Sudan’s Hemedti paved his way to power by crushing the Darfur revolt

(Reuters) – Sudanese general Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, rose from humble beginnings to lead a widely feared Arab militia that crushed an insurgency in Darfur, earning him influence and eventually a role as the country’s second most powerful man among its wealthiest. Fighting broke out on Saturday between his Rapid Support Forces (RSF), which were militias in Darfur before becoming a paramilitary force, and the military.

Hemedti has featured prominently in his country’s turbulent politics for 10 years, helping to overthrow his one-time benefactor President Omar al-Bashir in 2019 and later quelling protests by Sudanese seeking democracy.

As deputy head of state, Hemedti, a former camel trader with little formal education, has taken on some of Sudan’s key portfolios in the post-Bashir era, including its crumbling economy and peace negotiations with rebel groups.

Much of its power stems from its RSF paramilitaries — menacing young men armed with bazookas and machine guns mounted on trucks — who mastered the desert war in the Darfur region but lacked the discipline of the regular army.

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According to Muhammad Saad, a former assistant to Hemedti, Hemedti first took up arms in the western Darfur region after men who attacked his trade convoy killed about 60 of his family and looted camels. The conflict had spread in Darfur from 2003 after mainly non-Arab rebels rose up against Khartoum.

A tall, imposing figure, Hemedti formed a pro-government militia of nomadic Arab tribesmen known locally as the Janjaweed, which he later transformed into the more diverse RSF.

The International Criminal Court charged Bashir and other senior officials with genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur that began in 2003 and have killed up to 300,000 people and displaced 2.7 million. No charges were brought against Hemedti.

When Bashir wanted protection from rivals during his 30-year rule, he chose Hemedti as his enforcer, insiders said. Impressed by Hemedti’s cunning and fighting skills, Bashir drew on him to deal with public enemies in the Darfur conflict and elsewhere in Sudan.

Hemedti’s militia was legitimized. He gained the rank of lieutenant general and was given a free hand to seize gold mines in Darfur and sell Sudan’s most valuable resource. As Sudan lurched from one economic crisis to another, Hemedti prospered.

“I’m not the first man to have gold mines. It’s true, we have gold mines and there is nothing stopping us from working in gold,” Hemedti said in a BBC interview.

Hemedti also found powerful friends in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates after sending RSF troops to aid them in the civil war against Iran-allied rebels.

In 2019, after years of supporting Bashir, Hemedti helped oust his longtime ally, who was pressured by mass protests demanding democracy and an end to economic woes.

As part of a civil-military partnership established after Bashir’s ouster, Hemedti wasted no time shaping the future of Sudan, which for most of its post-colonial history was ruled by military leaders who seized power through power grabs.

He spoke publicly about the need for “real democracy”, met Western ambassadors and held talks with rebel groups.

“Hemedti aimed to be number one in Sudan. He has unlimited ambition,” said one opposition figure, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.

Hemedti showed little tolerance for dissenting opinions.

The RSF launched a bloody crackdown on a protest camp outside the Defense Ministry in 2019 after Bashir’s ouster, witnesses said. More than 100 people were killed. Hemedti denied ordering the attack.

The military seized power in October 2021 and declared a state of emergency, ending the civil-military power-sharing agreement in a move decried by political groups as a military coup.

In a video statement, Hemedti said the army seized power to “correct the course of the people’s revolution” and achieve stability.

Hemedti said the military is ready to cede power in the event of a deal or elections. Many Sudanese were not convinced.

But divisions between Hemedtis RSF and the army have complicated efforts to restore civilian rule.

The Sudanese army this week warned of the risk of a confrontation following mobilizations by Hemedti’s paramilitary group, emphasizing rising tensions between the rival forces.

“I have long believed that he (Hemedti) poses an existential threat, not only to Sudan’s democratic transition but also to its viability as a state,” said Ahmed T. el-Gaili, a Sudanese lawyer.

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by William Maclean, Samia Nakhoul and Frances Kerry)

Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.

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