June 30, 2019
While it was no surprise that the Sudanese military took action to protect themselves by deposing President Omar al-Bashir in the midst of nationwide protests, what is surprising is who has emerged as Sudan’s de facto leader. Nearly illiterate and widely accused of war crimes and corruption, Lieutenant General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti” is officially the deputy chief of the ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC), but in reality appears to be the power behind nominal TMC leader General ‘Abd al-Fatah Burhan. As closely tied to the Bashir regime as almost any military figure in the country, Hemetti now acts as though Bashir’s overthrow was actually his idea amid concern he may use force to take the presidency for himself. Backing him up is the roughly 30,000-strong Rapid Support Forces (RSF – Quwat al-Da’m al-Seri), a paramilitary unit under his direct command.
The last Darfur Arab to hold such a high position of power in Sudan was the Khalifa ‘Abdullahi ibn Muhammad (ruled 1885-1899), the Ta’aisha successor of Muhammad Ahmad “al-Mahdi.” After the defeat of the Mahdiyya in 1898, the Arab tribes of the Nubian Nile region (the Ja’alin, the Danagla, and the Sha’iqiya) gained local ascendancy in Sudan during the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium government. Since Sudan became independent in 1956, these riverine tribes have dominated the government and the military’s officer corps. Al-Bashir’s apparent support of the Darfur Arabs briefly masked a racial rivalry between these two Arab groups dating back to the Mahdiyya, with the riverine Arabs quietly despising the Darfur Arabs as too “Africanized,” while the Darfur Arabs regard the Nile Arabs as nothing more than “half-caste Nubians.” 
Early Career Janjaweed Warlord
Hemetti is from the Awlad Mansur clan of the Mahariya branch of the Northern Rizayqat of North Darfur, many of whom in the 1980s moved to South Darfur, where they seized land from the indigenous Fur.
When the Fur and the Zaghawa launched a revolt against the central government in 2003, Hemetti, a camel trader, joined the loosely disciplined pro-government Arab militia that soon gained notoriety as the infamous Janjaweed.
The worst atrocities of the Darfur campaign occurred in the 2003-2005 period when Hemetti was one of Janjaweed leader Shaykh Musa Hilal’s leading lieutenants. The shaykh is the nazir (chief) of the Mahamid, another branch of the northern Rizayqat tribal group.
The purpose of this government-inflicted violence was twofold: to destroy the rebels’ civilian support base and supply system and to drive out Darfur’s non-Arab population so land could be transferred to Arabs from Sudan and neighboring states such as Chad and Niger.
However, as the Janjaweed leaders came to be reviled and condemned across the world, many began to rethink their commitment. Khartoum’s solution in 2005 was to absorb most of the Janjaweed into more centrally controlled units like the Border Guard Force (BGF – Haras al-Hadud) while claiming the Janjaweed were simply bandit groups that had been dispersed by the Sudanese army.
Hemetti led a rebellion by the Mahariya Border Guards in 2007 over payment of back wages and unfulfilled promises of land grants. At one point, he threatened to storm Nyala, the capital of South Darfur. Eventually, the regime was forced to make major concessions to prevent the Arabs under Hemetti’s command from joining the armed opposition. 
Disputes over allocation of arms, supplies and Land Cruisers broke out between Hilal’s BGF battalion and Hemetti’s battalion. As the BGF increasingly became unviable and unreliable, Khartoum separated Hemetti’s battalion from the BGF and used it as the basis for the new RSF. 
Creation of the RSF
Back in the government fold, Hemetti became a central figure in 2013 in the newly-created Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group under the command of the National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS – Jihaz al-Amn al-Watani wa’l-Mukhabarat), but more generally under the direct command of the president himself.
One reason for forming the new paramilitary was al-Bashir’s distrust in his own army, which had largely failed to show up when Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) mounted a long-distance raid on the national capital and were only repelled by local police and NISS agents after street-fighting in Omdurman. The answer seemed to be the creation of a loyal military force answerable only to the president. The Janjaweed veterans provided an immediate and experienced source of manpower. Hemetti initially served as deputy to the first RSF commander, NISS Major General Abbas ‘Abd al-Aziz, a Ja’alin Arab and a relative of President Omar al-Bashir.
Most Janjaweed members were from the semi-nomadic Abbala (camel-raising) tribes of northern Darfur rather than the Baqqara (cattle-raising) tribes of South Darfur. The Abbala included Hemetti’s Mahariya branch of the northern Rizayqat, who were never allotted lands of their own by the Fur Sultanate (c.1600-1916) or the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium government (1899-1955). As the RSF continued to grow in size, Hemetti’s fellow Mahariya were joined by members of other Arab tribes from Darfur and Chad as well as a small number of non-Arab Birked, Meidobis, Tama and Zaghawa from northern Darfur.
Hemetti is the most outstanding example of how the Bashir regime circumvented the influence of traditional rulers in Darfur by arming and enriching young men willing to do Khartoum’s bidding. As such, Hemetti was opposed by the Mahariya Rizayqat’s chief, Muhammadein al-Dud, who refused to send 2,000 young men for RSF recruitment.  On the other hand, the RSF enjoyed the patronage of Sudanese Vice President Hassabo ‘Abd al-Rahman, who was, like Hemetti, a Mahariya Arab.
The RSF soon showed signs of growing indiscipline at all levels, leading to clashes with police and BGF units. Civilians in RSF-occupied areas endured rape, robbery, and looting. The unit rolled into Khartoum in September 2013 to help repress demonstrations in the capital during which some 200 civilians lost their lives (al-Arabiya, November 10, 2013).  In West Kordofan, a local uprising against the RSF was actually assisted by the local SAF garrison, appalled at the RSF’s methods (Radio Dabanga, February 26, 2014).
The RSF was deployed to South Kordofan in late 2013 to tackle the rebellion of the non-Arab Nuba led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement-North (SPLA/M-N). Fighting experienced rebels rather than civilians, the RSF suffered heavy losses. SPLA/M-N secretary-general Yasir Arman described the RSF as nothing more than a gang of mercenaries and war criminals (Radio Dabanga, May 14, 2014).
Withdrawn to al-‘Ubayd in North Kordofan, the RSF’s continuing bad behavior led to massive protests calling for their withdrawal. According to some reports, the government paid the RSF $3 million to leave the city (al-Taghyeer [Khartoum], February 13, 2014; Radio Dabanga, February 14, 2014).
The RSF launched a series of attacks on Minni Minawi’s SLM/A-MM rebel movement in Darfur during the first months of 2014. Minawi’s group was forced to split, with some fighters taking refuge in South Sudan, while the majority headed north across the Libyan border, finding work as mercenaries in Libya’s civil war. Hemetti’s men repelled an April 2015 attempt by JEM and the SLM/A-MM to re-enter Sudan from their temporary bases in South Sudan’s Bahr al-Ghazal region. Hemetti, now a brigadier, reported the capture of 340 rebels and 161 Land Cruisers (Radio Dabanga, April 29, 2015).
Hemetti’s growing power became apparent when two-time Sudanese prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi (leader of the opposition National Umma Party and imam of the Ansar Sufi movement) was arrested, interrogated and accused of treason for questioning the RSF’s violence against civilians and its alleged recruitment of foreign Arabs from Chad, Libya, Mali, and the Central African Republic (Al-Jazeera, May 19, 2014).
By mid-2016, the RSF’s usual abuses against civilians in the Jebel Marra region of Darfur and clashes with SAF units trying to protect civilians led to an SAF request for the RSF’s withdrawal. 
On the Frontline of the Migration Crisis
After Khartoum pledged to work to prevent massive flows of migrants from crossing through Sudan to Libya and on into Europe, the EU responded with a grant of €100 million (approximately $112.5 million) to assist these efforts. This contribution was on top of a €40 million (approximately $45 million) donation from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa dedicated to better management of migration through the region (Sudan Tribune, April 12, 2017). 
The RSF became the agency assigned with controlling migrant flows across the border, and by mid-2016, the RSF was detaining hundreds of illegal migrants, mostly from Ethiopia and Eritrea. The work was not easy, being carried out in trying desert conditions against well-armed human traffickers.
However, that was not the full story. Investigations revealed that the RSF actually joined the human trafficking across the border into Libya, working with Subul al-Salam, a Salafist militia based in Kufra and aligned with Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), as well as Chadian rebels based in southern Libya and Tubu militias aligned with the UN-recognized government in Tripoli. 
This did not prevent Hemetti from complaining Europe did not appreciate the sacrifice of RSF men and vehicles in the fight against the armed traffickers and threatened (likely on his own initiative) to withdraw his men from their positions along the border with Libya (Sudan Tribune, August 31, 2016; AIS Special Report, June 13, 2018).
The President’s Approval
The RSF was removed from NISS control in January 2017 and integrated into the SAF, but in practice the formation remained under the direct orders of the president (Al-Taghyeer.info [Khartoum], July 19, 2017). In May 2017, al-Bashir declared the creation of the RSF to be the best decision he had made as president and urged RSF members to “terrorize their enemies” (Middle East Observer, May 14, 2017).
To combat Hemetti’s image as a murderous warlord, a PR campaign was launched that saw the RSF leader opening mosques, making charitable donations and promising to mediate between Darfur’s combative tribes (Al-Taghyeer.info [Khartoum]; July 19, 2017).
In early 2017, Minawi’s forces, divided between Libya and South Sudan, attempted a rendezvous in the Kutum region of Darfur, where they hoped to hook up with Nimr Abd al-Rahman’s rebel SLM/A-Transitional Council (SLM/A-TC). This union was interrupted by the RSF, which engaged the rebels in a four-day battle, driving the survivors back into Libya or along the Wadi Howar into Chad (Sudan Tribune, May 29; 2017; Radio Dabanga, May 21, 2017).
The RSF deployment along the Libyan border ignited new tensions in August-September 2017 between Hemetti and his rival, Musa Hilal, now commander of the BGF. Hemetti was able to promote himself as a solid supporter of al-Bashir compared to Hilal, who abandoned a government post in Khartoum and returned to Darfur in January 2014 following a dispute with the regime. Taking advantage of the regime’s weak control of northern Darfur, Hilal was able to create the Sudanese Revolutionary Awakening (Sahwa) Council (SRAC), an 8,000-strong, mostly Mahamid Arab armed movement (many of whose members were also part of the BGF) that quickly established its own administration in northwest Darfur funded largely by the discovery of gold in the Jabal Amr region in 2012. SRAC, the RSF and local Arab tribes began to clash over control of the gold deposits. SRAC members began to be arrested or killed by the RSF, who claimed they were armed traffickers. SRAC in turn accused the RSF of smuggling vehicles across the borders with Libya and Chad (Radio Dabanga, September 25, 2017).
Incensed by the killings of his men, Hilal dispatched 200 vehicles with SRAC gunmen to besiege the RSF until it turned over those responsible. Acceptance by both sides of a mediation offer averted a major battle. Mediation ultimately favored SRAC and the BGF, with the RSF compelled to hand over detainees, vehicles and military gear. The RSF was also forced to make concessions over control of the Jebel Amr goldfields (Radio Dabanga, September 29, 2017).
Further south, Hemetti and 1,000 RSF men arrived in the Blue Nile State capital of al-Damazin in June 2016 to reinforce SAF operations against the SPLM/A-N, but quickly alienated the local civilian population by robbing shops and referring to the non-Arab locals as abid (slaves), a common racial epithet in Sudan (Radio Dabanga, June 1, 2016).
Eliminating the Competition
Defense Minister Lieutenant General Ahmad Awad Bin Auf attempted to integrate the Hilal-led BGF into the RSF in July 2017, but SRAC rejected this “unwise” decision and announced the BGF would refuse integration (Radio Dabanga, July 23, 2017; Sudan Tribune, August 14, 2017).
Hemetti finally triumphed in his rivalry with Musa Hilal in November 2017, when he was given permission by Khartoum to arrest and detain Hilal along with his three sons, three brothers, and several aides (Radio Dabanga, November 27, 2017). The arrests came as part of a six-month effort by the RSF to disarm unauthorized armed groups in Darfur.
The arrests were not a simple matter; the RSF were ambushed on their way to Hilal’s headquarters at Mistiriyha, losing nine men, among them an RSF brigadier. Once they reached Mistiriyha, Hemetti’s RSF conducted a mass arrest of all males and drove the women and children into the hills without food, water or shelter (Sudan Tribune, November 29, 2017).
Expedition to Yemen
Units of the RSF were deployed to Yemen in early 2017 to assist Saudi and UAE forces in their war against rebel Houthi militias.
The RSF’s deployment in Yemen was strongly opposed by Musa Hilal, who encouraged tribesmen not to volunteer and accused Hemetti and Vice President ‘Abd al-Rahman of stealing millions of dollars donated by Saudi Arabia and the UAE as compensation for Sudanese participation in Yemen’s civil war (al-Jazeera, September 10, 2017).
Hemetti shocked Sudanese when he publicly admitted 312 Sudanese soldiers had been killed in the Yemen campaign, most of them members of the RSF (al-Sayha [Khartoum], September 27, 2017; Terrorism Monitor, October 27, 2017). Serving as deputy to expedition commander General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan (now TMC chairman), Hemetti developed important ties to Saudi and Emirati commanders and leaders.
Hemetti and other units of the RSF arrived in Sudan’s Kassala State in early 2018, ostensibly to interrupt smuggling operations of the Rasha’ida Arabs (who live in eastern Sudan and northern Eritrea) and protect the population from what the government claimed was an impending invasion of Egyptians or Egyptian-sponsored rebels from Eritrea. In reality, the RSF used the pretext of smuggling to loot and kill locals in what one local leader called “a real nightmare provoking panic and fear.” As with other RSF deployments inside Sudan, there were soon demands that the paramilitary be withdrawn immediately (Radio Dabanga, March 23, 2018).
Fearful that months of nationwide protests might result in the dismantling of the whole Sudanese regime, SAF generals moved to arrest President al-Bashir on April 11. General al-Burhan emerged as the junta’s official chief, with Hemetti as his deputy, though the RSF commander’s meetings with foreign diplomats suggested he was the real chief.
Many of the SAF’s junior officers and other ranks were sympathetic to the goals of the revolutionaries in the streets, leaving the RSF to clear the anti-military demonstrations. Protesters in Khartoum were attacked with clubs, whips, and live ammunition on May 13, leaving five dead, 77 people with bullet wounds and hundreds more injured. Though eyewitnesses claimed the attackers were RSF men, Hemetti announced on May 20 that 15 attackers had been arrested, with five confessing their responsibility. Attempting to align himself with the demonstrators, Hemetti praised the activities of the revolutionary Alliance for Freedom and Change (Radio Dabanga, May 20).
The worst was yet to come. On June 3, the RSF massacred over 100 protesters in Khartoum, throwing many of the dead into the Nile. Beatings and murder were not enough for the RSF, which was also alleged to have committed scores of rapes of both men and women during the operation. Some of the bodies recovered from the Nile wore SAF uniforms, with eyewitnesses suggesting some soldiers who had tried to intervene on behalf of the demonstrators were disarmed and killed by the RSF (BBC, June 15; Deutsche Welle, June 9).
On June 13, TMC spokesman Shams al-Din Kabbashi stated that the decision to clear the protesters was taken on June 2 by the entire TMC after seeking the advice of Sudan’s general prosecutor and chief justice, though he added that there were “abuses” and “deviations from the initial plans” (Sudan Tribune, June 14). However, two days later, a spokesman for the TMC’s Military Investigation Committee accused the media of fabricating Kabbashi’s statement, noting that those responsible for the violence acted “without instructions from the competent authorities” (Sudan Tribune, June 15).
The actions of the RSF have had repercussions in Darfur, where al-Burhan ordered the camps of withdrawing peacekeepers of the hybrid United Nations/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) to be turned over to the RSF rather than civilian authorities. UNAMID announced on June 15 that it was suspending the further handover of its camps until al-Burhan’s decree was rescinded (Sudan Tribune, June 15, 2019). UN officials reported the killings of 47 people in Darfur over the last three months as well as the looting of houses and livestock by the RSF (Radio Dabanga, June 15). UNAMID’s withdrawal was to be completed in June 2010, but In light of the deteriorating situation, the African Union has now extended UNAMID’s mandate for another 12 months and is urging the UN Security Council to do the same (Radio Dabanga, June 16).
Conclusion: Playing a Revolutionary Double-Game?
Amid fears within the TMC that opposition forces may attempt to try the generals for war crimes or disband the army and the RSF, Hemetti warned on June 16 of dark plans by protest leaders and “foreign diplomats” to create chaos in Sudan, adding that “there are plans under preparation targeting me, Hemetti.” The RSF leader also suggested that there were “plans against the tribes of the Nile River,” referring to the politically dominant Arab tribes of northern Sudan, the Danagla, the Ja’alin, and the Sha’iqiya (Sudan Tribune, June 16).
Hemetti and his personal paramilitary are indeed highly unlikely to survive any kind of meaningful regime change or transition to civilian government in Sudan, despite his rather unconvincing attempts to persuade the revolutionaries that he has been with them the whole time. Residents of Khartoum have only to look out their windows to see the empty streets of the capital patrolled by heavily-armed RSF gunmen for confirmation of Hemetti’s true position. Like his mentor al-Bashir, Hemetti has climbed the ladder of power and success, but, like al-Bashir, is now unable to climb back down without risking his own safety and liberty.
- Julie Flint and Alex de Waal: Darfur: A New History of a Long War, Zed Books, London, 2008.
- “Border Intelligence Brigade (Al Istikhbarat al Hudud) (AKA Border Guards)” Sudan Human Security Baseline Assessment (HSBA), Small Arms Survey, Geneva, November 2010, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/facts-figures/sudan/darfur/armed-groups/saf-and-allied-forces/HSBA-Armed-Groups-Border-Guards.pdf
- Julie Flint, “Beyond ‘Janjaweed’: Understanding the Militias of Darfur,” Small Arms Survey, Geneva, 2009, fn.78, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/working-papers/HSBA-WP-17-Beyond-Janjaweed.pdf
- Jérôme Tubiana, “Remote-control Breakdown: Sudanese Paramilitary Forces and Pro-government Militias,” HSBA Issue Brief no. 27, Geneva, Small Arms Survey, April 2017, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/issue-briefs/HSBA-IB-27-Sudanese-paramilitary-forces.pdf
- Kumar, Akshaya, and Omer Ismail, “Janjaweed Reincarnate: Sudan’s New Army of War Criminals,” Enough Project, June 2014, https://enoughproject.org/files/JanjaweedReincarnate_June2014.pdf
- Jérôme Tubiana, op cit, April 2017.
- European Union Delegation to the Republic of Sudan, “EU announces 100 million Euros for Sudan to address irregular migration and forced displacement,” April 6, 2016, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/050416b_en.pdf [NOTE: Link didn’t open]
- Jérôme Tubiana, Clotilde Warin & Gaffar Mohammud Saeneen, “Multilateral Damage: The impact of EU migration policies on central Saharan routes,” CRU Report, September 2018, https://www.clingendael.org/pub/2018/multilateral-damage/3-effects-of-eu-policies-in-sudan/ ; Jérôme Tubiana, op cit, April 2017.
This article was first published in the June 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.