Hopes for Sudan’s transition to civilian rule have waned after violence has broken out between the military and the powerful paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
Much of the RSF’s influence can be attributed to its leader, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as “Hemedti”, or “Little Mohamed”. He came to prominence as the deputy leader of a transitional council launched after former strongman Omar al-Bashir was overthrown in 2019.
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His RSF and the army staged a coup in 2021 against a joint civilian-military leadership, but a year and a half later, Dagalo seems unhappy about the military, making statements about how its ranks are still filled with loyalists who will hamper the process towards democracy.
So who is this figure who has risen through the ranks to become one of the richest and most powerful men in Sudan, the force behind Sudan’s feared fighters?
Humble beginnings to militia mastermind
Dagalo was born around 1974 into the Mahariya tribe of the Rizeigat community in Darfur, the nephew of a tribal chief in the camel-trading branch of the Rizeigat.
He has little formal education, dropping out of school in the third grade and later becoming a camel trader.
The most common story about Dagalo is that he was compelled to take up arms in the Darfur conflict when men attacked his trade envoy, killed 60 members of his family and looted his camels.
He joined the Janjaweed, a conglomeration of Arab tribal militias mostly drawn from camel-trading tribes and active in Darfur and parts of Chad.
He rose through the ranks, catching the eye of President al-Bashir, who was recruiting Janjaweed to fight non-Arab people who began revolting against his rule in 2003 in Darfur, and Dagalo soon became a commander.
Human rights groups have accused the Janjaweed of war crimes – including killings, rapes and torture of civilians – throughout the conflict in Darfur.
The RSF was formed in 2013 under Dagalo’s leadership. It combined elements of the Janjaweed into a new force under the auspices of al-Bashir and his National Intelligence and Security Services.
Ally and adversary to al-Bashir
Soon, Dagalo was given further legitimacy and a large degree of autonomy as al-Bashir, impressed by the tall, imposing militia leader, began to rely on him and his fighters to stamp out his enemies in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan.
Dagalo won the rank of lieutenant general and was given free rein as he seized lucrative gold mines in Darfur belonging to a rival tribal leader. He multiplied his fortune many times over.
“As he rose to prominence, Hemedti’s own business interests grew with help from Bashir, and his family expanded holdings in gold mining, livestock and infrastructure,” Adel Abdel Ghafar, director of the Foreign Policy and Security Program at the Middle East Council on Global Affairs told Al Jazeera.
Despite being a longtime al-Bashir ally and benefitting greatly under his rule, Dagalo took part in overthrowing the president when the 2019 uprising broke out and ended his nearly 30-year rule.
Post-Bashir power grab
Following al-Bashir’s departure, a civilian-military partnership was set up, and Dagalo positioned himself well in that transitional period.
He became the deputy head of the Transitional Military Council, which held power right after al-Bashir fell, and then became part of its successor, the Sovereignty Council, Abdel Ghafar said.
And, as he has always done, Dagalo cracked down hard on dissenters.
His RSF forces killed more than 100 people at a protest camp in 2019 outside the Ministry of Defence, a crackdown Dagalo denied ordering.
While al-Bashir and other top Sudanese officials have been charged with genocide and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court, no charges have been brought against Dagalo despite accusations by rights groups of war crimes committed by the forces he has headed over the past decade.
Murky role in the transition to civilian rule
Over the years, Dagalo has forged powerful ties both in the region and internationally.
He sent RSF forces to fight Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, allying with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
He has also met Western ambassadors, held talks with rebel groups, forged peace between warring tribes and spoke publicly about the importance of democracy in Sudan as he made no effort to hide his animosity towards the army.
The latest violence broke out after the army, the RSF and Sudan’s civilian pro-democracy forces reached an agreement in December that plotted out the path to civilian rule.
Under the agreement, the army would return to its barracks and the RSF would be absorbed into its ranks, so the two forces would be brought together under one commander, which currently is General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
“Both him and Burhan have calculated that the leadership contest is now a zero-sum game and thus have moved on each other, and unfortunately, the Sudanese people must stand on the sidelines as both military leaders fight it out till the bitter end,” Abdel Ghafar said.