The Sudanese army was occupied with the civil war in the South when the Janjaweed militia, a group of Arab-speaking pastoralists and camel traders, were recruited to fight recalcitrant African Muslims in Darfur protesting marginalization. The Janjaweed militia waged a vicious genocidal campaign against non-Arab communities in Dafur while the Arab elite and even regular Arab Sudanese in Khartoum and nearby cities were unconcerned.
Many claimed that the battle was required to keep the area under control and stop Darfur from seceding from Sudan. Some even downplayed the gravity of the horrific campaign of murder, rape, and looting, attributing the atrocities to tribal conflicts (one of the advantages of entrusting the combat to the Janjaweed militia).
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.”
The Janjaweed campaign of genocide was so effective and methodical that when the uprising against the Sundanese government was revived in 2013, Al Bashir regularized the Janjaweed militia, renaming it the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), placing it on an equal footing with the army, and giving it to Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (also known as Hemedti), who reports directly to Al-Bashir and has shown himself to be fiercely loyal to him. He was given the rank.
Hemedti joined the army to overthrow al-Bashir, despite being able to compete with the army, and quickly rose to become the second-most powerful person in the nation with significant administrative responsibilities.
As a result, Al Bashir was able to delegate some unsavoury military tasks to the RSF and, concurrently, establish a fiercely devoted “praetorian guard” to rival the army and defend his rule in the event that the regular army took action against him (a coup-proofing strategy). Hemedti became enormously wealthy as a result of Al Bashir granting him access to dig and sell gold from Darfur’s confiscated lands in order to maintain Hemedti’s happiness.
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”.
In 2013, as demonstrations against al-Bashir’s authority and the austerity measures he implemented grew more violent, the RPF was called in to put an end to them. Nearly 200 protestors were brutally killed during this time. Al-Bashir had become so dependent on Hemedti by this point that he was accustomed to referring to Hemedti as “my protector.”
Hemedti, however, displayed his cunning side in 2018, when mass demonstrations against Al-Bashir’s continuing rule erupted. Hemedti was invited to Khartoum by al-Bashir in order to support his regime and stop the army from conducting a coup, but soon realized that al-Bashir’s reign was no longer viable and that his interests would be best served if al-Bashir were not in charge. Hemedti joined the army to overthrow al-Bashir despite being more powerful than the army and rising to the position of second-in-command with significant administrative duties. Despite briefly ruling alongside civilian leadership, they overthrew the civilian administration in 2021 and took back control of the nation. However, in 2019, he once more let loose the army on demonstrators who were opposing the military junta, killing hundreds of them.
Nevertheless, despite the united face they put on, Hemidti and Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the commander of the army, have a very strained relationship. Al-Burhan and al-Bashir are both Arabs from riverine regions and members of the Sudanese ruling elite. Hemidti, on the other hand, is an outsider who is ignorant, speaks only the vernacular form of Arabic, and who is only fit to serve the ruling class rather than take the reins himself.
Despite his extraordinary abilities, he is frequently made fun of in Khartoum, where social media memes make fun of his remarks, accent, and facial expression. His offense? The agreement that has governed Sudanese politics for years was sought to be overturned by him, or it was actually overturned: “The elites of the center have the political power, and their partners in the peripheries enforce their agendas, but remain in the background.”
Al-Burhan and the other members of the military’s senior brass also consider Hemedti and the RSF to be nothing more than a group of armed, untrained militiamen from the jungle.
However, it has proven challenging to unseat Hemedti or the RSF. In addition to Hemedti’s enormous wealth (he owns multiple gold mining operations and operates a gold mining firm), he is a significant geopolitical actor in Sudan. As of 2019, up to 40.000 RSF personnel were stationed in Yemen to support the Saudi and UAE-led campaign against the Houthi rebels, while more than a thousand more were in Libya to support the UAE. Sudan received $3 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia and the UAE to help the army-RSF junta be stabilized. Additionally, they have funded the RSF’s entire military adventure, and the group is awash in equipment the army only wishes it could possess.
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.
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