the region, all African communities. Khartoum was unmoved by the allegations.

This period also saw Hemedti rising through the ranks of the Janjaweed. He became a commander of the Border Guards in 2003 and in 2008, security adviser to South Darfur’s Governor. When President Bashir decided to form the RSF in 2013, he picked Hemedti, then a young, loyal Arab warlord, as its commander.

Bashir’s plan was to build a parallel security organisation that could be used to not just quell rebellions against his regime but also to protect it from potential coups from the Army. Hemedti drew mostly from the Janjaweed to build the new paramilitary force. Initially, it was under the command of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), which was also created in 2013 to fight against rebel groups in Sudan. Within years, with Hemedti’s quick rise as a confidant of Bashir, the RSF came directly under the President’s command. Despite calls for its integration with the regular Army, the RSF remained autonomous. In the following years, the RSF acted as Bashir’s feared private army. It was deployed to quell rebellions and protests, along with the SAF. It faced allegations of torture, rape and mass killings. Bashir was unmoved. But what he didn’t realise then was that his favourite warlord had his own plans and ambitions.

The battle of Generals

When mass protests shook Sudan in 2019, Bashir turned to the RSF once again. In June, Hemedti’s forces attacked peaceful protesters in Khartoum. Hundreds were killed. Bodies turned up in the Nile. But even the RSF could not quell the revolutionary spirit of the protesters. When the Army and the RSF realised that continuing agitations threatened to take away the privileges they enjoyed under the regime Bashir built, they decided to sacrifice the head of the regime to protect themselves. Bashir was ousted in what the Sudanese call a “revolution”. But for Hemedti, it was an opportunity to formalise his influence in the country. For years, he was a warlord commanding a paramilitary force. Now, he is Number 2 in the transition government.

But Gen. Burhan, the Army chief, was wary of Hemedti’s rise and his growing regional clout. Hemedti has powerful friends. He is a close ally of Isaias Afwerki, the President of Eritrea, and Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan warlord who controls parts of the country. Hemedti had sent his RSF soldiers to Libya to fight alongside the forces of Gen. Hafter, who was backed by the UAE, against the Tripoli-based government. The RSF was also dispatched to Yemen to fight alongside the Saudi coalition against the Shia Houthi rebels. Hemedti also provides security to the gold mines in Sudan that are linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Russian private military company Wagner. On the other side, Gen. Burhan is a close ally of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the President of Egypt.

When Gen. Burhan and Hemedti fell apart, the former sought a tactical alliance with Sudan’s civilian leadership. In December, the military and the protesters agreed to a two-year transition plan as part of which the RSF would be integrated into the regular military, which would be commanded by Gen. Burhan. A final agreement was due to be signed in April. Sensing threats to his position and ambitions, Hemedti demanded 10 years for the integration. When the Army rejected his demands, a conflict looked inevitable. And it broke out on April 15.

For Sudan’s revolutionaries, who wanted a peaceful transition to civilian rule and democracy, the battle between the Generals is the last straw. They wanted to bury the old regime, but now, the old regime, with all its repressive organs, is back with two heads, with the promised revolution stuck between them.

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