The Janjaweed, Sudan's ticking time bomb

The Janjaweed, Sudan's ticking time bomb
Analysis: The Janjaweed militia has emerged as a powerful political player in Sudan, but the history of militias getting involved in politics suggests all may not end well.
8 min read
25 May, 2015
The Janjaweed have played a major role in quelling rebellions in Sudan [AFP]
The name Janjaweed strikes fear into the hearts of many Sudanese people.

The Janjaweed, now formally known as the Rapid Support Forces, first gained international notoriety in 2003 at the beginning of the Darfur conflict. Today, the Janjaweed are being accused of new violations - accusations that their leaders and the Sudanese government strongly deny.

The Janjaweed established their presence on the Sudanese political scene very quickly. They are associated with the Sudanese Armed Forces, fighting alongside them in the Sudanese states of the Blue Nile and South Kordofan, as well as in the Darfur region.
The government has allowed 3,000 Janjaweed to deploy in various areas of Khartoum.

A spoiled child or a ticking bomb?

The Janjaweed, however, also enjoy advantages over the official Sudanese army. Their equipment is more advanced and their salaries are higher. Some people here call them the "spoiled child of the Sudanese regime".

However, others see the Janjaweed as a ticking time bomb. By supporting them, the Khartoum government is digging its own grave, they believe, especially as the government has allowed 3,000 Janjaweed to deploy in various areas of the capital itself.

The Janjaweed started out as Arab tribal militia which the government used to suppress the 2003 Darfur rebellion. The government relied on them heavily for this, and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir stated they were responsible for quelling the revolt.

On an international level, the Janjaweed, who have also been known by several other names including the "Border Guards", have been accused of human rights violations in Darfur, including rape and burning villages. These accusations have led the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for President al-Bashir and other Sudanese officials, including Defence Minister Abdel Rahim Mohammed Hussein.

The Janjaweed have also been accused of recruiting foreigners from Arab tribes in Niger, Chad and Mali.

The government denies this, however, while the leader of the Janjaweed, Mohamed Hamdan Hamidati, says most of his forces are from the Arab tribes of Darfur - and there are no foreigners among them.

He says he is willing to provide the government with 100,000 fighters if it requests them, and considers fighting for the government a form of paid employment.

In a documentary, Hamidati, who is 43 years old, said he was called to a meeting with Bashir, who requested his help in quelling rebellions in Darfur, the Blue Nile and South Kordofan, offering him money in exchange.

In 2014, the Janjaweed militias were brought under a united command and given their new official name - the Rapid Support Forces. In order to regularise their status, they were placed under the command of the security forces.

It is believed the Sudanese army refused to integrate the Janjaweed within its ranks, because it considered the Janjaweed to be a chaotic militia following a tribal code, rather than a code of combat.

Hamidati admitted as much when he was sacked as a security adviser in South Darfur. "I am a free human being," he said at the time. "I have my clan and my own army and resources. The state governor cannot reduce my authority."

Official status

At the end of 2014, the Sudanese parliament amended the country's interim constitution, turning the security forces into an official state force, like the army and police. This allowed the Rapid Support Forces to become the military branch of the security forces, fighting in several areas.

Most recently, the Janjaweed played a key role in the Battle of Nakhara in south Darfur, inflicting heavy losses on the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM). President Bashir celebrated with the Janjaweed near the front lines, rewarding them, promoting their leaders and handing out medals.

Some sources say Hamidati made any participation by the Janjaweed in battle on the government side conditional on the regularisation of their status.
In 2014, the Janjaweed militias were brought under a united command and given their new official name - the Rapid Support Forces.

A source close to him said he "learned from the experience of his cousin, Musa Hilal, who took part in the creation of the Border Guards and participated in the government's military campaigns, before being purposely sidelined by the government - despite his status as an MP and his appointment to a federal ministerial post".

Before the constitutional amendment, Hamidati said that he had asked for a law to be passed allowing the Border Guards, whose intelligence operations he headed, to have powers and military ranks similar to those of the regular forces.

Hamidati demanded participation in government and the development of the areas inhabited by Rihal Arabs in Darfur, pointing to their role in ending the rebellion there and making a success of the Khartoum and Doha negotiations with armed Darfur rebel groups.

Hamidati holds the rank of brigadier and says he achieved it through his military successes, despite having never attended a military academy. He is also a leader of Darfur's Arab tribes, which fought against the rebels in that area.

He became a leader of the Border Guards, which Musa Hilal formed in 2003, and was appointed as a security adviser in South Darfur state. He was later sacked after being accused of involvement in violence in South Darfur.

His sacking occurred after his dispute with the former governor of South Darfur, Hamad Ismail. Ismail had targeted Hamidati's Ruzayqat al-Abalah tribe, the Janjaweed ledaer claimed. After the two men fell out, violence broke out in South Darfur.

After the latest violence, Hamidati became a more important figure, especially as Hilal's fortunes with the government waned. Hamidati said that if his tribe were disempowered in South Darfur, the rebellion would return.

He has become a rising star in the Sudanese press - and, at the same time, a widely feared figure.

Accusations of abuses

In addition to the human rights violations they are accused of in Darfur, his forces are accused of looting and killing people in areas they passed through when they returned from the battlefields of South Kordofan.

"Our forces are disciplined and do not commit violations," he said. "These violations are committed by others who happen to be leaving at the same time. There may be some indiscipline, but these are individual cases which we deal with straight away. Our troops are not angels and similar things happen in other armed forces."

Observers are concerned, however, with Hamidati's ambition, which some say could end up destroying the country after the concessions the government has granted him.

The government has shown its weakness by turning the Janjaweed into a force above criticism, punishing politicians who have expressed concerns about them, say analysts.

Their promotion has dealt a blow to national dialogue efforts, especially following the arrest of the opposition Umma Party leader, Sadiq al-Mahdi. Mahdi, one of the main figures expected to participate in this dialogue, had accused the Janjaweed of committing crimes and recruiting foreigners.

When Mahdi was arrested, Hamidati said the Janjaweed were now in charge of the country - and they were the ones who could decide whether to release Mahdi or keep him in prison.

Observers fear Hamidati's ambition, which some say could end up destroying the country.

Previously, Hamidati used to make statements portraying himself as a source of security and stability.

When the 3,000 Janjaweed were deployed in Khartoum, Hamidati said they would be the main protection force for the Sudanese capital, allowing denizens to live in peace.

"We came to defend you and you should thank us," he said. "We could have left the rebels to attack you."

The Sudanese government is accused of using the Janjaweed to suppress the September 2013 protests against fuel prices. Hundreds of demonstrators were killed and injured.

In the 1980s the democratically elected government of Sadiq al-Mahdi armed the Masiriya and Ruzayqat tribes to fight against the rebels of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), then led by John Garang.

These became known as "Sadiq's militias".

They were resented by the army. In 1989, under Bashir's command, the army carried out a successful coup against Mahdi. On the day of the coup, Bashir challenged these militias to fight against the army. Some observers believe that the Rapid Response Units may now bring about the fall of the regime.

One military analyst, who asked not to be named in this article, told al-Araby al-Jadeed the bureacracy of the official state forces keeps them less favoured by officials.

"The police and army have well-established systems and traditions that can't be bypassed," he said. "The government has decided that militia warfare is best because of its flexibility. Armies were created to fight other armies and it is difficult for them to fight rebel guerrillas. However, mobilising militias comes at a price - they demand land, power, and money."

The analyst said arming militias always led to problems. He said the government needed to collect the 4,000,000 weapons in the country before the situation gets further out of control. If the situation stayed as now, there will be a new rebellion against the government, he said, leading to new alliances in Darfur that would lead to the region separating from Sudan, like South Sudan did.

Analysts said the inevitable outcome of the Janjaweed's deployment in Khartoum and the conflict zones will be a crisis which would bring chaos to Khartoum, as the Janjaweed are an undisciplined militia and their leader wants to gain power.

Some high-ranking officials from the ruling National Congress Party reportedly want to ally with him, explicitly for this purpose - and this makes the Janjaweed a ticking time bomb.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.