As the Janjaweed militia – a conglomeration of Arab-speaking pastoralists and camel traders recruited to fight recalcitrant African Muslims in Darfur protesting marginalisation because the Sudanese army was busy with the civil war in the South – engaged in a vicious genocidal campaign against non-Arab communities in Dafur, the Arab elite and even ordinary Arab Sudanese in Khartoum and surrounding cities could not be bothered.
Many argued that the conflict was necessary to maintain control over the region and prevent the secession of Darfur from Sudan. Some even denied the gruesome campaign of murder, rape, and pillage, attributing the violence to tribal conflicts (one of the benefits of handing over the fighting to the Janjaweed militia) or downplaying its severity.
An eyewitness relayed the savagery of the Janjaweed militia in 2005 thus: “They would enter a village of an African tribe, kill all the men on sight and rape the women. Then they would tell the women: “You should celebrate, you slave. You are going to give birth to an Arab.”
So successful and clinical was the Janjaweed campaign of genocide that when the rebellion against the Sundanese government was resuscitated in 2013, Al Bashir, regularised the Janjaweed militia, calling it now the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), put it on the same footing with the army, and placed it under the control of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (aka Hemedti), who reports directly to Al-Bashir and had proved to be fiercely loyal to him, who gave him the rank of Brigadier General.
Although empowered to rival the army, Hemedti joined the army to depose al-Bashir and became the second most powerful man in the country with huge executive responsibilities
This enabled Al Bashir to outsource some dirty military duties to the RSF and at the same time, create a fiercely loyal “praetorian guard” to rival the army and protect his regime in case the regular army moved against him (coup-proofing measure). To keep Hemedti happy, Al Bashir gave him permission to mine and sell gold from seized lands in Darfur, making Hemedti extremely wealthy in the process.
Of course, the RSF delivered. A Human Rights Watch report found that in a counterinsurgency operation in 2014 and 2015, the RPF, now boasting more ammunition and air support from the Sudanese army, “committed a wide range of horrific abuses” including “torture, extrajudicial killings, mass rapes,…forced displacement of entire communities; the destruction of wells, food stores, and other infrastructure necessary for sustaining life in a harsh desert environment.” They were also deployed to other restive regions such as South Kordofan and the Blue Nile, living a string of murders and human rights abuses everywhere they go. A Human Rights Report in 2015 described them as “men with no mercy”.
As protests against al-Bashir’s rule and the austerity measures he introduced intensified in 2013, the RPF was deployed to quell the protests where close to 200 protesters were brutally murdered. So reliant on Hemedti had al-Bashir grown by now that he was in the habit of calling Hemedti “my protector.”
In 2018 however, when large-scale protests broke out against the continued rule of Al-Bashir, Hemedti showed his wily nature. Although summoned by al-Bashir to Khartoum to help shore up his regime and prevent the army from staging a coup, Hemedti quickly realised that al-Bashir’s rule was no longer tenable, and his interests are best served without al-Bashir in power. Although empowered to rival the army, Hemedti joined the army to depose al-Bashir and became the second most powerful man in the country with huge executive responsibilities. Although they briefly ruled in conjunction with civilian leadership, in 2021, they sacked the civilian government and began running the country again. Although, he again unleashed the army on protesters in 2019, killing hundreds protesting against the military junta.
However, despite the united front they presented, huge tensions, distrust, and animosity exist between Hemidti and the head of the army, Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. Both al-Burhan and al-Bashir are riverine Arabs and part of the ruling Sudanese ruling elite. Hemidti, on the other hand, is an outsider, uneducated, speaks vernacular Arabic only, and is only meant to be a servant of the ruling class and not be on the saddle himself.
Despite his immense powers, he is regularly subjected to mockery in Khartoum, with social media memes mocking his speeches, accent, and expression. His crime? He attempted to or did in fact, overturn an agreement that has guided Sudanese politics for generations: “The elites of the centre have the political power, and their partners in the peripheries enforce their agendas, but remain in the background.”
What is more, al-Burhan and the other top brass of the military look down on Hemedti and RSF as only a band of bush and untrained militias with weapons.
But it has been difficult to displace Hemedti or the RSF. Besides Hemedti’s extreme wealth (he owns several gold mining operations and runs a gold-mining company), he is a major power player both in Sudan and geopolitically. As of 2019, there were as many as 40, 000 RSF troops deployed in Yemen in support of the Saudi and UAE war on the Houthi rebels, and over 1000 in support of UAE in Libya. Saudi Arabia and the UAE jointly gave $3 billion in aid to Sudan to stabilize the army-RSF junta. They have also underwritten all of the RSF’s military adventurism, and the group is awash with weapons the army would only wish to have.
The current breakdown of trust and war can be seen in the light of the attempt to skilfully castrate Hemedti by insisting that he integrate his RSF forces into the Sudanese military within two years only instead of the ten years Hemedti asked for.
It is interesting to see Sudanese call out the international community for abandoning them to their fate when they mounted large-scale military evacuations of their diplomats on Sunday from Khartoum. The militia they supported in 2005 is now bringing Darfur to their doorsteps.