The resistible rise of a warlord to Sudan’s political helm

Monday July 22 2019

Sudanese deputy chief of the ruling military council Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo in Khartoum early on July 17, 2019.

Sudanese deputy chief of the ruling military council Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo in Khartoum early on July 17, 2019. His rise to the top of Sudan’s politics was confirmed by him signing the Political Declaration on the transition to civil rule on behalf of the generals. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

PETER MUNAITA
By PETER MUNAITA
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Sometime in the 1980s, a descendant of the Mahariya Rizeigat Arab tribe that bestrides Sudan and Chad fled the war and drought to Darfur.

He had been born in a family of note — the Dagalos — his grandfather having been the head of a sub-clan of the camel-herding community, and his uncle Juma, the man who led the movement across the border.

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, then about 10 years old and the man who now sits second in command of the Sudan Transitional Military Council, would drop out of school in third grade and join the camel trade spreading from Libya to Egypt.

Not much of the history of the man who now passes by as Hemedti — little Mohamed — is known until 2009 when he was appointed a security advisor to the governor of South Darfur.

Jerome Tubiana, a researcher and journalist who has covered conflicts in Chad and Sudan, recalls meeting Hemedti for an interview in the regional capital Nyala at an unassuming oriental furniture shop before being led to a more imposing office setting.

'CALCULATING, RUTHLESS, DOUBLE-FACED'

In the profile published in Foreign Policy magazine in May, Mr Tubiana recounts Hemedti narrating how his uncle was denied settlement by Sudanese authorities in northern Darfur before being embraced in the south on land occupied by the Fur, the dominant African community in the region.

The family would rename the area they settled into Um-el-Gura, “Mother of All villages” in Arabic — an old name for Mecca. With time, they would be armed by Khartoum to take on Darfur rebels, culminating in Hemedti’s 2003 appointment as a war chief or Amir in the Janjaweed, a government-leaning militia.

Mr Tubiana portrays Hemedti as a calculating, ruthless and double-faced person who would win the confidence of Omar al-Bashir’s insiders and later rebel to extort favours of salaries for his men as well as informal mineral concessions in the area from his rivals. These concessions to date constitute one of Hemedti’s main sources of income.

In one case in 2006, Hemedti is said to have conspired with his cousin, Bishara Issa Jadallah, then defence minister in President Idriss Deby’s government in Chad, to “defect” when he thought Khartoum was taking him for granted.

“‘We didn’t really become rebels,’ he told me in 2009, sitting in his governor advisor’s chair. ‘We just wanted to attract the government’s attention, tell them we’re here, in order to get our rights: Military ranks, political positions, and development in our area,’” Mr Tubiana quotes him as saying.

He remained loyal as other Janjaweed leaders, including Musa Hilal, who quit as Bashir’s advisor in 2013, and he would overtime be richly rewarded.

He won the battle for gold concessions with Hilal who was later arrested in 2017.

At the time, Mr Tubiana writes, Burhan was a military intelligence colonel co-ordinating army and militia attacks against civilians in the West Darfur state from 2003 to 2005, during which period Hemedti was already a known warlord, who would gradually become the Janjaweed’s primary leader.

SANCTIONS

It is at the time that atrocities were committed in Darfur — hundreds of thousands dead, two million displaced — which later led to Mr Bashir being indicted for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

A couple of his senior commanders were also indicted and sanctions placed on several others by the United States. For some reason, none of these censors befell Hemedti who was the undisputed leader of the Janjaweed — warriors on horses — which Mr al-Bashir commissioned as Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in 2015. The paramilitary wing was two years later integrated into the military with a mandate to crush rebellions across the country and foil coups, leading to Mr al-Bashir fondly acknowledging Hemedti, now a brigadier-general, as ‘my protector.’

Hemedti would later up his game, exploiting opportunities presented by illegal migration to Europe in 2016 to win favours from the EU. He presented the area he controlled as a bulwark, where he would arrest migrants and order them back to the Horn of Africa and whichever other countries they were fleeing.

“It is widely believed the money paid by the European Union to Sudan for its efforts in combating illegal migration was allocated to RSF, which had been deployed on the border with Libya,” said Sudan political analyst Faisal Saad.

Hemedti’s profile grew further in 2017 as RSF was picked together with military ground forces led by Burhan to provide troops in Yemen as part of the alliance between Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates against Houthi rebels who are backed by Iran, Qatar and Turkey.

Recently, Hemedti alluded to his indispensability — both militarily and financially — in the evolving Sudan, when he said he had deposited $350 million to the country’s Central Bank from the forces’ involvement in Yemen. 

“After he defeated his former Janjaweed leader Musa Hilal in 2017, Hemedti has put his hands on the goldmining area of Amir Mountains in North Darfur and also got direct financial support from the gulf countries that are headed by Saudi Arabia,” says Sudan political analyst Faisal Saad.

PROTESTS

The protests launched by the Sudan Professionals Association (SPA) over rising cost of living, corruption and political intolerance in December 2018 was a political godsend to Hemedti.

As the head of the 30,000-strong RSF, his services were urgently needed in Khartoum as sending men from the barracks to quell civil protests would have been a diplomatic goof for Mr al-Bashir. In fact, Bashir tried it but junior ranks in the military refused to disperse protesters.

Hemedti deployed 13,000 of his heavily armed troops at every vantage point, ready to pounce when called upon.

As the protests grew, however, he sided with the protesters describing their demands as legitimate and visiting the wounded in hospitals. On visits across the countryside, he subtly passed messages in support of the revolution. After winning their confidence, however, he warned that the protests had been infiltrated by unnamed elements — variously referred to as drug peddlers and criminals — with a view to foment chaos.

On June 3, his forces violently broke up the sit-in outside the military headquarters killing 61, officially, but independent agencies say around 130 could be more accurate. Bodies were retrieved from the Nile and internet was cut for a couple of weeks to stem international outrage in tactics straight from Mr al-Bashir’s rulebook.

Last week, Hemedti appeared to express satisfaction with the turn of events saying many left Khartoum after the incident.

The TMC itself has appeared to inadvertently raise Hemedti’s profile, with its regular announcements that it has foiled several coup attempts attributed to elements of the Bashir administration who have fallen by the wayside. The latest incident, according to TMC, involved soldiers in the military and intelligence services out of whom a dozen or so were arrested. Foiling coups is one of RSF’s specialist mandates.

Hemedti’s rise to the top of Sudan’s politics was confirmed by him signing the Political Declaration on the transition to civil rule on behalf of the generals. Mr Tubiana warns this would have far-reaching implications locally and abroad.

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