It is first and foremost those who travelled to Khartoum from Darfur to join the protest camp who have not forgotten the era of the marauding Janjaweed militias. "When I see the RSF paramilitaries in Khartoum now, then I think back to the massacres between 2003 and 2005 in Darfur, which caused me to flee at the time," says Idris Adam, one of the Darfur activists gathering every evening in a special protest tent for Darfuris. "The RFS is an instrument of the old regime and should be totally dissolved. Its presence in the capital is completely unacceptable," another Darfur activist Halima Ashak agrees.

But human rights activist Maali warns the demonstrators’ political leadership against automatically demonising the RSF. "They are strong, but they don’t have any genuine political programme for the future of Sudan. We can’t defeat them. So the only option is to open up a dialogue with them," he argues.

Gulf state mercenaries

The strength of the successor to the Janjaweed militias is also derived from its involvement in the Yemen war. There, it was deployed by the Emirates and Saudi Arabia as a mercenary ground force against Houthi rebels. This gave it a huge amount of money and as a result yet more power in Sudan.  And in the context of the Sudanese power struggle, this might also make the RSF paramilitaries into a compliant instrument for Gulf autocrats with no interest whatsoever in a democratic experiment in Sudan.

"The Gulf states are attempting to gain influence via many channels, but the RSF is their most important instrument. They are known from the war in Yemen. There, they received weapons and money. The Gulf states’ links with the RSF are stronger than with the Sudanese army," says journalist Saleh.

As for what kind of role Hemeti and his militia will assume in the Sudanese power struggle, Saleh believes this depends on Hemeti’s personal ambition and the regional influence on him. That Hemeti’s first foreign trip in his new position as vice chairman of the Sudanese military council took him to Saudi Arabia, where of all people he met with the controversial Crown Prince Muhammed Ben Salman, set alarm bells ringing with protestors in Khartoum.

But there is quite possibly a European component to the support of the RSF paramilitaries. As part of what is known as the Khartoum Process, the EU is attempting to outsource border protection against migrants further to the south in Africa. Funds have been channelled to Sudan as a result.

Europe's underhand game

"The EU says that this money will be used to improve living standards in those parts of the country expected to stop migrants. Another tranche of the funding came in the form of technical support for the security apparatus to strengthen the border," says Saleh, describing the EU engagement.

"The EU ambassador in Khartoum denies that money has gone directly to the RSF. But money was paid to enhance border protection and it’s highly likely that some of it went to the RSF, as these militias operate in the border region with Libya and Chad," he concludes.

There is no proof that EU funds were indirectly paid to the RSF, or what sums might be involved. But as far as public perception is concerned, it is the view of many Sudanese that money has been given to the militias. "The militias have a bad reputation because of their major human rights violations in Darfur. The people are shocked. On the one hand, the EU demands respect for human rights. On the other hand, it’s likely that the EU is financing this force to stop migrants," is human rights activist Maali’s summing up.

If it is the case that EU cash has indirectly ended up in the hands of the RSF paramilitary force, then Europe will have co-financed a pretty explosive situation in Sudan. After all, if the demonstrators in Khartoum do not succeed in their calls for the implementation of a civilian government, then Sudan runs the risk of mutating from a military state into one led by a paramilitary force.

Karim El-Gawhary

© 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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