Sudan: Who is Hemedti? The man behind the massacres

Sudan: Who is Hemedti? The man behind the massacres
Comment: Hemedti could become a Frankenstein's monster, annihilating any hope of a new Sudan, and turning against those who enabled his rise, writes Sarra Majdoub.
11 min read
13 Jun, 2019
When Bashir was deposed, Hemedti positioned himself as the lynchpin of the transition [AFP]
Sudan's Transitional Military Council (TMC) has reached the end of its tether with the people's movement. Its second in command, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, popularly known as 'Hemedti', has been instrumental in its new policy of repression. 

The rise of Hemedti, a product of Omar al-Bashir's regime with a gruesome criminal reputation, is indicative of the fierce resistance from Sudan's deep state to the political changes.  

In late April, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo declared, "My patience with politics has its limits."

The militiaman and head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), better known as 'Hemedti', was promoted to the position of vice president of the TMC soon after the fall of Bashir on 11 April 2019.

Since then, Hemedti has become the ubiquitous public face of the TMC, despite not even being part of the regular armed forces, which are closely tied to the state. This prominence could be described as an overthrow, given Hemedti's status with most Sudanese people as a notorious bandit and war criminal.

With the help of his militia, Hemedti has assumed responsibility for the regime's interactions with the international community on the issues of migration and border control in Sudan.

Since 2015, alongside the president of the TMC, General Abdel Fatah Burhan, he has also pushed for the inclusion of a Sudanese contingent in the coalition forces led by Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen.

In mid-April, he achieved a degree of international legitimacy by taking part in TV debates with European Union representative Jean-Michel Dumond, US diplomats and the ambassadors of France, the UK and the Netherlands.

On 24 May 2019, he went to Saudi Arabia to meet with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in further efforts to portray himself as Sudan's man of the moment.

He has been able to increase his grip on executive power in Khartoum bit by bit, by being omnipresent, involving himself at every level of decision-making and making more and more public appearances and statements.

Hemedti also owns a gold mining company in Jabal Amir, in the north of Darfur, which has allowed him to invest in increasing the strength of his troops

He has presented different messages, being seen announcing the release of hundreds of detainees after an official visit to Kouber prison, taking part in ministerial meetings, forcefully threatening rebels and the trade union the Sudanese Professionals Association if they continued the general strike of 28 and 29 May, and declaring himself the country's final hope after its negotiations with the TMC stalled.

He has also been seen using his troops to block access by protesting journalists to the headquarters of the national television network, lecturing the police and urging the Sudanese people to reject certain NGOs, which he accuses of instigating unrest in Khartoum, as happened in Darfur.

Hemedti's ascent

No one could have predicted the giddy rise of Hamdan, a former cattle trader of the Rezeigat tribe and supervisor of commercial convoys between western Sudan, Chad and eastern Libya, to the heights of vice president of the TMC and arbiter of the transition.

From 2010 onwards, he gradually positioned himself as an alternative to the strong man of the Darfur war, his estranged cousin Moussa Hilal. Hilal, former chief of the Janjaweed militia, advisor to Bashir, and later head of the border forces, was ostracised following an internal purge and captured by Hemedti himself in November 2017.

Hemedti then became president of the RSF, an off-shoot of the Janjaweed which has been recognised as the national force since August 2013, under the patronage of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS).

The RSF's systems of command and control remain relatively opaque, but its strength definitively surpassed that of the army following legislation that was rushed through parliament in January 2017. The Rapid Support Forces Act transformed the RSF into a semi-autonomous entity attached to the regular army and benefiting from a considerably enhanced budget, directly controlled by the president.

Governor of the marginal zones

In just a few years, Hemedti has become a general with responsibility for several army divisions. In Bashir's regime, he held numerous posts concurrently. The armies designated him 'governor' of the marginal zones of the country, where he rules through brutal control in Darfur, the displaced people's camps and other hotbeds of violence such as Jabal Marra, the Blue Nile and South Kordofan (the Nuba Mountains).

Hemedti made himself the first frontier guard of the eastern border with Eritrea and Ethiopia. He was seen parading with his troops in January 2018 in the town of Kassala, as well as in his more traditional fiefdom in the west, where he attempts to police - not without difficulty - the borders with Libya and Chad.

No one could have predicted the giddy rise of Hamdan, a former cattle trader of the Rezeigat tribe and supervisor of commercial convoys

He makes proud claims to be working within the auspices of European Union migration policy, decided through the highly contested Khartoum Process. On the strength of this role, he has become the ambiguous promoter of the fight against human trafficking in Sudan, both a 'transit' and a 'departure' country, for which he receives a further salary.

Belligerent alongside Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates during the war in Yemen (he faced mutinies in the forces he sent there), Hemedti also owns a gold mining company in Jabal Amir, in the north of Darfur, which has allowed him to invest in increasing the strength of his troops.

In an interview given at the end of October 2016 from El-Gura in south Darfur, he laid his cards on the table: "My forces and I have taken on every role - that of the police, the army, local management. We have done a great deal – security, reform, development..."

A figure of the transition

Some political commentators have seen Hemedti as a sort of protective fuse in terms of relationships between the regular army, the paramilitary forces of the regime and the different Islamist factions represented in the state.

Since the Darfur war of 2003, there is awareness among the higher ranks of the army and the rest of the state security apparatus that international justice is in pursuit of war criminals. They hope Hemedti will be the one to shoulder the blame.

Hemedti has proved as adept as Bashir was at negotiating contradictions. Bashir shaped the RSF into a force that could operate alongside the regular army, the Patriotic Defence Forces (the auxiliary forces of his party) and other groups like the Popular Defence Forces and the 'shadowy forces' and Islamist factions. When Bashir was deposed, Hemedti positioned himself as the lynchpin of the transition.

Huge numbers of his troops are now stationed on the outskirts of the capital and were at the protesters' sit-in in front of the army headquarters. The number of men stationed in Khartoum is estimated to be between 5,000-7,000. Recruitment to the force is ongoing, particularly in the east of the country.

The war of the barricades

The barricades of paving slabs and wood erected by the protesters became a target for Hemedti and the TMC. They represent a symbolic and physical attempt by the movement to regain control of the town, allowing it to create permanent checkpoints and monitor access to the sit-in.

This re-appropriation of space has become a tool of peaceful self defence in the face of repression, one of the tactics employed by the movement from the outset.

Successive attempts to dismantle the barricades have been reported and denounced by demonstrators and by the Sudanese Professionals Association, including confrontations on 15 April at the sit-in, and repeated attempts at intimidation on 6 May.

The overthrow of this symbolic order is a priority for Hemedti. His aim is to subdue Khartoum by attacking the community spirit of the movement and reducing its numbers to force it to lose momentum.

'Hemedti's reconquering of Khartoum,' is an attempt to impose a regime fuelled by fear and rumour

This has played itself out in what some protesters have dubbed the 'war of the barricades'. The issue has been divisive in recent weeks, including among the ranks of the protesters. The TMC has used the question of the barricades to pressurise the movement, making an agreement to dismantle them a condition for the resumption of negotiations.

'A new Darfur'

The events of the night of Monday 13 May presaged what was to occur later, on Monday 3 June. On 13 May there were 11 deaths and around 200 people injured. That bloody night will enter traumatic memory just as the '8th of Ramadan massacre' as I., who was near the sit-in on the night in question, says:

"What Khartoum has lived through over these last few nights is what has become everyday life at the margins of the country; in Darfur, in Niyala, which saw an attack on 4 May. This open use of violence is relatively new in Khartoum; it's a test, yet another provocation to the movement. It bears the clear signature of Hemedti."

The modus operandi of the vicious attack of 13 May indeed points unequivocally at the RSF and Hemedti: According to eyewitnesses, men in RSF uniforms surrounded the sit-in zone during the night, then shot at protesters using real bullets, felling a dozen within minutes.

Protesters in Khartoum stage a peaceful demonstration against military rule [Getty]

In a TV appearance, Hemedti denied responsibility, claiming to have captured those responsible, who he said had been 'disguised' as RSF soldiers.

There was no official inquiry into the incident. For G., speaking after 13 May, "the RSF are like the guard dogs of the regime... they don't attack the neighbours, they don't attack thieves... but they terrorise every inhabitant whenever the master is away." The RSF continue to patrol in various pars of Khartoum, including Bahari.

"Hemedti's reconquering of Khartoum," as some protesters have called it, is an attempt to impose a regime fuelled by fear and rumour, a mode of government by terror that is already well-established in the margins of the country.

The 3 June offensive

The dawn of 3 June marked the beginning of a terror offensive against the revolution and the peaceful movement that has appealed for the handover of power to the civilian population.

On that day the sit-in was brutally quashed. Men wearing the uniforms of law enforcement agencies and driving vehicles without licence plates fired real bullets and tear gas and burned protesters' tents.

In Khartoum, Hemedti is seen as the architect of the massacre, his silent partners representatives of the 'deep state'

The offensive resulted in around a dozen deaths on that day, hundreds of people injured and hundreds more disappeared.

Eyewitnesses at the site on the afternoon of 3 June said the death toll was expected to increase. Bodies accumulated at the Charq El-Nil and El-Moualam hospitals, the closest to the sit in (also attacked by the RSF, according to witnesses) as well as Royal Kir. The Central Committee of Sudan Doctors passed on information from eyewitnesses of bodies thrown into the Nile.

The RSF set up headquarters in different parts of Khartoum and Omdurman and paraded outside them. The TMC was baptised the 'Council of Criminal Assassins' by Sudanese people enraged by its tactics of repression and terror.

Its spokesman General Kabachi justified the attack, evoking "the presence of criminal and harmful elements which had to be neutralised" at the perimeter of the sit-in on Nile Street, but distancing himself from the "brutal dismantling" of the protester's camp and "regretting the loss of life".

The TMC press conference planned for the afternoon of 3 June was cancelled. In Khartoum, Hemedti is seen as the architect of the massacre, his silent partners representatives of the 'deep state'.

Read more: Sudan's military blames protesters for violence, following army massacre

In an appeal issued on 3 June, the Forces of Freedom and Change and the Sudanese Professionals Association denounced "the supreme treason of the use of real bullets by the Transitional Military Council and the bloodbath that resulted."

They urged in response "actions of absolute civil disobedience across the entire country, the erection of barricades in the streets, broad-based general strikes and the total paralysis of all sectors until the fall of the Transitional Military Council, renamed 'Council of Treason', the security apparatus of the regime, its militias and its shadowy forces."

Many Sudanese towns have responded to this appeal for solidarity with the capital, with demonstrations in El-Doueim, Niyala and Port Sudan.

Back to the future

Hemedti has no political, let alone civil, support base. He is trying to compensate for this through a 'soft landing' campaign, attempting to obtain the backing of former opposition parties and several armed movements, encouraged by some regional and international powers.

He is probably not the most powerful military man in Khartoum, and cannot subdue the capital by force the way he has done at the country's margins.

But he has shown himself to be bolder and more formidable than any other potential leader. He could gain complete control of the army and other security apparatus and turn Sudan into a security state par excellence, under the shadow of the murky Salah Gosh, former chief of the NISS.

Does he know how to make himself acceptable as a partner for three years until elections take place? Could he be represented on the National Council, which remains a subject of disagreement between the TMC and the Forces of Freedom and Change (and perhaps within the civil forces too)?

Whatever happens, Hemedti poses a threat, even if the military hold on to power. He could become a Frankenstein's monster, not only annihilating any hope of a new Sudan, but also turning against those who have enabled his ascent in his attempts to monopolise power.

Sarra Majdoub is a political analyst and independent researcher on Sudan.

This article was translated and republished with permission from our partners, Orient XXI.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.