Sudan’s path to democracy is blocked by a modern slavery pact

Foreign powers have long looked to Sudan to procure enslaved soldiers for their armies. Today it is happening again.

Sudanese soldiers
Sudanese soldiers on a military vehicle gesture as they arrive to the port city of Aden, Yemen on November 9, 2015 [File: AP/Wael Qubady]

It is not the first time in history that the people of Sudan are forced to supply the armies of foreign powers with soldiers. In the seventh century, the Nubian kingdom of Makuria signed a treaty with the Arabs who had just conquered Egypt to send 360 slaves a year in exchange for peace. These slaves would then become the backbone of Muslim armies for centuries to come.

Then in 1820, Muhammad Ali Pasha, the khedive of Egypt, invaded Sudan with a relatively small well-armed force. By 1824 it had gone as far south as the northern borders of Ethiopia and secured a steady supply of slaves for the modern army the Egyptian ruler was building to send on ambitious military campaigns.

Today, it is the Gulf monarchies who are looking to Sudan to provide foot-soldiers for their ruthless plans for regional domination. In 2015, then-President Omar al-Bashir agreed to join the Saudi-led coalition which invaded Yemen to fight the Houthi rebellion, hoping the Saudis and their Emirati partners would help his regime by injecting cash into the collapsing Sudanese economy. 

But that didn’t happen. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi never rewarded properly al-Bashir and instead focused on courting Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (also known as Hemedti), the young and ambitious commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia who was tasked with supplying Sudanese soldiers for the war in Yemen.

For the de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), Hemedti is a godsend. To realise his regional ambitions, MBZ cannot use his own national army, as well equipped and trained as it is. He needs proxies and militias that are not associated directly with him to do his dirty work. While in Libya he has the loyalty of Khalifa Haftar to secure his interests, in Sudan he has Hemedti, who after al-Bashir’s ouster is looking to take over rule of the country.

MBZ likely sees great promise in the young militia commander. So far he has successfully fulfilled his duties, supplying Sudanese fighters to secure Emirati bases in the south and fight on the front lines, shielding Emirati soldiers from harm. But he has the potential to go beyond Yemen. 

With an impoverished population of over seven million, Darfur practically offers a large recruitment pool, which could extend beyond its borders to other regions in Central Africa also suffering from high rates of poverty and instability. In other words, Hemedti, if not stopped, could expand his current militia for hire operation into a massive war enterprise, with MBZ as his main client and patron.

This means the continuous victimisation of Darfuri children and young men. While they are officially being paid for their service, their fate is no different from that of their enslaved ancestors forced into the military service of a foreign master. And while their commanders in Khartoum proclaim that their mission is to protect the two holy cities of Islam, they are in fact being used as firewood in a regional conflict they have no stake in.

This modern-day slavery pact is not only hurting Darfuris, but the whole of the Sudanese nation. To ensure Sudan does not break it off and withdraw its fighters from Yemen, the Gulf countries have made it their priority to crush the Sudanese revolution and secure Hemedti’s position of power.

The young men of the RSF have already been deployed to attack and disperse protesters before. On June 3, over 100 civilians were killed, many beaten, tortured and raped at the hands of Hemedti’s militia.

But nothing seems to deter the Sudanese people or wane their resolve. On June 30, hundreds of thousands took to the streets again demanding the military hand over power to civilians. These massive protests were well-organised despite a near total internet blackout and warnings of possible violence by the RSF. The effectiveness of “neighbourhood committees” in establishing communication channels among protesters, the financial support enthusiastically offered by expats, and the fact that after seven months of continuous civilian protests that resulted in the June 3 massacre, the Sudanese are still coming out in such numbers, demonstrate the perseverance and cohesion of the revolutionary movement in relentless pursuit of its goals.

Can Hemedti be stopped? The international community has already shown that it does not have the political will to do much about it.

The African Union has tried to mediate and put pressure, but the Transitional Military Council (TMC) has pushed back. The United Nations has issued general statements and has failed to pass any resolutions. The European Union and the United States have called for the transfer of power to a civilian government, while still holding meetings with Hemedti.

Ultimately, it is down to the Sudanese to salvage their freedom from the claws of the beast. The Sudanese should continue to protest, strike, and rally international support for their cause. They must prevent any normalisation of life under Hemedti. This will hurt them too, but it is imperative to deprive him of any legitimacy to rule.

Eventually, the struggle will be recognised. International public opinion could turn against Hemedti and he might lose all or some of the financial support he gets from the Gulf. But most importantly, and under local pressure, he might find himself in confrontation with the regular military.

To avoid bloodshed – and as difficult as this is for the families of his victims – Hemedti could be offered amnesty and possibly exile in exchange for giving up power. He might, like al-Bashir before him, refuse the offer and choose confrontation.

Hemedti would certainly lose any fight with the regular army, but having many of his fighters in Khartoum means there could be carnage.

At this point, there is still hope for democracy in Sudan. If the revolutionary movement were to succeed, it would not only set the country on a path to peace and prosperity but also halt the new wave of soldier-slavery that could sweep Sudan and parts of Africa.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.