Putin’s New Russian Empire is Suddenly on the Rocks: How the War in Ukraine Threatens Russian Interests in Sudan

AIS Special Report on Ukraine No.3

March 24, 2022

Andrew McGregor

Blue and yellow flags carried by anti-government protesters are a new and unusual sight in the streets of Khartoum. However, these banners are less a show of support for besieged Ukrainians than a rejection of a Sudanese military regime that continues to grow closer to Russia even as President Vladimir Putin’s army carries out widely condemned atrocities and war crimes in a sovereign state. At stake is not only Sudan’s own sovereignty, but the ability of its rulers to offer food security and a path to development.

With the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir in 2019, Sudan ended over a quarter-century of military-Islamist rule. Though promises were made that a joint civilian-military transitional government would lead to a new era of democratic civilian rule, a military coup in October 2021 ended that experiment and led to the severing of most economic and financial ties to the West, including $US 700 million of American aid.

General ‘Abd al-Fatah al-Burhan (Mahmoud Hjaj/Anadolu Agency)

The junta’s leader, General ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Burhan, is typical of the Islamist military officers who enjoyed great power during al-Bashir’s rule, but his ambitious deputy, Lieutenant-General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti,” represents a new and growing power in Sudan as commander of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF). Created from the remnants of the infamous Janjaweed, the RSF was intended to serve as a paramilitary focused on establishing security in Darfur under the guidance of the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS – now rebranded as the General Intelligence Services – GIS) rather than the military. The RSF quickly developed a reputation for atrocities and war crimes in restive Darfur. [1] Since then, it has exploited its independence to grow vastly in strength while establishing its own economic base. Besides serving as revenue-producing rental troops in Libya and Yemen, the RSF now acts as a regime-defending internal security force in most Sudanese cities, including the capital of Khartoum, where the RSF was accused of rapes, murders and massacres after al-Bashir’s overthrow.

With Western nations and international institutions avoiding any interaction with Sudan’s military rulers, Russia has helped provide diplomatic support for the coup leaders at the UN and elsewhere. Russia has also provided direct and indirect support to the Sudanese military and the RSF in return for access to Sudanese resources, especially gold, and an agreement to permit the establishment of a Russian naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast. Internally, however, Khartoum’s dalliance with Putin’s Russia and the activities of Russian “Wagner Group” mercenaries closely tied to the Kremlin have aggravated opposition to the regime rather than appease it. There have been continuous street protests since the coup, with scores killed by security forces. The participation of Russian mercenaries in repressing popular opposition and manipulating information sources has scandalized many Sudanese. [2]

Rather than back off from an unpopular association with Moscow, Hemetti chose to lead an ill-timed and ill-advised eight-day mission to Moscow only one day before the invasion of Ukraine. Hemetti’s request for supplies of Russian arms and military assistance in exchange for a Red Sea naval base at the same time Russian troops were slaughtering Ukrainian civilians and Sudanese citizens were going hungry was met with disbelief in many quarters.

Sudan, like many other African nations, is a major consumer of Russian and Ukrainian wheat, these sources providing 35% of Sudan’s supply in 2021 (BNNBloomberg, March 15, 2022). Soaring prices for grain are not helped by the retreat of international donors after the military coup, including those agencies that might be the most helpful in securing affordable and reliable supplies. Despite this, Hemetti’s primary focus remained on obtaining weapons rather than provisions.

Sudan abstained on the UN General Assembly motion to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demand Russia’s immediate withdrawal. Despite intense diplomatic pressure from the US and the EU to condemn Russia’s invasion, the military-dominated Sovereign Council that currently governs Sudan would go no further than calling for negotiations and a diplomatic solution.

Sudan’s civilian opposition coalition, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and rejects Russian interference in Sudanese affairs. The National Umma Party (NUP), one of Sudan’s largest, was specific, objecting that Hemetti’s visit to Moscow did not serve Sudanese interests while declaring the invasion was an “unjust war against a free people to force them to give up their sovereignty” (Radio Dabanga, March 1, 2022). Though Russia’s growing presence and influence in Sudan appears to threaten Sudan’s sovereignty as well, events in Ukraine may reverse this trend and even threaten the African nation’s governing structure.

Sudanese Support for Russia – At a Cost

Hemetti and a large Sudanese delegation arrived in Moscow for a week-long visit on February 23, 2022, the day before the attack on Ukraine was launched. It was not Hemetti’s first trip to Moscow; in 2019 he visited on an arms-shopping mission. Since 2017, Sudan has been a leading purchaser of Russian arms, which now represent 50% of Sudanese purchases. [3]

Patrushev and Hemetti, February 25, 2022 (Sudan Tribune)

Notably, the delegation did not include a representative of the Sudanese armed forces. In Sudan, it is Hemetti’s RSF that works closely with Russian mercenaries of the infamous Wagner Group, who have been deployed in support of the military regime. One of Hemetti’s main concerns was reported to involve obtaining Russian weapons for his RSF as well as the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) (Sudan Tribune, February 25, 2022). Among the high-end items sought by Hemetti were S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems and Sukhoi Su-35 jet-fighters at a time when tensions with Ethiopia are high. Other countries, such as Egypt and Indonesia, have recently backed out of deals for the purchase of Su-35s due to their second-rate radar systems and the possibility of US sanctions designed to prevent large weapons purchases from Russia (Forbes, January 11, 2022).

Russian-made Sudanese Sukhoi Su-35 in Sudanese Colors (MilitaryWatchMagazine)

On arrival, Hemetti expressed his support for the independence of the two Russian-engineered republics in the Donbas regions and Russia’s military pressure on Ukraine, declaring: “The whole world must realize that [Russia] has the right to defend its people” (Sudan Tribune, February 24, 2022). Hemetti’s remarks seemed to echo Russian assertions that Putin is defending ethnic Russians from genocide at the hands of Ukrainian “Nazis.” Widely condemned almost immediately, Hemetti’s remarks created a diplomatic stir that Sudan’s Foreign Ministry addressed by stating: “We consider that publishing that statement in this manner is a deliberate distortion, taking the speech of the First Deputy out of context, and a cheap attempt to fish in troubled waters” (Sudan Tribune, February 24, 2022). Accused of war crimes himself in Darfur, Hemetti is unlikely to have any qualms about establishing closer ties to Putin’s Russia even as it commits war crimes in Ukraine.

An Arabic-language news-site based in London, al-Araby al-Jadid, claimed that al-Burhan told Egyptian authorities he suspected Hemetti and his RSF of planning a coup to replace him with another military figurehead (Sudan Tribune, February 26, 2022). Though al-Burhan is the senior figure in the junta that overthrew President Omar al-Bashir, Hemetti has emerged as the real power, as witnessed by his direct dealings with senior Russian officials such as Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, head of the Russian Federation Security Council Nikolai Patrushev and Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin.

After Hemetti’s visit to Moscow, al-Burhan made a call to Saudi Arabia to talk to officials there about Red Sea security issues – in other words, a discussion of Hemetti’s views on allowing a Russian Red Sea naval base directly opposite the Saudi cities of Mecca and Jeddah.

Sudanese Gold, Russian Miners

In early March, an executive with a leading Sudanese gold company revealed to the Telegraph that Russia has been smuggling roughly 30 tonnes of gold from Sudan each year to build up its reserves and weaken the effect of sanctions imposed after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Working in collusion with Hemetti and his RSF, Russian mining firm M-Invest (closely tied to the “Wagner Group”), through its local subsidiary Meroe Gold, has been smuggling gold in small planes from military airstrips (The Telegraph, March 3, 2022; Government.ru, November 24, 2017). In response to the allegations, Hemetti said the identity of the end buyers of smuggled Sudanese gold was unimportant; what mattered was who was selling the gold. The RSF chief claimed 40 individuals had already been arrested, but declined to provide any further information (VOA, March 10, 2022). Russian involvement in the Sudanese mining sector began in 2017 with the signing of several agreements between former president Omar al-Bashir and Vladimir Putin.

Sudan’s Minister of Minerals, Muhammad Bashir Abunmo, rejected the claims of Russian smuggling as “baseless accusations” devised to “justify the Western campaign against Russia.” The minister, a member of Minni Minnawi’s faction of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM-MM), insisted that Meroe Gold produces only three tons of gold per year, and that much of that was retained by the Sudanese government (Sudan Tribune, March 12, 2022). The Sudanese acting ambassador to Russia, Onor Ahmad Onor, also rejected the claims: “I have nothing to say other than it is fake news and a story created from the imagination of the Telegraph reporter” (VOA, March 10, 2022). Moscow has also denied the allegations.

On Hemetti’s return, the opposition Forces for Freedom and Change, accused Russia of “stealing resources” and interfering in Sudanese affairs to support its role in “regional and international conflicts” (Middle East Monitor, March 3, 2022). Sudan desperately needs the gold to try to avert an economic collapse brought on by the military coup, so any losses due to smuggling will only contribute to the nation’s financial crisis.

Secret documents obtained by anti-corruption NGO Global Witness in 2020 revealed the complex financial network the RSF has established (including its own bank account in Abu Dhabi), allowing it to independently obtain 1,000 vehicles from Dubai suppliers, most of them Toyota 4x4s that can be converted to lightly armored, machine-gun mounted “technicals” of the type widely used in the Sahara and Sahel regions. Important parts of the network appear to be controlled by Hemetti’s younger brothers, Al-Goni Hamdan Daglo and ‘Abd al-Rahim Hamdan Daglo, the deputy head of the RSF. Much of the financing for this network comes from the al-Junaid gold company, which trades in the output of the RSF-controlled gold mines in the Jabal Amr region of Darfur, seized by the RSF in 2017. Al-Junaid is officially owned by ‘Abd al-Rahim Hamdan Daglo and his two sons (Global Witness, April 5, 2020).

RSF operations in Yemen provide another revenue stream, courtesy of financing provided by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). According to Hemetti: “People ask where do we get this money from? We have the salaries of our troops fighting abroad and our gold investments, money from gold and other investments” (Global Witness, December 9, 2019).

A Russian Naval Base on the Red Sea?

After extensive discussions, a 25-year agreement allowing the establishment of a Russian naval base on Sudan’s east coast was signed in 2017 by al-Bashir and Putin, though it was not immediately implemented. [4] The agreement, renewable for further ten-year terms with the consent of both parties, came as al-Bashir complained he needed Russian support to fend off alleged American aggression against Sudan. Under its conditions, Russia will be able to use the base and install 300 Russian personnel to support up to four Russian naval ships (including those powered by nuclear energy) operating in the Red Sea. In return, Sudan would receive Russian arms and other military equipment.

After President Putin authorized his Defense Ministry to establish the Russian base in November 2020, Prime Minister Mikhael Mishustin emphasized that the facility would be “defensive and not aimed against other countries” (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 20, 2020). Russia describes the planned base as a “material-technical support facility.”

The agreement was suspended after Sudanese officials had second thoughts about certain clauses in 2021. Many civil and military leaders were less than enthusiastic about the project. Armed Forces chief-of-staff and former Sudanese point-man on the project, General Muhammad ‘Uthman al-Hussein, described the pact as including “clauses that were somewhat harmful to the country,” forcing a general review (AFP, June 2, 2021). Last September, Khartoum was reported to be seeking a modification of the terms surrounding the new Russian base to include not only arms as compensation, but also badly-needed economic assistance. The Sudanese also floated the idea of replacing the 25-year agreement with one covering only five years, with the potential of renewing the agreement up to a 25-year period (The Arab Weekly, September 16, 2021).

The stalled agreement was a focus of Hemetti’s visit to Moscow as the two parties moved towards implementation. On March 3, Hemetti declared: “We have 730 kilometres along the Red Sea. If any country wants to open a base and it is in our interests and doesn’t threaten our national security we have no problem in dealing with anyone, Russian or otherwise” (Reuters, March 3, 2022; AfricaNews, March 2, 2022). Hemetti, however, insisted that the decision was ultimately that of the defense minister, “so it is not my responsibility. But if there is any benefit from the base, in addition to its commitment to community responsibility, for the people of eastern Sudan, we do not object to its establishment” (Sudan Tribune, March 2, 2022).

Hemetti added that he was perplexed by the opposition to a Russian base in Sudan, pointing out that many African countries hosted military bases belonging to foreign powers. Authorities in Cairo were reported to be surprised and angered by Hemetti’s remarks, having no desire to see Russian naval ships patrolling off Egypt’s Red Sea coast near the entrance to the Suez Canal. A demand for clarification was issued almost immediately (Middle East Monitor, March 7, 2022). Egypt abandoned its initial neutral stance on the conflict in Ukraine to vote in favor of the UN General Assembly’s denunciation of the Russian invasion. The change came partly because of diplomatic pressure applied by Ukrainian and American representatives despite demands from the Russian ambassador that Egypt support the invasion.

The location of a Russian Red Sea base remains up in the air, however. Sudan’s Red Sea Coast is little developed, largely due to a lack of suitable ports and an extreme shortage of fresh water that limits population concentrations. Coastal navigation is complicated by numerous shoals, rocky islands and a massive coral reef running parallel to the coast that limits the number of approaches. Russia appears to have been under the impression they could build their naval facilities near Port Sudan, which has rail and road connections to Khartoum, or at the historical port of Suakin, some 50 km south of Port Sudan with access to the same transportation network. Both ports are located near passages through the reef. Suakin was replaced by Port Sudan during the British occupation in 1909 when it proved unable to accommodate seagoing warships and freighters with a deep draft, though modern dredging has helped improve access. The Sudanese coastal navy operates out of Flamingo Bay, just north of the commercial docks in Port Sudan.

Beja Tribesmen Protesting in Port Sudan – The Flag is that of the Beja Congress (al-Arabiya)

Port Sudan is located in Sudan’s unsettled Red Sea Province, where power struggles between the Hadendowa and Bani Amer branches of the Beja people have resulted in blockades of the Khartoum-Port Sudan highway and the closure of port terminals by protesters (Sudan Tribune, February 23, 2022). When Hemetti travelled to Port Sudan after his return from Moscow, he was met by large street protests partly inspired by local fears of a Russian takeover (Al-Jazeera, March 18, 2022).

Arakiyai – Port in the Middle of Nowhere (Map by Abdul-Razak M. Mohamed)

Last year, Sudanese military authorities, eager for Russian arms and training but wary of a permanent Russian military presence in Sudan, instead suggested a Russian base at Arakiyai, a tiny fishing village with no infrastructure well north of Port Sudan and served only by a minor coastal road from the south (Radio Dabanga, December 7, 2021). The village is rarely even marked on maps. Constructing a new and isolated Russian base at Arakiyai from scratch would be far more difficult and expensive than incorporating existing infrastructure at Port Sudan. Ultimately, it would mean a delay of several years before the base could become operational.

The presence of a Russian nuclear-powered fleet in the Red Sea would ultimately be unacceptable to the West, which relies on free access to the Suez Canal at the sea’s northern end for shipments of oil, resources and commercial products bound for Europe and beyond. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations, wary of a Russian-Iranian axis in the region, also object to a Russian naval base on the Sudanese coast.

Outlook

It seems difficult to believe that the Sudanese junta would have mounted their coup without some kind of understanding from Russia that they would step in to replace the economic support Sudan was receiving from the West. Even in better times, however, it was never realistic to expect that Russian investments could make up for the billions of dollars of financial support suspended by the EU, the US and the IMF/World Bank after the military coup. Regardless of the outcome of the Ukraine conflict, Russia’s economy is shattered for years to come and their arms stocks are being drained by the fighting. There will be no largesse, military or financial, from Moscow’s direction for some years to come. Hemetti, with a nation of hungry and impoverished citizens looking for leadership, may discover his Russian gambit to avoid troublesome “Western interference” will be his downfall. Until a democratic civilian government is soon installed in Khartoum, Sudan will be hard pressed to find financial assistance unless it turns to China, another authoritarian state that will seek major concessions in return for economic and military support.

Hemetti, with his third-grade education and no background in economics or international relations, is playing a dangerous game by allying the junta with Russia and committing to the establishment of a Russian naval base in the strategically sensitive Red Sea. Moscow cares nothing for the quality of life in Sudan; the Wagner Group even less. Though Hemetti can count on the support of the paramilitary RSF, he does not necessarily have the backing of the officer corps of the Sudanese army, including the chief of the ruling Sovereign Council, General ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Burhan. Hemetti has essentially usurped the functions of Sudan’s foreign relations ministry, dealing with other nations on his own authority.

After Hemetti’s Moscow call, al-Burhan made a separate visit to his patrons in the United Arab Emirates, perhaps to shore up support in the event of a confrontation with Hemetti, who appears to be edging Sudan’s formal military leadership to the side. Hemetti’s rise and the inclusion of former Darfuri rebels in the Sudanese cabinet are indicators the growing political strength of Darfur’s Arab and indigenous African tribes in what has traditionally been the private reserve of the three great riverain Arab groups who live along the Nile north of Khartoum – the Ja’alin, the Danagla and the Sha’iqiya. Years of tribal manipulation and ruthless repression in Darfur (the source of most of the Sudanese Army’s manpower and most members of the RSF) are now coming back to haunt the riverain tribes who historically regard the peoples of Darfur as unsophisticated, uneducated and undeserving of political power.

The establishment of a naval base in the Red Sea was part of a greater Putin-inspired project to create an overseas presence as part of the foundation of a neo-Soviet Empire. However, Russia’s economic, diplomatic and military setbacks in its still unresolved conflict with Ukraine are almost certain to postpone, if not cancel, Russia’s imperial ambitions. In Sudan, Hemetti has succeeded in creating an independently financed security machine, but for the 44 million Sudanese who do not benefit from being part of the RSF, external relief and assistance is needed now. With almost daily demonstrations against military rule in Sudan, it is unlikely that brute force alone, even if aided by Russian mercenaries, will be enough to secure and sustain the military government.

Notes

  1. See: “Khartoum Struggles to Control its Controversial ‘Rapid Support Forces’,” Terrorism Monitor, May 30, 2014, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=852
  2. The Security Service of Ukraine (Sluzhba bezpeky Ukrayiny – SBU) claimed in 2019 to have copies of the personal documents of 149 Wagner Group mercenaries who travelled to Sudan on Russian Ministry of Defense airliners to suppress pro-democracy protests in 2019 (info, Gordonua.com, January 28). See: “Russian Mercenaries and the Survival of the Sudanese Regime,” Eurasian Daily Monitor, February 6, 2019, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4356
  3. See: “Russia’s Arms Sales to Sudan a First Step in Return to Africa: Part One, Eurasian Daily Monitor, February 11, 2009, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=2593 ; Part Two, Eurasia Daily Monitor, February 12, 2009, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=2596
  4. See: “Will Khartoum’s Appeal to Putin for Arms and Protection Bring Russian Naval Bases to the Red Sea?” Eurasia Daily Monitor, December 6, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4081

Musa Hilal: Darfur’s Most Wanted Man Loses Game of Dare with Khartoum… For Now

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, December 12, 2017

Khartoum is using an Arab paramilitary under the direct command of President Omar al-Bashir to clean up resistance to its rule amongst Darfur’s northern Rizayqat Arabs, once the core of the notorious Janajaweed militias that wreaked havoc on the region’s non-Arab population in the 2000s.

Shaykh Musa Hilal (Sudan Tribune)

The campaign has included the violent arrest of Shaykh Musa Hilal Abdalla, a member of the Um Jalul clan of the Mahamid Arabs. Hilal is the nazir (chief) of the Mahamid, a branch of the northern Rizayqat tribal group (the northern Rizayqat includes the Mahamid, Mahariya, and Ireiqat groups). Once the leader of the Janjaweed, Hilal was arrested on November 26, 2017 by the government’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF – al-Quwat al-Da’m al-Sari) after spending the last few years building a fiefdom in northern Darfur funded by illegal gold mining. Hilal remains subject to travel and financial sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council in 2006 in connection to his leadership of the Janjaweed.

Also arrested in the RSF raid were Hilal’s sons Habib, Fathi and Abd al-Basit, three brothers and a number of aides. At the time of the RSF’s arrival in his hometown of Mistiriyha, Hilal was still receiving condolences from visitors after the death of his mother (Radio Dabanga, November 27, 2017).

RSF Commander Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti” (Anadolu Agency)

Commanding the RSF forces was Hilal’s cousin, Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti,” a member of the Mahariya branch of the northern Rizayqat and Hilal’s former Janjaweed deputy. Daglo is leading the government’s six-month disarmament campaign in Darfur, intended to confiscate weapons held by civilians, rebel groups and government-controlled militias such as the Popular Defense Forces (PDF) and the Central Reserve Police (CRP).

The clashes began when a RSF disarmament unit was ambushed near Mistiriyha, killing nine. Hilal’s men then attacked and killed RSF Brigadier Abd al-Rahim Gumma when he arrived to investigate the ambush (Sudan Tribune, November 27, 2017). The RSF has deployed 10,000 men and an armored regiment in North Darfur to deal with the threat posed by Hilal and his followers (Sudan Tribune, November 5, 2017).

Terrible conditions were described in Mistiriyha after the raid, with mass arrests of male residents, the flight of women and children to barren hills nearby without water or food and bodies left to decompose in the streets (Sudan Tribune, November 29, 2017). Government sources admitted the loss of between nine-to thirteen men with 35 others wounded (Sudan Tribune, November 29). Reports of heavy civilian losses were denied by General ‘Ali Muhammad Salim, who claimed only a single child was hit by a stray bullet (Sudan News Agency, November 29, 2017).

The list of weapons seized from Hilal’s forces included 25 “technicals” (Land Cruisers mounted with heavy machine guns), a SAM-9 anti-aircraft system and a variety of “Dushkas” (the Russian-made DShK 108mm machine gun) and other automatic weapons commonly found in the region (Sudan Tribune, December 5, 2017).

Daglo insisted the arrest of an Algerian with “sophisticated communications equipment” and several other foreign nationals at Mistiriyha confirmed “the participation of foreign parties in destabilizing the security [of] Darfur” (Radio Dabanga, November 27, 2017; November 30, 2017; AFP, November 27, 2017).

Hilal was the official commander of the government’s Border Guard Force (BGF), once a small camel-mounted unit that was greatly expanded as a means of absorbing former Janjaweed into more tightly controlled government structures. Hilal spent several years in Khartoum as a senior government advisor before a dispute with the regime led to his return to Darfur in 2014. To further his own personal and tribal agenda, Hilal began to transform the BGF into the Sudanese Revolutionary Awakening (Sahwa) Council (SRAC). Composed largely of members of Hilal’s Mahamid clan, SRAC began to drive over-stretched government forces from northwest Darfur and established administrations in the region’s major centers and at the artisanal gold fields of Jabal Amer.

RSF Officers after a Raid on the Gold Mines at Jabal Amer (Radio Dabanga)

The Defense Ministry announced its intention to integrate the BGF into the RSF under Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) command in July 2017. The decision was immediately opposed by Hilal, who had no intention of serving under his former Janjaweed lieutenant and tribal inferior, General Muhammad Hamdan Daglo “Hemetti.” [1]

A major quarrel broke out between Hilal and what he described as “these Nile Valley Arabs,” the Ja’ailin, Danagla and Sha’iqiya tribes that have controlled Sudan since independence. Hilal announced his refusal to cooperate with the government’s disarmament campaign and accused Daglo and his patron, Vice-President Hasabo Abd al-Rahman, of siphoning off millions of dollars intended for the Sudanese treasury in return for the deployment of RSF fighters in Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen (al-Jazeera, September 10, 2017). [2]

As commander of the Border Guards (part of the SAF), Musa Hilal was flown to Khartoum for questioning by military intelligence, to be followed by a military trial for turning Mistiriyha “into a hideout for fugitives and outlaws,” according to Minister of State for Defense General ‘Ali Muhammad Salim (AFP, November 29, 2017). Fifty Border Guards were taken prisoner, with 30 sent immediately to Khartoum and the remainder to follow (Sudan Tribune, November 30, 2017).

The Northern Rizayqat – Defections and More Arrests

Hilal’s detention followed the arrest earlier in November of former Border Guards Lieutenant Colonel ‘Ali Abdullah Rizqallah “Savanna.” Rizqallah (Mahamid clan of the Rizayqat) split from the Border Guards in August to form his own Sudan Army Movement – Revolutionary Forces (SAM-RF) after Khartoum declared its intention to merge the Border Guards into the RSF. The commander was arrested after two days of clashes with the RSF around Korma (12 km west of al-Fashir) and in the area south of Kutum (Radio Dabanga, November 10, 2017). Rizqallah was removed to Khartoum for questioning and may face charges carrying the death penalty (Anadolu Agency, November 12, 2017).

Lieutenant Colonel ‘Ali Abdullah Rizqallah “Savana” after his capture (Radio Dabanga)

The RSF claimed a week earlier that it had absorbed some 300 SAM-RF fighters after they defected from Rizqallah’s movement with their weapons and vehicles (Sudan Tribune, November 4, 2017; November 12, 2017; Radio Dabanga, November 5, 2017). Rizqallah is reported to have feuded with General Daglo’s Mahariya clan, responding to a 2016 ambush by Mahariya gunmen with an attack on the home of a Mahariya National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS) colonel and governor of East Darfur that killed two NISS agents. [3] More recently, the RSF claimed to have repelled a SAM-RF attack on the North Darfur city of Kutum (Sudan Tribune, November 4, 2017).

Three days after the RSF assault on Mistiriyha, Adam Khatir Yusuf, leader of the Awlad Eid clan of the Rizayqat, died in a medical facility belonging to Sudan’s security services. The tribal leader was wounded while in Mistiriyha to offer condolences to Musa Hilal and was seen in a poor and bloodied condition being taken off a plane in Khartoum. His family claimed that Adam Khatir died while undergoing torture by military intelligence (Radio Dabanga, November 29, 2017). RSF commander Daglo claimed Adam Khatir had deceived them regarding the possibility of acting as a mediator between the RSF and Hilal: “We thought he [could] serve as a good-faith mediator, but unfortunately we were surprised to see him carrying a gun and fighting with Musa Hilal” (Sudan Tribune, November 29, 2017).

On November 26, the RSF announced the capture of SRAC spokesman Harun Mahmud Madikheir south of Mistiriyha where he was reported to be on his way to Chad with his bodyguards (Radio Dabanga, November 27, 2017).

Government security forces have also raided camps for internally-displaced persons (IDPs) in Darfur as part of the disarmament campaign. President al-Bashir (a Ja’alin Arab) has declared his intent to empty the camps over the objections of the UN and the African Union and Darfuri rebel groups claim the disarmament efforts are just a pretext to clear them of IDPs (AFP, November 21, 2017; Sudan Tribune, September 24, 2017).

Conclusion

Khartoum must still deal carefully with Hilal; there are many members of his Mahamid clan in the RSF who could turn against the government and he can describe the exact type and level of involvement of many leading Sudanese politicians and officials in the ethnic cleansing of Darfur. Al-Bashir himself is subject to International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrants issued for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity in Darfur. Hilal has been in contact with rebel movements looking to integrate Arab groups into the ongoing rebellion. The former Janjaweed leader may also be able to call on powerful friends beyond Darfur’s borders – Khartoum believes he has been in contact with the commander of Libya’s “Libyan National Army (LNA),” Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Hilal is as well the father-in-law of Chad’s Zaghawa president Idriss Déby Itno, a former foe of al-Bashir.

SLM/A-MM Rebel Commander Minni Minawi (Radio Dabanga)

Hilal’s arrest has also met with internal opposition. Old enemy Minni Minawi, leader of a largely Zaghawa rebel movement and current chairman of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) rebel coalition, denounced the government’s disarmament campaign for inciting a new round of violence in Darfur and called for the immediate release of Hilal and his sons.  He further described the alleged RSF killings of women and children in Mistiriyha as “a crime against humanity” (Sudan Tribune, November 29, 2017). The disarmament campaign has also been condemned as nothing but a new war in the name of disarmament by the Islamist opposition Popular Congress Party (PCP) and the still-influential Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) (Radio Dabanga, November 29, 2017).

In Sudan, prosecutions and detentions depend a great deal upon the importance of the individual to the regime’s tribal relations, his own connections to leading members of the regime, or his future value to the regime. Hilal was previously imprisoned in 2002 on charges of inciting ethnic violence, but was released the nest year when the regime needed a leader for  an Arab supremacist militia that would punish Darfur’s non-Arabs for their resistance to the government – the Janjaweed. With few political cards to play in Darfur and influence with the region’s Arab tribes in a state of decline, Khartoum is likely to hang on to Hilal as a potential future asset, however uncomfortable his stay may be made in the meantime.

NOTES

  1. For a detailed account of Musa Hilal’s resistance to the disarmament campaign and conflict with the RSF, see: Andrew McGregor, “Why the Janjaweed Legacy Prevents Khartoum from Disarming Darfur,” AIS Special Report, October 15, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4027
  2. For the RSF’s campaign in Yemen, see: Nicholas A. Heras, “Sudan’s Controversial Rapid Support Forces Bolster Saudi Efforts in Yemen,” Terrorism Monitor, October 27, 2017, https://jamestown.org/program/sudans-controversial-rapid-support-forces-bolsters-saudi-efforts-yemen/
  3. Jérôme Tubiana, “Remote-Control Breakdown: Sudanese Paramilitary Forces and Pro-Government Militias,” Small Arms Survey, May 4, 2017, http://www.css.ethz.ch/en/services/digital-library/articles/article.html/571cdc5a-4b5b-417e-bd22-edb0e3050428

Khartoum Struggles to Control its Controversial “Rapid Support Forces”

Andrew McGregor

May 30, 2014

Since independence in 1956, Sudan’s central government has formed a habit of using tribal-based (usually Arab) militias and paramilitaries to squash regional rebellions.  Usually well-armed but poorly disciplined, these groups have operated under the light hand of various security agencies willing to ignore atrocities and war crimes to re-establish central government control. Now, however, this long-standing policy has begun to backfire on the Islamist-military regime in Khartoum, with the recently formed “counter-terrorist” Rapid Support Forces (RSF) begins to operate outside the control of government authorities, creating even greater resentment against the government in Sudan’s numerous regions of unrest.

Major General Abbas Abd al-Aziz Reviews RSF Fighters

The RSF commander is Major General Abbas ‘Abd al-Aziz, a Ja’alin Arab from North Sudan and a trusted relative of President Omar al-Bashir as well as a senior member of the National Security and Intelligence Service (NISS – Jihaz al-Amn al-Watani wa’l-Mukhabarat), Sudan’s much-feared internal security organization, under whose command the RSF operates. His deputy and field commander is Muhammad Hamdan Daglo (a.k.a. Hemeti), a member of the Mahariya branch of the Northern Rizayqat of Darfur. The paramilitary of 5,000 to 6,000 men is believed to have the patronage of Sudanese Second Vice President Hassabo Muhammad ‘Abd al-Rahman, a native of Darfur and the political secretary of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP). The commander of the South Kordofan-based RSF-2, Colonel Hussein Jabr al-Dar, was killed in a mid-May battle with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army Northern Command (SPLM/A-NC) near the South Kordofan capital of Kadugli (Sudan Tribune, May 24; Radio Dabanga, May 26).

A common demand of much of Sudan’s armed and political opposition is the dissolution of the RSF. The creation of a large, well-armed militia under its own command and officially tasked with “counter-terrorism” activities is an important step in entrenching itself within the larger national administration (Middle East Online, May 21).

According to General ‘Abd al-Aziz, the RSF includes in its ranks retired and experienced military men as well as recruits from various parts of the country who receive four months of training before deployment on the battlefield, including lessons on international human rights and the rights of civilians in war zones (Sudan Vision, May 29; AFP, May 21). However, there is widespread concern that former members of Darfur’s notorious Janjaweed militias implicated in serious war crimes are being brought into more formal formations such as the Border Guards and RSF to shield them from prosecution.

The leading rebel movements still active in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army of ‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (SLM/A-AW) and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army of Minni Minnawi (SLM/A-MM) urged the UN Security Council in April to launch an “immediate investigation of the recent escalation of genocide in Darfur by the Rapid Support Forces from February 28 this year to date” (Radio Dabanga, April 23).

NUP Leader Sadiq al-Mahdi

Two-time Sudanese president and current leader of the opposition National Umma Party (NUP) Sadiq al-Mahdi was detained and interrogated by national security prosecutors in mid-May after making public remarks critical of the RSF for its violence against civilians (the NUP has a significant power-base in Darfur) and its alleged inclusion of foreign (mostly Arab) fighters from the Central African Republic, Chad, Libya and Mali in its ranks. National Assembly speaker al-Fatih Izz al-Din even accused al-Mahdi of “treason,” saying the RSF deserved praise for its anti-insurgency operations (Radio Dabanga, May 15).  NISS charges against the former PM included “inciting the international community against Sudan” and “causing unrest among the regular troops.” Al-Mahdi responded with an allusion to President al-Bashir, noting that: “Speaking the truth is the best form of jihad when the sultan is unfair” (Radio Dabanga, May 14). It is worth noting that when al-Mahdi was in his second term as prime minister (1986-1989), he relied heavily on Baqqara (cattle-raising) Arab militias known as murahalin who committed numerous atrocities against South Sudanese Dinka tribesmen during the second civil war.

Malik Agar, chairman of the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF – an umbrella group of armed opposition movements), denounced attempts to “muzzle” al-Mahdi, claiming that the RSF had “expanded their activities to the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile and even North Kordofan’s al-Ubayd and its surroundings. They burn hundreds of villages and kill and displace thousands of Sudanese citizens, rape and kidnap hundreds of women and loot civilians’ property, for their systematic impoverishment” (Radio Dabanga, May 16).

Backed by field commander Muhammad Hamdan Daglo, General Abd al-Aziz held an angry press conference to respond to al-Mahdi’s charges and earlier allegations from United Nations/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) chief Muhammad ibn Chambas:

We didn’t loot. We didn’t burn any villages. We didn’t rape… It’s the rebels who are destroying water resources, burning villages and committing race-based killings. Then they try to put the blame on us (AFP, May 14).

The NISS director of operations, Major General ‘Ali al-Nasih, insists that the RSF is a highly disciplined force and part of the NISS command structure: “More than 6,000 security personnel are distributed at petroleum sites, co-deployed with the armed forces at borders and co-working with police to protect the national capital and other major towns” (Sudan Vision, May 25). The general also maintains that the paramilitary engages in such activities as public health, environmental protection and food distribution.

General ‘Abd al-Aziz has admitted that the RSF has committed some human rights violations, but described these incidents as “limited and individual” (Radio Dabanga, May 16). Such dissimulation has not impressed SPLM-N secretary-general Yasir Arman, who urged all Sudanese to “campaign against the RSF war criminals” at home and abroad: “The RSF troops are mercenaries, who do anything for material gains. This [absorption of the Janjaweed into the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF)] may tear Sudan apart by destroying the social fabric” (Radio Dabanga, May 14).

On May 19-20, heavy fighting broke out between police in the North Darfur capital of al-Fashir and Haras al-Hudud  (Border Guard) units allegedly supported by allied RSF members (both units draw heavily on former Janjaweed members) (Independent, May 20).  The paramilitaries, who are accused by local residents of looting, armed robbery, rape and drug trafficking, had clashed earlier with police in January 2013, killing two policemen, and again last April when Border Guards attempted to break into the Agricultural Bank in al-Fashir (Radio Dabanga, January 31, 2013; March 18, 2014). The former Janjaweed, who were once richly rewarded for targeting civilian populations in Darfur, have fallen victim to budget cuts forced by the separation of oil-rich South Sudan in 2011 and are eager to make up the difference at the expense of the residents of Darfur and Kordofan.  Using government-supplied arms to extort cash is nothing new to RSF field commander Muhammad Hamdan Daglo, who led a 2007 rebellion by Mahariya Border Guard irregulars demanding payment of back-wages. [1]

In late 2013, thousands of RSF recruits (mostly from Darfur) were shipped to the battlefields of South Kordofan, where they suffered heavy losses in fighting against SPLM/A-NC rebels. Subsequently, they were stationed in the North Kordofan capital of al-Ubayd. After various rampages and assaults on the local population (generally viewed as pro-government) were followed by massive protests against their presence, the RSF was ordered back to Darfur in February, where they immediately began attacking local villages and displacing tens of thousands of people (Sudan Tribune [Khartoum], February 26).  Unable to control the militia, the Sudanese government was reported to have paid the RSF $3 million to evacuate its forces from al-Ubayd (al-Taghyeer [Khartoum], February 13). In west Kordofan, repeated incidents of looting, assaults and sexual attacks by RSF personnel in 2013 led local people to rise up against the paramilitary, eventually receiving armed support against the RSF from the local SAF garrison in Kharasan (Radio Dabanga, February 26).

Under these conditions, the RSF was naturally as unwanted in Darfur as it was in Kordofan; a statement by a coalition of 12 Darfur civil society organizations condemned the praise heaped on the paramilitary by its commanders and patrons:

The RSF militias, under the command of the National Intelligence and Security Services, seemingly have been commended for the burning of hundreds of villages in South and North Darfur since February this year; for killing, wounding, raping, and looting the property of innocent civilians, and causing the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Darfuri people (Radio Dabangs, April 24).

On May 21, a pro-opposition news website claimed that “an informed source” had described a major clandestine airlift of RSF fighters to Libya in post-midnight flights from Khartoum Airport. Accompanied by Qatari-bought Sudanese-manufactured weapons, these RSF units were being sent to support hard-pressed Islamist forces in Libya in return for emergency financial support and oil shipments from Qatar and Libya respectively (Hurriyat Sudan, May 21). If this unconfirmed report is true, such a deployment may be more an effort to remove this unruly paramilitary from Sudan than a sincere effort to support Libya’s Islamists.

Note

1. “Border Intelligence Brigade (al-Istikhbarat al-Hudud, a.k.a. 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

This article was published in the May 30, 2014 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.