Sudanʹs deadly counter-revolutionary militia

In the struggle between demonstrators and the military for a civilian-led state, the successors to Darfur’s notorious Janjaweed militia could end up as the cats that got the cream. That the group is financed by autocratic Gulf states makes it even more suspect. Karim El-Gawhary reports from Khartoum

By Karim El-Gawhary

In the Sudanese capital Khartoum, just a few streets separate hopes for a new Sudan and uncertainty over whether the old Sudan will strike once again. Demonstrators set up their protest camp around the military headquarters in early April and have since then been tirelessly calling for a civilian government after the long-time dictator Omar El-Bashir was toppled and a transitional military council took over at the helm of the nation.

But beyond the demonstrators’ barricades, armed men are in charge. Pick-up trucks mounted with machine guns are positioned on almost every street corner in Khartoum. Some bear regular army registration plates, but most belong to a militia group calling itself the Rapid Support Force or RSF for short.

The demonstrators are primarily worried about these men with their camouflage uniforms and automatic rifles, because the RSF has its roots in the notorious Arab Janjaweed mounted militia that hit the headlines 16 years ago after it murdered, burned and raped its way through the villages of the Sudanese province of Darfur fighting rebels in the name of the El-Bashir regime.

More than a quarter of a million people were killed in Darfur and more than two million others displaced. Today, its reincarnation the RSF could advance to become the biggest and most dangerous opponents of anyone taking to streets to peacefully demonstrate for a democratic Sudan under civilian rule.  

A key role in the political decision-making process

“In the current power game between the military and demonstrators over the future of the nation, the RSF militias play a key role in the political decision-making processes,“ says the Sudanese human rights activist Majid Maali, who has been observing these paramilitary forces for many years. The Sudanese journalist Faisal Saleh confirms: “Today, there are more members of the RSF militias in Khartoum than members of the army”.

In the capital, they are viewed as outsiders. “They come from rural areas and not urban centres. They arrived in the capital and became the source of tensions,” is Saleh’s analysis. Their leader Muhammad Hamdan Dagolo, usually referred to by the name “Hemeti“ in Sudan, is viewed as the eminence grise in the currently governing military council, in which he occupies the second most senior position.

Burning tyres and barricades in the Sudanese capital Khartoum on 3 June 2019 (photo: Getty Images/AFP)
Brennende Barrikaden gegen marodierende Milizen: Nach Angaben von Aktivisten hatten Polizisten und RSF-Mitglieder in Khartum eine Sitzblockade von Demonstranten umzingelt und mit Tränengas und scharfer Munition versucht, die seit Wochen andauernde Sitzblockade im Zentrum der Hauptstadt aufzulösen. Mindestens fünf Menschen wurden dabei getötet. Die Demonstranten seien einem "blutigen Massaker" ausgesetzt, twitterte das Gewerkschaftsbündnis SPA, die Organisatoren der anhaltenden Massenproteste im Sudan. Das Bündnis rief die Menschen dazu auf, auf die Straßen zu gehen und friedlich zu demonstrieren, um den militärischen Übergangsrat zu stürzen.

Some believe that on this council, it is the militia leader Hemeti and not council chairman General Abdel Fatah Burhan who is calling the shots. "Hemeti could well be the most influential member of the military council. There won’t be any deal in Sudan without his signature," Saleh is sure.

Hemeti’s career trajectory makes dramatic reading. Born into poverty and leading a nomadic existence as a camel herder, he found his calling as a warrior, initially with the notorious Janjaweed militias. After becoming their leader in Darfur, he later took over at the helm of the RSF. Apart from his attempts to always secure the largest possible slice of the pie, he does not appear to have any major political agenda.

"He’s always shown good instincts. At the start of the rebellion against El-Bashir in Khartoum, he refused to crush the uprising for El-Bashir and earned praise from demonstrators at the time," says Saleh, looking back at first few days of April.

A brief summer of solidarity

But this honeymoon period between the protestors and the RSF militias was short-lived. When armed men tried to clear one of the barricades on 15 May, they fired indiscriminately into the crowd. Several people were injured and protestors were quick to point the finger at RSF paramilitaries. "The RSF militias came to clear the barricades, they initially shot into the air then on the demonstrators," says one eye-witness Atef Baqr, in an interview with this newspaper as he lay in hospital receiving treatment for a gunshot wound.

It is first and foremost those who travelled to Khartoum from Darfur to join the protest camp who have not forgotten the era of the marauding Janjaweed militias. "When I see the RSF paramilitaries in Khartoum now, then I think back to the massacres between 2003 and 2005 in Darfur, which caused me to flee at the time," says Idris Adam, one of the Darfur activists gathering every evening in a special protest tent for Darfuris. "The RFS is an instrument of the old regime and should be totally dissolved. Its presence in the capital is completely unacceptable," another Darfur activist Halima Ashak agrees.

But human rights activist Maali warns the demonstrators’ political leadership against automatically demonising the RSF. "They are strong, but they don’t have any genuine political programme for the future of Sudan. We can’t defeat them. So the only option is to open up a dialogue with them," he argues.

Gulf state mercenaries

The strength of the successor to the Janjaweed militias is also derived from its involvement in the Yemen war. There, it was deployed by the Emirates and Saudi Arabia as a mercenary ground force against Houthi rebels. This gave it a huge amount of money and as a result yet more power in Sudan.  And in the context of the Sudanese power struggle, this might also make the RSF paramilitaries into a compliant instrument for Gulf autocrats with no interest whatsoever in a democratic experiment in Sudan.

"The Gulf states are attempting to gain influence via many channels, but the RSF is their most important instrument. They are known from the war in Yemen. There, they received weapons and money. The Gulf states’ links with the RSF are stronger than with the Sudanese army," says journalist Saleh.

As for what kind of role Hemeti and his militia will assume in the Sudanese power struggle, Saleh believes this depends on Hemeti’s personal ambition and the regional influence on him. That Hemeti’s first foreign trip in his new position as vice chairman of the Sudanese military council took him to Saudi Arabia, where of all people he met with the controversial Crown Prince Muhammed Ben Salman, set alarm bells ringing with protestors in Khartoum.

But there is quite possibly a European component to the support of the RSF paramilitaries. As part of what is known as the Khartoum Process, the EU is attempting to outsource border protection against migrants further to the south in Africa. Funds have been channelled to Sudan as a result.

Europe's underhand game

"The EU says that this money will be used to improve living standards in those parts of the country expected to stop migrants. Another tranche of the funding came in the form of technical support for the security apparatus to strengthen the border," says Saleh, describing the EU engagement.

"The EU ambassador in Khartoum denies that money has gone directly to the RSF. But money was paid to enhance border protection and it’s highly likely that some of it went to the RSF, as these militias operate in the border region with Libya and Chad," he concludes.

There is no proof that EU funds were indirectly paid to the RSF, or what sums might be involved. But as far as public perception is concerned, it is the view of many Sudanese that money has been given to the militias. "The militias have a bad reputation because of their major human rights violations in Darfur. The people are shocked. On the one hand, the EU demands respect for human rights. On the other hand, it’s likely that the EU is financing this force to stop migrants," is human rights activist Maali’s summing up.

If it is the case that EU cash has indirectly ended up in the hands of the RSF paramilitary force, then Europe will have co-financed a pretty explosive situation in Sudan. After all, if the demonstrators in Khartoum do not succeed in their calls for the implementation of a civilian government, then Sudan runs the risk of mutating from a military state into one led by a paramilitary force.

Karim El-Gawhary

© 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon