Sudan’s feared paramilitary leader signals ambition to rule the country

Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemedti’ Dagalo goes on an African tour to secure regional support and political legitimacy.

Mohamed Hamdan 'Hemedti' Dagalo, leader of Sudan's RSF paramilitary group, has been battling the army for control of the country since April 15 [File: AP Photo]

When Sudan’s civil war erupted in April between the army and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the paramilitary group’s leader, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, went into hiding.

Many speculated he had been seriously wounded or was even dead until he appeared in a photo-op with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Wednesday.

The next day, Hemedti visited Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, ostensibly to discuss strategies to end Sudan’s conflict. He also passed through Ghana and Djibouti.

Analysts believe Hemedti’s real motive was securing regional support to capture all of Sudan from the army.

Last month, the RSF captured Gezira state – a breadbasket for Sudan – giving the group the clear upper hand against the army.

But rather than leverage military success in negotiations to end the conflict, Hemedti appears to have ambitions to rule all of Sudan, according to analysts, Sudanese journalists and diplomats.

“Hemedti desperately needs people to feel that the RSF is a governing force. I think this is why Hemedti went to meet heads of state,” said Kholood Khair, a Sudan expert and founding director of the think tank Confluence Advisory.

“Hemedti will try as much as possible to fashion himself into this idea of being a leader,” Khair told Al Jazeera.

Red herring

On December 9, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an eight-nation East African bloc, released a statement saying Hemedti and army chief Abdel Fattah al-Burhan would meet face to face in two weeks.

Sudan's General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan salutes as he listens to the national anthem after landing in the military airport of Port Sudan
Sudanese General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan salutes during the national anthem after landing in the military airport at Port Sudan [File: Ibrahim Mohammed Ishak/Reuters]

But Hemedti went to Uganda the day before he was supposed to meet al-Burhan for ceasefire talks in Djibouti. IGAD postponed the talks for “technical reasons”.

On Monday, Hemedti met with Sudan’s former prime minister and the leader of a newly formed civilian bloc, the Coordination of Civil Democratic Forces (Taqaddum), Abdallah Hamdok, in Ethiopia.

Taqaddum has announced it also invited al-Burhan to meet at another date, but there has been no information about whether that invitation has been accepted.

Khair believes Hemedti and al-Burhan are both partaking in – and derailing – mediation efforts to buy time for their military operations.

“This is all a red herring … to gain some international kudos while at the same time trying to gain some ground [in the war],” she told Al Jazeera.

In October, the RSF captured several army garrisons across the sprawling western region of Darfur, just as the US-backed mediation talks in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, were about to resume after a lengthy hiatus.

Jonas Horner, an independent expert on Sudan, told Al Jazeera the RSF’s expansion as it takes more states to the north and east is not sustainable.

He noted that the paramilitary has recruited heavily from its tribal base in Darfur in exchange for allowing the fighters to loot cities they capture. But the pillaging of homes, hospitals, United Nations warehouses and markets has led to popular resentment and hatred of the group, he said.

“[The RSF’s] atrocities and their hardcore cruelty … is probably their single biggest obstacle and makes the prospect of them governing the country far more difficult,” Horner said.

“I think so many Sudanese … are never going to be comfortable with the RSF governing them,” he added.

Trying to govern

Despite committing a myriad of human rights abuses, the RSF is trying to bring law and order to regions under its control, Sudanese journalist Mohamad el-Fatih Yousif said from Darfur.

He told Al Jazeera that the paramilitary has created a department called Civil and Political Management, whose paid employees are responsible for repairing basic services like hospitals, electricity grids and water stations in South Darfur’s capital, Nyala.

“There is relative safety right now in Nyala,” el-Fatih Yousif said. “All the RSF fighters that were looting Nyala left. They all went to Gezira state.”

The RSF has also established a local police force in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, most of which it controls. Police forces have also been instructed to maintain order throughout Darfur.

Many activists and analysts are mocking the group’s ostensible attempt to combat criminality and blame the RSF for most of the theft, violence and lawlessness in the country.

“This is a farce,” tweeted Lauren Blanchard, an expert on Sudan and a specialist in African affairs at the Congressional Research Service.

“Will the RSF’s police force arrest RSF forces for the killing, looting, property destruction, occupation of houses, sexual violence, and other crimes in which they have been implicated in Khartoum and other areas?”

A partner in crime?

While almost nobody in northern and eastern Sudan will accept living under Hemedti, European countries will cooperate with the RSF if it captures the entire country, according to one Western diplomat who spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity.

He said that in the interest of stemming migration from Africa to Europe, the European Union is already signing partnerships with strongman leaders such as Tunisian President Kais Said and an eastern Libyan militia connected to renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar.

The EU also previously worked with the RSF on migration as part of the Khartoum Process, a 2014 migration pact between the EU and countries in the Horn of Africa to combat the trafficking and smuggling of human beings.

The EU suspended cooperation with Sudan after the RSF spearheaded an attack on a sit-in on June 3, 2019, according to open-source investigations carried out by human rights groups. At least 120 people were killed in what survivors and rights groups called a massacre.

“Europe denied that they ever supported the RSF directly, but they did. And I think that they will do so in the future if that is what is necessary,” the diplomat told Al Jazeera.

“And if it turns out that the RSF is about to take over all of Sudan, then I think the EU will make the calculation that they have to publicly condemn what the RSF is doing.

“But I don’t think [the EU] will stop the RSF or support any country to stop the RSF from taking over the country.”

Source: Al Jazeera