Khartoum, Sudan – On February 23, the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a group of Sudanese officials landed in Moscow.
The delegation was led by Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo – aka Hemeti – who is the deputy chairman of Sudan’s Sovereign Council and head of a powerful paramilitary group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
As various voices worldwide condemned and sanctioned Russian President Vladimir Putin for the invasion, Hemeti took part in a photo-op with the Kremlin’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.
“Russia has the right to act in the interests of its citizens and protect its people under the constitution and the law,” Hemeti said during his visit to Russia.
He was in Moscow for eight days to strengthen economic and security ties with Russia. But his superior, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who heads the Sovereign Council and Sudanese military and was back in Khartoum the capital, was mysteriously quiet during the visit and did not acknowledge the meeting.
Since last October, when they both spearheaded a coup that overthrew the country’s civilian administration, relations between Hemeti and al-Burhan have reportedly become rocky.
Analysts have said that Russia has exploited the tensions by enhancing cooperation with Hemeti. But with war raging in Ukraine, the ill-timed visit to Moscow has hurt his reputation abroad and exacerbated tensions back home.
“I tend to think that Hemeti is leveraging his existing relations with Russia and Russians and trying to bolster his own position internally relative to the [Sudanese Armed Forces],’ Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Africa Center, told Al Jazeera.
“That doesn’t change the fact that it was an ill-conceived trip that only further aggravated growing tensions in the security apparatus,” he added.
It was under former Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir that Moscow and Khartoum first found a marriage of convenience
In November 2017, al-Bashir visited Putin in the Russian resort city of Sochi to request protection from what he perceived to be US aggression. Al-Bashir had been impressed by Putin’s commitment to saving embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Sudanese strongman went as far as praising Russian military intervention in the Middle East state.
In return for protection, al-Bashir promised to grant the Kremlin access to gold and a strategic route to the rest of Africa.
Five years later, Moscow has expanded its footprints in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel using mercenaries from Wagner Group, a shadowy private military company that helps the Kremlin extract natural resources like oil and gold.
Through Wagner, Russia has built strong ties with Hemeti, relying on him as a major source of gold since al-Bashir was toppled in a popular uprising in April 2019. But while gold has enabled the Kremlin to mitigate the impact of Western sanctions for invading Ukraine, it has also opened the RSF up to fresh scrutiny.
Theodore Murphy, an expert on Sudan with the European Commission for Foreign Relations (ECFR), told Al Jazeera that European powers should consider imposing targeted sanctions on the RSF for dealing with the Kremlin.
“We can strike a blow against Russia and we can also do a great service to those [Sudanese] that are out on the street getting arrested and killed to try and realize their democracy,” he said over the phone.
Since returning from Russia, Hemeti has also been facing mounting domestic scrutiny. On March 2, he hinted that Russia was still eager to establish a naval base in Port Sudan and that the Sudanese government should consider leasing the port out to the highest bidder.
Still, al-Burhan kept mum.
Less than two weeks later, Hemeti travelled to Sudan’s Red Sea state to ostensibly inspect the port and to ensure that it was operating smoothly, according to local news reports.
Residents like Alaa al-Deen, a 27-year-old engineer, protested Hemeti’s visit by blocking streets and burning tyres. Al-Deen told Al Jazeera that many residents might be displaced if a foreign power seizes control of the port.
“In my opinion and on behalf of the revolutionaries, we see such an arrangement to privatise our port as another way of exploiting Sudan,” he said in a phone call.
“The Russians will never get a naval base if civilians have power in politics … which is why the best way to protect against Russian encroachment in Sudan is [for Europe] to support the protest movement,” added Murphey.
Further complicating an already complex situation is Sudan’s dependence on Russia and Ukraine for more than a third of its wheat supply.
The continuing war has significantly hampered the incoming supply from both countries.
The World Food Programme (WFP) recently warned that the pause in international funding to Sudan since the coup, coupled with poor harvests and the war in Ukraine means that 20 million Sudanese – half the population – will go hungry this year.
“Let’s look at the big picture,” Marianne Ward, WFP’s deputy country director in Sudan, told Al Jazeera. “Inflation is gaining pace, the pound is falling, and foreign exchange is not available which has impacted on the ability of farmers to purchase seed, fuel, and fertilizers that would have been needed for their crops. ”
Kholood Khair, the manager of the Khartoum-based think-tank Insight Strategy Partners, said rampant food insecurity would place additional pressure on Hemeti and al-Burhan to mitigate the crisis. But she was unsure of the duo’s ability to cooperate and deliver any positive outcomes.
“The food insecurity issue is … one of the reasons that Omar al-Bashir fell,” she told Al Jazeera. “The inability of Burhan and Hemeti to manage the hunger crisis will be a big challenge … Russia won’t be able to just give them wheat.”
During Hemeti’s visit to Moscow, it is believed that Hemeti may have tried to portray himself as Sudan’s saviour and requested new money or subsidised wheat from Russia.
Hudson said the main motive for Hemeti to do so would be to gain an upper hand over al-Burhan by building an external power base.
“My sense is that [Hemeti and al-Burhan] are trying to put in place a reservoir of political, military and financial support to do battle with one another,” Hudson said.
After Hemeti’s return from Russia, al-Burhan too went on a trip. On the surface, the purpose was to enhance military and economic partnerships with the UAE, yet analysts believe he was trying to strengthen his external position. In Sudan, it was also reported that al-Burhan is attempting to unite a number of Sudanese armed groups into a single force.