The soft-power campaign of Sudan’s RSF leader ‘Hemedti’
Leader of the Rapid Support Forces has used global public relations firms to convince observers he is a force for good.
After a tense power struggle erupted into violence in Sudan last week, world leaders and rights groups called for the army and the feared paramilitary Rapid Support Forces to exercise restraint and spare civilians.
The Twitter and Facebook pages of the RSF – and those of its leader Mohamad Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo – are now echoing those calls. On Tuesday, the group used its accounts to accuse the army of violently attacking civilians.
Conveniently, the RSF did not mention its own role in harming civilians, as witnesses and rights groups are reporting.
“The Rapid Support Forces condemns the aggressive behaviour by the [Sudanese Armed Forces] and calls on the international community to take action to prevent further violations of international humanitarian law,” read one of the RSF’s Twitter posts from Tuesday.
The RSF’s influence operations are just one cog in a broader public relations campaign that aims to convince Western observers it is a professional force protecting civilians. Central to its narrative is portraying Hemedti as a benevolent man who is rescuing his nation from religious hardliners in the army.
The army’s top brass is tied to Sudan’s political Islamic movement, which came to power behind the coup of former authoritarian leader Omar al-Bashir more than three decades ago.
For years, the military and RSF cooperated to commit grave human rights abuses across Sudan. But now, top military officers have grown to despise the paramilitary force because they – irrespective of ideological leanings – fear Hemedti could reduce their power and status if he gets stronger.
While neither force has shown any regard for civilians, RSF is cleverly weaponising human rights language to distract attention from its own atrocities, say rights groups and experts.
“I think there is a clear attempt [from Hemedti] to disassociate himself from a legacy of his crimes and to distinguish between the RSF and [Sudanese Armed Forces]. I find it striking that he uses international law language to do this,” said Emma DiNapoli, a legal expert specialising in Sudan.
Co-opting human rights
RSF emerged from the “Janjaweed” militias that spearheaded mass killings in Darfur between 2003-2009.
These militias were armed and recruited by the military government of al-Bashir to put down a rebellion by mostly non-Arab rebel groups, which were protesting the neglect and exploitation of Darfur by Khartoum elites.
Four years later, al-Bashir formally repackaged these militias into the RSF. Early on, the group was looking to garner legitimacy by advertising itself as a reliable partner for the European Union to counter migration.
Flushed with power and money – thanks to capturing lucrative gold mines and leasing out mercenaries to fight for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen – the group stepped up efforts to rehabilitate its reputation after a popular uprising forced al-Bashir from power in April 2019.
The already steep task became even more difficult after RSF spearheaded an attack on a protest site, killing at least 120 people on June 3, 2019. The global community condemned the violence, yet Hemedti still ascended to a high position in Sudan’s military-civilian government formed two months later.
In the following weeks, RSF promised to pay top dollar to human rights activists who would work with him as advisers, according to Hafiz Mohamed, director of Justice Africa, a research institute in Sudan that campaigns for human rights.
“In the fall of 2019, some advisers from [Hemedti’s] network came to us and said that we are all from Sudan and that we should work with Hemedti. But I told them that we have no interest in engaging with him,” Mohamed told Al Jazeera.
“Hemedti was always planning to build his own empire. He already had the finances and his own military, so he was working on his public relations and other civic engagement.”
Hemedti was also eager to cooperate with international organisations in hopes of presenting himself as a palpable partner for the West. In December 2021, the RSF received human rights training from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), generating a backlash from analysts and activists.
Part of ICRC’s mandate is to provide training in international law to all armed actors. But unless they are coupled with additional efforts to protect civilians, then it risks giving figures such as Hemedti a veneer of legitimacy as his forces continue to harm civilians, according to Kholood Khair, founding director of Confluence Advisory.
“Quite frankly, those who polished his image – as well as those who enriched him financially and politically – are part of the creation of the Hemedti that we know today,” she told Al Jazeera.
‘A crazy character’
The RSF has also hired a number of public relations firms to lobby on its behalf in foreign capitals.
In 2019, Hemedti turned to the Canadian lobbying firm Dickens and Madson, which is run by an ex-Israeli spy Ari Ben-Menashe, a man who stands accused of violating sanctions in Libya.
“Hemedti is a bit of a crazy character, but this is where we differ from everyone else: Without Hemedti, there wouldn’t have been any [democratic] change in Sudan,” Ben-Menashe said in 2021, in reference to the then civilian-military government still in place before the military coup that October.
According to the contract that Dickens and Madson signed, it was paid $6m to arrange a public meeting between Hemedti and then US President Donald Trump, as well as a number of private meetings between Hemedti and officials in Russia – a country that enjoys strong business and security ties with the RSF and the Sudanese army.
Al Jazeera is unsure when the two sides terminated their contract. But last year, Hemedti approached French PR firm Think Doctor in order to help manage RSF’s Wikipedia pages, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram accounts, as well as to offer media training, according to Africa Intelligence, a leading source of intel on the continent.
The French agency, which is based in Paris, reportedly met Dagalo in Dubai on several occasions to discuss a potential partnership, Africa Intelligence reported.
Al Jazeera called Think Doctor to ask if it has an office in Dubai and a working relationship with Hemedti.
“I completely don’t know what you’re talking about,” said a representative from the firm who identified himself as Charles. “I’m not interested and I’m not authorised to speak.”
The effect of Hemedti’s lobbyists on Western policymaking is unknown, yet those who suffered and witnessed RSF’s brutality say they never believed he was a genuine reformer.
Sulima Ishaq, a survivor of the violent attack on the June 2019 demonstration, said Hemedti always had political ambitions. After the violent dispersal, she knew most people would never forgive him.
“There is no denying that [Hemedti] always wanted us to forget the past. He wanted us to forget what happened, but there is no way we could,” Ishaq said.