Sunday 16 June 2019

The warlord behind the bloody struggle for power in Sudan

RSF commander Hemedti
RSF commander Hemedti

Roland Oliphant

It was an act of intimidation so bizarre that Mohammed barely understood what was happening until it was over.

The young soldier who had stopped Mohammed's car on the streets of Khartoum last week suddenly grabbed a shock of his hair, drew a knife and sheared it off. "Sudan belongs to us now," said the soldier.

The motorist got off lightly. Dozens, possibly hundreds, of people have been shot, beaten and robbed by rampaging security forces since Sudan's military rulers launched their bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Khartoum last Monday.

By Friday, a doctor's association aligned with the protest movement had counted at least 113 deaths.

Up until a week ago, the pro-democracy protest that brought down Omar Bashir's dictatorship in April, still appeared to be on the verge of power.

By keeping people on the streets, it sought to maintain pressure on the Transitional Military Council, the generals who had mounted a coup against Bashir, to allow civilian rule.

The generals unleashed the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a militia linked to atrocities in Darfur, to clear the sit-in last Monday morning, but the Sudanese Professionals Association, behind the uprising, has refused to surrender.

"People have seen 40 people killed in one day," said Sarmed, a 24-year-old protester. "There are still people who are willing to die for the cause."

The suspected architect and main beneficiary of the slaughter is Lt Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, the deputy chairman of the council and commander of the RSF.

A former camel trader with no formal military training, Hemedti, as he is known, is an unlikely candidate for power. One former member of Sudan's National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), the feared secret police, described Hemedti as "a donkey thief who graduated to Toyotas" and who simply wants to get rich.

"He is at the bottom. Yet he is poised to take over the country," said Cameron Hudson, a former CIA analyst and Sudan watcher at the Atlantic Council. But even his harshest critics acknowledge his ruthless opportunism.

When war broke out in Darfur in 2003, Hemedti joined what would become the Janjaweed militia, a pro-government force accused of genocide against the non-Arab population.

"Hemedti and his gang started raiding convoys. He was stealing fuel, which he sold to rebels," said the former NISS officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

NISS arrested him in 2008. "The interrogators beat him badly, but he was fearless," said the officer, who said he was involved in the arrest. Recalled to Khartoum, the officer learnt that their prisoner had been released, given an NISS uniform and persuaded to fight against the rebels.

In 2013, his gang became the Rapid Support Forces and placed under the president, who promoted Hemedti. But when protests against Bashir broke out, Hemedti turned on his patron, publicly saying he would not fire on demonstrators. "The corrupt, whoever they are, should be referred to justice," he said at the time.

That he last week launched the very bloodbath he had refused to carry out for his former boss is in character.

Today, he effectively rules Sudan's capital city, with 15,000 RSF troops and the backing of regional superpowers Saudi Arabia, Egypt and UAE.

But the regular Sudanese Armed Forces, who have more men, have an ill-disguised contempt for Hemedti and the RSF. And Lt Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the Transitional Military Council, may have his own ideas about who should rule.

"But Hemedti is all in. There is no limit on what he would do to acquire power in Khartoum," said Eric Reese, a Sudan watcher.

Telegraph.co.uk

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Editors Choice

Also in World News