Controversial Militia Leader Becomes Second in Command in Sudan
The political future of Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti, has become uncertain following the bloody dispersal of protesters in Sudan’s capital Khartoum on 3 June 2019. The crackdown, which protest leaders accuse Hemedti, deputy chairman of the transitional military council, of ordering, left at least 108 people dead and hundreds injured.
Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti, became a high-profile and controversial figure during the last seven years of the civil war in Sudan’s Darfur region. His name was associated with the Arab militias, known as Janjaweed, that supported the government of now ousted President Omar al-Bashir. From a small trader, he quickly rose through the military ranks under the command of the notorious Musa Hilal, leader of the Mahamid tribe and wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes.
In 2016, al-Bashir appointed Hemedti as commander of the Rapid Support Forces supporting the Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen. In return for his services, al-Bashir promoted Hemedti to the rank of major general, although he had never received any formal military training or progressed through the ranks in the usual order. He then jumped to the rank of lieutenant general before being appointed deputy chairman of the transitional military council after al-Bashir’s ouster in April 2019. Hemedti’s opponents ridicule him for being almost the only military figure in Sudan, and perhaps the world, who became lieutenant general without going through the usual military ranks.
Hemedti descends from the Arab Rizeigat tribe that lives in the western states of East Darfur and West Darfur. Although he was unable to pursue his education, he showed a clear ability to learn. He became a trader at a very young age, a profession he has held since 1991. He traded cloth and camels between Sudan, Libya and Egypt until the outbreak of war in Darfur in 2003.
He had not planned on joining the military. However, as a result of the growing instability in the region, al-Bashir called on the Arab tribes to fight the rebels, the majority of whom were from African tribes, turning the civil war into a tribal and ethnic one.
The Arab tribes initially mobilized as the irregular Popular Defence Forces, which had no official records, salaries and rights. Hemedti led a group of representatives from these forces who went to the capital Khartoum to demand that they be officially incorporated into the army. The demand was approved after the group received basic training.
In 2003, Hemedti was appointed to the Border Guard, which was largely made up of members of the Mahamid tribe. The Border Guard was instrumental in tipping the balance of the war in favour of the government, causing the rebels to become divided and pushing some of them to engage in negotiations with the government in 2004.
The Rapid Support Forces were formed in 2006 and successfully subdued the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) led by Khalil Ibrahim. This and other achievements saw the Rapid Support Forces incorporated into the National Intelligence and Security Service.
The major shift in Hemedti’s military career came in November 2017, after Hilal refused to hand over his weapons in response to international pressure on al-Bashir to disarm militias and restrict the use of weapons to regular forces only.
Hemedti’s forces were tasked with collecting Hilal’s weapons. The two sides engaged in confrontations that resulted in the death of Hilal’s brother. Following a short battle in November 2017, Hemedti’s forces captured Hilal. When al-Bashir was deposed in April 2019, it was reported that Hilal was still in prison.
Local and international criticism
The Rapid Support Forces faced widespread criticism from within and outside Sudan. Sayyid al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, head of the Ummah Party, described them as militias responsible for humanitarian violations in Darfur, comments that led to his arrest. International players, opposition civil parties and armed rebel movements claimed that the Rapid Support Forces are an extension of the notorious Janjaweed militias and rely on the Arab components in Darfur.
However, the regime denied these forces were tribe-based and repeatedly asserted that they were nationalist regular forces.
Several Sudanese cities outside Darfur recently celebrated the graduation of thousands of recruits to the Rapid Support Forces, which Hemedti considered to be “proof of the nationalist identity of these forces and evidence that they do not represent a single tribe as the enemies claim”.
In May 2014, the Rapid Support Forces accused the United Nations Hybrid Operations in Darfur (UNAMID) of profiting from the conflict in Darfur and seeking to prolong it. The accusation was in response to UN reports accusing the Rapid Support Forces of committing ‘heinous crimes’ in Darfur.
Amassing a fortune
As Sudan’s political situation became increasingly unstable, Hemedti was able to accumulate significant wealth by engaging in gold mining and cross-border trading in Darfur’s Jebel Amer area, where he forcibly seized national mines that had been dominated by Hilal. This was in addition to other trading activities that he referred to but not in detail. He also received huge but unspecified amounts of money from the participation of his troops in Yemen. He confirmed this information at a press conference following his appointment as deputy chairman of the military council, noting that he delivered $27 billion to the Central Bank of Sudan to import fuel and wheat.
Yet not even the most optimistic people would have predicted that Hemedti would align himself with the protest movement that emerged in December 2018. At the same time, his rejection of al-Bashir’s decisions and support for the demands of the protesters sparked new controversy about his personality and loyalty.
Hemedti refused to be involved in dispersing the demonstrations that eventually toppled al-Bashir, and he acknowledged that the demonstrators had legitimate demands that they had come out to express. The major turning point came when Hemedti addressed his forces returning from the Sudanese-Libyan border to Tayyibat al-Hasnab, south of Khartoum, criticizing in a now famous speech the government’s policies that brought about the country’s economic crisis and calling for those seeking to sabotage the economy to be held to account.
Hemedti sent several political messages in the speech and stressed that the Rapid Support Forces are on the lookout for rebels, insurgents, smugglers and saboteurs, pointing out that the task of his forces is to protect the country and borders and not to crack down on the protesters. According to eyewitnesses, Hemedti’s forces intervened in the final days of the protests in Khartoum to protect the protesters from attacks by Islamist armed militias loyal to the regime.
New political equation
After the ouster of al-Bashir, Hemedti continued to attract public attention, again siding with the protesters who were against Defence Minister Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf’s appointment as chairman of the military council and rejecting any solutions that would not satisfy the Sudanese people. He also asked the leaders of the uprising to engage in dialogue and negotiations that would prevent the country from slipping into chaos.
After the popular rejection of Ibn Auf’s appointment, Hemedti was quick to announce that he would not join the military council and claimed in an official statement that he and his forces support the choices of the Sudanese people. His statement created confusion within the military council, which announced Ibn Auf had resigned less than 24 hours after his appointment and been replaced by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan Abdelrahman.
The army commanders had no choice but to appoint Hemedti as deputy chairman of the military council because his forces, which al-Bashir had called on to protect him, had played a decisive role in his overthrow. In addition, Hemedti is close to al-Burhan, who was also involved in the civil war in Darfur between 2004 and 2008 and, more recently, oversaw the Sudanese forces engaged in Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen, of which the Rapid Support Forces were the largest component.
Hemedti has two wives and a number of children.
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