Just months after the Sudan Transitional Government took power in August 2019, Mohamed Aboelgheit, an Egyptian investigative journalist and researcher, co-authored a report on the financial network of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the militia led by Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, otherwise known as Hemedti. Aboelgheit passed away last year and war broke out this April, with Hemedti at its center. Through his investigative writing, Aboelgheit sent a critical message about how Hemedti’s RSF operates and the danger it poses to the future of Sudan. In this analysis, I reflect on his research in order to make sense of the ongoing war in Sudan.
When Aboelgheit and his colleagues published “Exposing the RSF’s Secret Financial Network” in December 2019, the Sudanese revolution was in its honeymoon stage. In April 2019, Omar Al-Bashir was overthrown in a coup, a few weeks later, peaceful protestors were massacred across Sudan by the police, the military, and the RSF. In August 2019, Sudan saw a transitional government headed by a civilian prime minister, Abdullah Hamdok, in accordance with an internationally-negotiated political agreement. The agreement legitimized the military’s presence in the transitional government, but most importantly, it recognized the RSF as a separate force.
Aboelgheit’s research raised alarms about the RSF’s damaging role in Sudan’s democratic transformation, but most importantly, it identified Hemedti’s sources of income, giving the civilian government a roadmap to weaken the militia’s powers by going after its finances. The research only captured the attention of activists who were marginalized from the Freedom and Change Coalition (FFC), the post-2019 governing coalition, because it began distancing itself from its activist base to focus on the minutiae of governing. In the meantime, Hemedti continued building his financial network and used his new coveted position as the vice-president of Sudan’s Sovereign Council, the supreme body in the country, to consolidate power and wealth. Eventually, however, both internal and regional dynamics took a toll on the RSF’s financial networks, and by 2022, Hemedti found a place in the UN-led Framework Agreement. Yet, the agreement fell apart—eventually leading to the outbreak of conflict between the RSF and Sudan Armed Forces (SAF), which has been heavily raging since April 15, 2023.
The RSF in the center
The RSF was officially created by Bashir in 2012-2013 to fight off rebellions in various parts of the country. It was managed by the former president and the notorious national security apparatus, given Bashir’s strategy of consolidating power using different maneuvers that resulted in weakening the military and empowering security apparatuses. He has done this before through the Popular Defense Forces that fought alongside the army in present-day South Sudan; this strategy stemmed from the fact that he no longer trusted the Islamic Movement or the SAF, the two entities that brought him to power.
The transitional government was never able to contend with the RSF as Bashir’s most dangerous legacy; and continued to legitimize the RSF and give it the freedom and opportunities to turn into a second army
Hired by Bashir to lead this militia was Hemedti, a former camel trader turned businessman turned rebel leader turned head of RSF. Hemedti hails from a nomadic group, the Rezeigat, whose lives were impacted by the Darfur conflict as the armed groups fighting against the central government continued to loot their cattle. In his own words on a popular TV show in 2017, Hemedti said that he came to Bashir himself, hoping to secure arms to protect his business and his community’s interests and offered his services. In the same interview, Hemedti said that he had a direct line with Bashir and their work was facilitated by SAF and the intelligence apparatus. His interests intersected with Bashir’s, who wanted to secure both Darfur and his own political future. Thus, armed with state funds, Hemedti recruited thousands of soldiers and continued to cultivate his growing closeness with Bashir; in his final days, Bashir would come to refer to Hemedti as “Hemeyti,” or “my protection” in Arabic. The transitional government was never able to contend with the RSF as Bashir’s most dangerous legacy; and continued to legitimize the RSF and give it the freedom and opportunities to turn into a second army.
The “paramilitary-industrial complex”
The Sudanese army has been heavily involved in the country’s political, social, and economic spheres since the 1950s, particularly after Jaafar Nimeri’s government sought to nationalize various sectors of the economy in the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, the military began competing in “commercial trade, industrial, and agricultural activities.”
A particularly drastic change in economic activity happened during Bashir’s rule due to increasing oil revenues. As a result, the SAF invested in banks, companies, agricultural land, and businesses, including entertainment. A prime example of such ventures is the Omdurman National Bank, Sudan’s largest financial institution, largely owned by SAF. Moreover, a report published last year identified at least 408 entities affiliated with the Sudanese army. Generally, the economic activities of the army led to a marriage of interests with the elites.
The RSF, however, depends on two main pillars economically: the first, is that it is a business owned and utilized by Hemedti’s family. As a result, the RSF’s top commanders are Hemedti’s siblings and the main players in the RSF’s business ventures are also his direct family members. Second, the RSF has a broad socio-ethnic base of nomadic tribes in Western Sudan due its composition along ethnic lines and this makes the force very loyal to Hemedti whose work intersects with the interests of their communities and their ability to survive in difficult terrains.
The business of the RSF
There are several ways that the RSF makes money. Aboelgheit’s investigation features a quote by Hemedti himself on the matter: “People ask where do we [the RSF] bring this money from? We have the salaries of our troops fighting [abroad] and our gold investments, money from gold, and other investments.”
Aboelgheit’s research expands on each component of this money-making scheme. First, in addition to state funds, the RSF engages in lucrative mercenary activities, such as their involvement in the Yemen war. In 2014, Human Rights Watch estimated that RSF had 5,000 to 6,000 fighters; in 2023, numbers were estimated to be at least 100,000 fighters. Both the SAF and RSF were recruited as ground troops for the Saudi-Emirati coalition in Yemen, with it being particularly well-paying for the RSF. Hemedti took the bigger cut, but the soldiers would make considerable income—over $22,000 for six-months deployment, compared to the country’s monthly minimum wage of $190. The multiple income streams allowed the RSF to pay their forces higher salaries than the SAF, making it a competitive employer. By 2019-2020, the war in Yemen required less forces, and RSF soldiers returned to Sudan and resumed their violent looting of civilians. Hemedti, however, had no choice but to keep them on the payroll because his political power emanated from his troops: in his own words, Hemedti famously said in 2014 that “anyone that doesn’t fight doesn’t have an opinion.” The RSF could not insert its mercenaries elsewhere, even though it was accused of having fighters in Libya.
Second, Hemedti makes money from gold in Sudan and in neighboring countries. Given that the RSF’s fighters come from different countries, and because the groups that comprise the militia are generally cross-border nomadic tribes with little recognition of state borders, the RSF is able to enjoy multinational operations in the gold industry. After Hemedti grew closer to Bashir, the latter granted him the Jebel Amir gold mines in Darfur. As Aboelgheit described it, the RSF “appears to have effectively captured a large part of the gold market in Sudan,” through their company Al-Gunaid, owned by Hemedti and his brother. This gold industry gives the RSF considerable control over resources inside Sudan and allows it to trade with other countries. SAF and other private companies are similarly major players in the gold industry, which the war in Ukraine also helped shed some light on.
Third, the RSF has other investments, most notably in media and security companies. For example, the RSF has a security company that recruits security personnel to guard different sites. In 2022, they applied to tenders issued by international organizations to manage their security. Such investment is not lucrative compared to the others, but contributes to its overall plan to infiltrate different markets.
Ultimately, however, the RSF’s economic power is tied to its political power, and any barriers to continuing its financial dealings poses a grave danger to Hemedti
Ultimately, however, the RSF’s economic power is tied to its political power, and any barriers to continuing its financial dealings poses a grave danger to Hemedti. This was evident in Hemedti’s trips to Darfur in mid-2022, where he spent massive amounts on reconciliation conferences to stop violence in West Darfur and South Darfur. By acting as a mediator, he was likely hoping to bolster his political clout in Darfur, even if it meant depleting crucial funds. After his return, he announced the creation of the Darfur Recovery Fund for the internally displaced, and also began attempts to tap into the annual corporate responsibility funds of companies, indicating his struggling financial situation. This is an interesting development as Aboelgheit’s investigation pointed out that Hemedti claimed to have put over $1 billion into the Central Bank of Sudan to cover essential needs for the country.
Money is everything
Through his research, Aboelgheit tried to shed light on the finances of the RSF which are central to the group’s existence. As it is the case with other mercenary groups, money is everything: it buys guns, it generates more money, and it also buys people’s loyalty. And the 2019 transitional government barely interfered with this.
Without money from wide-ranging streams of incomes, the RSF would not have been able to sustain its expensive enterprise as internal and regional dynamics dwindled its resources
The RSF had turned into what Alex de De Waal, Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation and a prominent Sudan scholar, calls “a private transnational mercenary enterprise.” Without money from wide-ranging streams of incomes, the RSF would not have been able to sustain its expensive enterprise as internal and regional dynamics dwindled its resources. In order to maintain its financial networks, the RSF sought to monopolize political power, which is why the Framework Agreement provided a critical lifeline for the RSF. The agreement had promises for different actors: the FFC saw it as a way to re-enter the council of ministers which they were kicked out of after the 2021 military coup; the RSF saw it as more political influence as they aligned with the FFC; and the military saw the RSF and the FFC as a threat to their power. The transitional period proposed by the agreement would have bought the RSF time to mobilize more troops and continue accessing state funds in a legitimate way. And so, the deadline to sign the agreement passed, with the military announcing that it will not sign.
It remains unclear who fired the first bullet in Sudan’s ongoing war. Al-Bashoum, the social media account that assisted Aboalgheit’s research, provided yet another clue. A video published earlier in July shows that the RSF entered Khartoum with increased forces and military equipment two days before the war, which implies that the RSF was preparing for a war. While the SAF wanted to reel the RSF in, the RSF needed the war to rehabilitate its faltering financial networks. Four months into the war, it seems that both sides are pursuing a military victory and whoever wins will get to control Sudan—and extract its resources without accountability.
Reem Abbas is a Nonresident Fellow at TIMEP focusing on land, conflict, and resources in Sudan. She is also the institute’s first Mohamed Aboelgheit Fellow.