Political crisis

Sudanʹs deadly counter-revolutionary militia

In the struggle between demonstrators and the military for a civilian-led state, the successors to Darfur’s notorious Janjaweed militia could end up as the cats that got the cream. That the group is financed by autocratic Gulf states makes it even more suspect. Karim El-Gawhary reports from Khartoum

In the Sudanese capital Khartoum, just a few streets separate hopes for a new Sudan and uncertainty over whether the old Sudan will strike once again. Demonstrators set up their protest camp around the military headquarters in early April and have since then been tirelessly calling for a civilian government after the long-time dictator Omar El-Bashir was toppled and a transitional military council took over at the helm of the nation.

But beyond the demonstrators’ barricades, armed men are in charge. Pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns are positioned on almost every street corner in Khartoum. Some bear regular army registration plates, but most belong to a militia group calling itself the Rapid Support Force or RSF for short.

The demonstrators are primarily worried about these men with their camouflage uniforms and automatic rifles, because the RSF has its roots in the notorious Arab Janjaweed mounted militia that hit the headlines 16 years ago after it murdered, burned and raped its way through the villages of the Sudanese province of Darfur fighting rebels in the name of the El-Bashir regime.

More than a quarter of a million people were killed in Darfur and more than two million others displaced. Today, its reincarnation the RSF could advance to become the biggest and most dangerous opponents of anyone taking to streets to peacefully demonstrate for a democratic Sudan under civilian rule.  

A key role in the political decision-making process

“In the current power game between the military and demonstrators over the future of the nation, the RSF militias play a key role in the political decision-making processes,“ says the Sudanese human rights activist Majid Maali, who has been observing these paramilitary forces for many years. The Sudanese journalist Faisal Saleh confirms: “Today, there are more members of the RSF militias in Khartoum than members of the army”.

In the capital, they are viewed as outsiders. “They come from rural areas and not urban centres. They arrived in the capital and became the source of tensions,” is Saleh’s analysis. Their leader Muhammad Hamdan Dagolo, usually referred to by the name “Hemeti“ in Sudan, is viewed as the eminence grise in the currently governing military council, in which he occupies the second most senior position.

Burning tyres and barricades in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on 3 June 2019 (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
Burning barricades against marauding militias: according to activists, police and RSF members in Khartoum surrounded the sit-in the centre of the capital that had been going on for weeks and attacked demonstrators with tear gas and live ammunition in an attempt to break it up. At least nine people were killed. The demonstrators were subjected to a "bloody massacre", twittered the trade union alliance SPA, the organisers of the continuing mass protests in Sudan. The alliance called on people to take to the streets and demonstrate peacefully for the overthrow of the Transitional Military Council

Some believe that on this council, it is the militia leader Hemeti and not council chairman General Abdel Fatah Burhan who is calling the shots. "Hemeti could well be the most influential member of the military council. There won’t be any deal in Sudan without his signature," Saleh is sure.

Hemeti’s career trajectory makes dramatic reading. Born into poverty and leading a nomadic existence as a camel herder, he found his calling as a warrior, initially with the notorious Janjaweed militias. After becoming their leader in Darfur, he later took over at the helm of the RSF. Apart from his attempts to always secure the largest possible slice of the pie, he does not appear to have any major political agenda.

"He’s always shown good instincts. At the start of the rebellion against El-Bashir in Khartoum, he refused to crush the uprising for El-Bashir and earned praise from demonstrators at the time," says Saleh, looking back at first few days of April.

A brief summer of solidarity

But this honeymoon period between the protestors and the RSF militias was short-lived. When armed men tried to clear one of the barricades on 15 May, they fired indiscriminately into the crowd. Several people were injured and protestors were quick to point the finger at RSF paramilitaries. "The RSF militias came to clear the barricades, they initially shot into the air then on the demonstrators," says one eye-witness Atef Baqr, in an interview with this newspaper as he lay in hospital receiving treatment for a gunshot wound.

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