Protesters in Sudan (photo via Twitter user @grotesqu9)

The Checkered Past of Sudan’s Hemedti

05/29/2019 . By Mohamed Elagami

Since the overthrow of former Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, the debate over who should succeed him and what sort of government should emerge has continued. The protesters leading the demonstrations that started in December 2018 and continue today are pressing for a civilian government, while the Transitional Military Council—or TMC, the body who actually overthrew Bashir—clings to power. The TMC has itself shuffled its leadership, with its initial leader, Lieutenant General Awad Ibn Auf, resigning after just one day as chairman, giving way to Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan.

But the chairmanship of the council is not the only position of power. The military as an institution has its own perquisites to protect, and many of the officers have their own histories.  Lieutenant General Muhammad Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, is the commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary force described by Human Rights Watch in a 2015 report as “Men With No Mercy” due to the crimes committed by these forces in Darfur during the civil war and in conflict that is still ongoing. Hemedti may be the most controversial man in the TMC, because the soldiers he commands are able to turn the political tables. He is a complex figure: he helped overthrow Bashir, and in April refused to use force to violently disperse protesters, but is also accused of committing war crimes in Darfur and may have engaged in other atrocities, including violence against protesters on May 13. His role in Sudan’s future—through participation in the TMC, negotiations with protesters, and consultation with foreign leaders—is pivotal.

History of Hemedti

Hemedti’s star shone in Darfur while he was fighting among the janjaweed forces led by Musa Hilal, the chief of the Mahamid tribe, one of the Arab tribes that formed the janjaweed militias. Hilal led these forces following the civil war conflict outbreak in 2003. These same forces later became responsible for border security under the name Border Guards, and Hemedti was fighting in their ranks. Disputes broke out between Hemedti and the government in August 2007, because of the salaries required for his forces, but the conflict was resolved quickly and Hemedti returned to the government’s side. The conflict with Khartoum helped Hemedti in a way, as his loyalty was no longer taken for granted by the government.

Even after Hemedti returned to the government’s side, multifaceted disputes continued. Hilal controlled the gold mining around Jabal Amir, an area in northern Darfur, sparking conflict between him and Hemedti. In 2013, the Sudanese government formed the Rapid Support Forces, appointed Hemedti as its commander, attached the force to the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), and granted its members protection under the 2010 Security Law. The forces were largely accused of participating in the killing of protesters in September 2013, during which 185 citizens were reportedly killed while protesting against the austerity measures taken by the Bashir regime at the time. As the relationship between Hilal and the government in Khartoum deteriorated, Hilal established the Revolutionary Awakening Council in 2014 in opposition to Bashir. While the RSF was created to support the government against rebel groups, Hemedti routinely clashed with other forces aligned with Khartoum, and was involved in a resurgence of violence in Darfur in 2014 and 2015. Around this time, Hemedti’s men took control of Jabal Amir, and the RSF still earns large sums from gold trading in the region.

After Sudan joined the Arab intervention against the Houthis in Yemen in 2015, Hemedti and the RSF were key players in that conflict. Hemedti has claimed that he deposited about $1 billion to the Central Bank, sourced from the salaries of his men’s participation in the Yemen war and the trading of gold. (Whether the money is actually his is unclear.) In 2017, the RSF was brought under the authority of the Sudanese army, reporting directly to the president. Hemedti was promoted to the rank of major general and then to lieutenant general, with some 30,000 men under his command.

Rapid Support Forces have also played a major role in the Khartoum Process, a program funded by the European Union to combat migration. This program has drawn criticism from rights groups due to the involvement of militias in an E.U.-funded operation.

Hemedti and the Revolution

The first announcement of the army’s overthrow of Bashir last month was by the official media of the Rapid Support Forces, with a communique stating, “The armed forces and the Rapid Support Forces have taken power.”  Hemedti refused to join the first iteration of the Transitional Military Council hours after its announcement, amid the nation’s rejection of former Bashir deputy and defense minister Ibn Auf and Kamal Abdul Maorouf, the former chief of staff, who both resigned the next day. Burhan, the inspector-general of the army, took over the chairmanship of the TMC and installed Hemedti as his deputy.

Hemedti’s relationship with Burhan was not clear until the emergence of the latter figure, despite Burhan’s previous role directing ground forces, and by default supervising forces participating in the war in Yemen. Apparently, this shared history has formed a bond between the two men. A video circulating on social media shows the two men in a television appearance on May 24, 2017, speaking about the RSF squashing the armed rebellion in Darfur during the disarmament campaigns the government led at the time.

The controversy surrounding Hemedti is centered on his feeling toward the protests of the past six months. Some protesters and media outlets celebrate what they call “his bias in favor of the revolution,” but others reject these claims. Many activists see Hemedti as attempting to maintain his own interests, as the TMC has delayed the handover of power to a civilian government. Western diplomats who met Hemedti were criticized by activists, including U.S. Charge d’Affaires Stephen Coates, British Ambassador Irfan Siddiq, and others. Siddiq later explained that his meeting with Hemedti as a representative of the Transitional Military Council was for informational purposes.

The Hemedti issue remains a topic of discussion among many of the activists involved in the Sudanese revolution and its observers and analysts abroad. A faction insists on trying Hemedti and refuses to approve his appointment to any executive position until judicial action is taken regarding the crimes committed in Darfur, seeing him as analogous to Charles Taylor in Liberia, who went from a warlord to the president. Taylor led the country into a bloody war because of the diamond trade, in a way similar to what Hemedti is doing with gold trading on the borders. Another group believes that Hemedti is a part of the civil war but not the reason for it. They argue that his case can be resolved within a comprehensive transitional justice committee to end the war in Darfur, along with having him in investigative and reconciliation meetings with other armed Darfuri militia leaders, for a comprehensive peace agreement between all parties to take a place.

Hemedti, like many others in the Sudanese security establishment, has so far been effective in protecting his interests, leading to speculation that he is using the vacuum after Bashir to advance to the highest echelons of power through presiding over Sudan. He may be able to play a role in shaping the post-Bashir political system, but he—like other apparently powerful individuals in the security establishment—does not necessarily have widespread support. Whether Hemedti is detained and tried for his role in past crimes, or merely sidelined until a comprehensive transitional justice solution is reached, his further advancement represents a threat to the principles of the protests. Throughout the transition, foreign policymakers should take care not to legitimize Hemedti’s advancement (or the TMC’s permanence), even if meeting with him is unavoidable. Policymakers should continue to support a comprehensive political transition that includes civilian representation and a transitional justice process, and should take care not to legitimize any particular personality in this interim period. As protesters and activists continue to press the TMC for change, if a consensus emerges among Sudanese parties, stability and some semblance of justice may come.