Is a Rapid Support Forces victory in sight in Sudan's brutal war?
The leader of Sudan's paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, reappeared in late December after disappearing from the public eye for most of the nine-month-long war that has ravaged Sudan.
Hemedti's re-emergence and subsequent diplomatic tour across various African capitals followed the RSF's recent capture of Wad Medani in Gezira state, Sudan's agricultural capital and humanitarian operations hub, catering to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people from the conflict that started in Khartoum, the nation's capital and most populous city.
While Hemedti shook hands and signed the ‘Addis Ababa Declaration’ with former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and his civilian coalition 'Taqaddum' on 2 January, his troops on the ground were looting and ransacking homes, universities, factories, and markets in the city, according to local groups and city residents.
Omnia Elgunaid, a 21-year-old international relations graduate, fled Wad Medani along with roughly 300,000 others when the RSF captured the city after a sudden and surprising withdrawal by the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF).
"Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, reappeared in late December after disappearing from the public eye for most of the nine-month-long war that has ravaged Sudan"
"It’s clear to me and everyone on the ground that the RSF leadership has lost control over its forces and they’re running rampant and are barbaric," Elgunaid told The New Arab, describing the chaos in Wad Medani.
Abdalla Hamdok was Prime Minister of a transitional government in which civilian leaders shared power with the Sudanese Armed Forces and the Rapid Support Forces.
The transition was meant to steer Sudan towards multiparty elections in 2023, instead, events led Sudan towards a calamitous war which has caused the largest and fastest-growing displacement crisis in the world and an imminent famine.
In January, former PM Hamdok met Hemedti in his capacity as head of a group known as the Coordination of Civilian Democratic Forces, ‘Taqaddum’ for short, which means progress in Arabic.
Both Taqaddum and the RSF signed a document that laid out a roadmap for peace. However, the other warring party, the Sudanese Armed Forces, whom Hemedti's forces have been fighting since April, were conspicuously absent in the agreement and in the talks.
Omnia Elgunaid from Wad Medani, who had to flee as the RSF advanced into the city, reacted negatively to the agreement. "They [Taqaddum] are complicit and are shaking hands with a genocidal warlord," she said.
Before Taqaddum met with Hemedti, leaders within the movement had been signalling that the best way forward for Sudan's at-risk civilians was an accommodation of the RSF.
Yassir Arman, a leading member of the Taqaddum coalition, praised pacts of non-aggression brokered by tribes and local leaders in areas such as Hilaliya and Rufaa and called for civilians in Sudan to replicate these arrangements to minimise civilian deaths.
According to Mohammad Ibrahim, a 30-year-old resident of Adila, East Darfur, accommodation of the RSF is working in his hometown. "After the fall of SAF garrisons in the state, the RSF took control and secured the markets and the roads and it has not attacked the local population," Ibrahim told The New Arab.
Ibrahim explained that residents of Adila are living a normal life despite the fighting raging in other parts of the country. "The residents here [Adila] are not aligned with either SAF or the RSF, we have experiences with both forces and we have a long history with both riddled with betrayal and deception, we have learned to co-exist,” Ibrahim told The New Arab.
East Darfur has largely avoided the chaos that has accompanied RSF advances in other parts of the country, in large part due to the fact that the state is home to the Rizeigat tribe, from which Hemedti and most of the RSF leadership hail.
Consequently, the state provides a considerable number of combatants to the group and much of the looted furniture, cars, and valuables taken from Khartoum and other parts of the country have ended up in the state.
"The Addis Ababa Declaration was drafted in a manner that strongly suggests a continued existence for the RSF, despite popular demands for the group to be dissolved since the 2018-2019 revolution erupted"
While the RSF has avoided clashes with civilians in areas in which its fighters and leadership are drawn from, in neighbouring West Darfur, where few RSF soldiers hail, the RSF has engaged in "crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing" according to the US State Department.
Reports from media and human rights organisations have detailed gruesome accounts of systematic execution by RSF fighters of mainly Masalit and other males from non-Arab tribes, ranging from infants to adults. This comes in addition to rampant sexual violence against women and girls.
As a result, many see calls by the Taqaddum leadership to co-exist as a pipedream. "[The agreement] once again, gives the Janjaweed legitimacy, and I see that it is a betrayal of the citizens, after all the violations that happened," according to *Ahmed Mohsin, who was displaced from Wad Medani and found his way to the River Nile State.
The Addis Ababa Declaration was drafted in a manner that strongly suggests a continued existence for the RSF, despite popular demands for the group to be dissolved since the 2018-2019 revolution erupted.
The preamble of the declaration states that "We, in Taqaddum and the RSF, have determined to end this war and make it the last war in Sudan; and to complete and deepen the course of the December Revolution".
Alex De Waal, an expert on Sudan and the Horn of Africa and Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation, told The New Arab that the document is a “mis-step” by Taqaddum. He added that the declaration “could have been handled differently, substantively, if the declaration had included reference to RSF human rights violations, and procedurally, if the Taqaddum had met with, or at least shared the draft with, SAF beforehand”.
Despite the difficulty of having to co-exist with forces that have attracted such widespread distrust and enmity, some see this as the only way forward.
*Mohammad Elsir, an activist affiliated with the Taqaddum coalition, told The New Arab from Cairo that the difficulty for Sudan lies in "having to co-exist with the RSF but also the side that created the RSF (i.e. the SAF). The Islamists see themselves as God's vice-regents on earth and they see this war as their last chance to come back".
Elsir alluded to SAF-aligned Islamist militias and 'shadow brigades' that emerged after the outbreak of the war. The most visible among these forces being the paramilitary group known as the 'Al-Bara bin Malik Brigade', consisting of Islamist youth linked to the Sudanese Islamist Movement who are fighting alongside the military.
In addition to helping spawn new paramilitary groups to fight the RSF, more recently, the SAF has thrown its weight behind a burgeoning "popular resistance" movement. Civilians in areas not yet under RSF control are requesting the military to arm them so they can protect themselves against RSF incursions and anticipated violations, which typically follow the RSF's takeover of a city.
Although the situation is dire, it looks likely to still get worse in light of grassroots mobilisation against RSF advances which may be forthcoming.
"The RSF shouldn't have a future in Sudan, but right now there is no other way but for the RSF to be part of the next step, it is part of the war, and it has to also be part of the peace," Elsir said.
*names have been changed
Elfadil Ibrahim is a writer and analyst focused on Sudanese politics