Khartoum's current militia nightmare was written in the stars way back in 1996

Saturday April 22 2023

Hemedti is not the kind of fellow you'd want to be your neighbour, but his story is fascinating.

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

The Sudanese capital Khartoum has just endured a week of terror as missiles, air strikes, and gunfire rained on it as army chief Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan battled his deputy Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo alias Hemedti, who leads the powerful Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a private paramilitary group. Hundreds of people have been killed and thousands wounded.

The RSF is like no paramilitary or militia Africa has seen before. In late 2019, as Sudan continued to reel from the economic and political crises that had led to the ouster of strongman Omar al-Bashir, the RSF had more hard cash than the state. Hemedti reportedly lent the Sudan Central Bank over $1 billion to help stabilise the tanking Sudanese Pound.

Fascinating story

Hemedti is not the kind of fellow you'd want to be your neighbour, but his story is fascinating. Born around 1975, at 15, he dropped out of school and became a camel and sheep herder and trader between Sudan, Chad, Niger and Libya.

He came to international attention from 2003, when war broke out in Sudan's Darfur region, as one of the commanders of the brutal Janjaweed militia, which helped the Bashir regime put down the rebellion. He became Bashir's enforcer.

In 2013, he started building up the RSF, mostly using Janjaweed. He seized goldmines and later the gold trade in several parts of the country. He also supplied mercenaries to the Saudis and Emiratis in the Yemen war and got paid handsomely. Putting the autonomy Bashir had given him to good use, he all but built the RSF into a state within a state.


For a half-literate camel trader, this is incredible.

 There, however, had been many warnings that one day Africa would have men like Hemedti. The year was 1996. The post-Cold War was bubbling up. Many one-party and military dictatorships in Africa had collapsed or were on the run, and the emergence of democracy was chaotic. Once tranquil, Liberia and Sierra Leone were in the throes of bloody civil wars.

Rwanda genocide

In East Africa, the horrors of the Genocide Against the Tutsi were all too fresh. Somalia had imploded afte4r the ouster of military dictator Siad Barre in 1991. The democracy movement in Kenya had gathered steam and was giving the gruff Daniel arap Moi sleepless nights. Something strange had happened in Tanzania. Though within the same ruling CCM, Hassan Mwinyi had given way to the more ebullient Ben Mkapa, who had been elected in a multiparty election in 1995.

Though still roiled by a savage war in its northern part, Uganda was in the golden age of President Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Movement's (NRM) rule. It had one of the continent's most sizzling economies. It had written a new constitution in 1995 and, in early 1996, went on to hold the first universal suffrage election since Museveni had come to power in 1986. It was a quasi-one-party vote, but it was still a big deal.

In Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, who had seized power at the head of the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) in 1991, had brushed up his image with a one-party election in 1995 and had just been appointed as Prime Minister. He was a rising star, and Ethiopia was on the move.

We were comparatively young journalists then, struggling to make sense of the complex and fast-moving world that had broken out around us. An invitation came to go to Addis Ababa to attend a seminar on "militianisation."


 There were militias around the continent, for sure, but this was the era of rebel groups and revolutionary movements. Militias didn't seem like something more than a passing aberration.

We gathered in Addis and spent two days listening to how disaffected young Africans were being drawn to militias for livelihood and to find community. There were presentations of land groups and urban communities from around the continent, who were organising to secure their rights and security around militias because the state had withered in the post-Cold War crisis.

Groups that had long been economically and socially marginalised from the colonial period to after independence were forming militias to fight for their share of the national cake. Militias, we were told, weren't like rebel groups, because they did not seek to take state power and form the national government. They tended to be one or two-issue organisations, were local, and less hierarchical.


The conference was divided. Several participants thought militias were nothing more than gangs. Some argued that a post-Cold War Africa would be marked by a lot of regional political demands and that in some countries, militias would be the main vehicles by which these claims were pursued. Some foresighted speakers even ventured that weak or corrupt states would make alliances with militias to keep them in power and fight off rivals. Many didn't buy into it.

 Hemedti was 21 then and still in camels. We would have laughed if his photograph had been put up on the screen, and we were told he would be the man to build Africa's first new-age militia.

In 2019 it was reported that Hemedti had kitted the RSF with 900 Toyota Hilux pick-ups, and 100 Land Cruisers, more vehicles than many African armies have.

In the ongoing gunfire in Khartoum, Africa might have entered a frightening age. We were foolish in Addis in 1996. We should have dared imagine that this day would come.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3