Frankenstein’s monster in Khartoum

On Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as Hemitti, the man behind the massacres against Sudanese protesters.

Image credit Hossam el-Hamalawy via Flickr (CC).

The Transitional Military Council (TMC) has decided to try and finish with the popular movement of Sudan. Its Vice President Mohamed Dagolo, better known as Hemeti, is suspected of orchestrating the Monday, June 3rd massacre of protesters at the central Khartoum sit-in. Beyond his poisonous reputation, the recent trajectory of the ousted president Omar al-Bashir’s one-time underling reveals the dynamics of a regime in crisis, and illustrates the terrible danger Hemeti and Sudan’s “deep state” pose to the uprising six months in.

“My patience with politics has limits,” said Hemiti sometime in April, not long after this former leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia was promoted to Vice President just days after the dismissal of Omar al-Bashir. Despite his reputation as a marauder and war criminal, Hemeti has since imposed himself as the undisputed face of the TMC without even being a member of the regular army—a coup de force in the eyes of most Sudanese.

As leader of the RSF, Hemeti is amongst the principal beneficiaries of the regime’s recent engagement with international questions over migration and border controls. Additionally, alongside General Abdel Fatah Burhan, the President of the TMC, Hemeti has been a key promoter of the Sudanese contingent’s involvement in the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen. Hemeti himself went to Saudi Arabia on 24 May, and met with Prince Mohamed Bin Salman.

In mid-April he grabbed a bit of international attention in an on camera debate with Jean-Michel Dumond (representative of the European Union), the French, British and Dutch ambassadors, as well as US representatives—establishing himself as “the man of the hour.” Since the uprising began in December, he has come to embody executive power in Khartoum; present at every front, a participant in every decision, and making multiple appearances and announcements—with several notable rhetorical variations, however.

Contradictorily we’ve seen him freeing about a hundred prisoners following an official visit to the infamous Kouber prison, and on the other hand threatening the insurgents and the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a trade union confederation playing a leading role in the uprising during their general strike of 28-29 May. It was his troops that blocked critical journalists’ access to the national television headquarters—summoning police whilst blaming some NGOs for “instigating the trouble,” exactly what was done in Darfur. Hemiti is now presenting himself as the ultimate arbiter after the impasse of the TMC’s negotiations with the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), the coalition of opposition forces that includes the SPA.

Ascension to the summit

Nothing suggested that Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo of the Rezeigat tribe would achieve such a rapid ascent in the world of politics. He started as a cattle merchant and guard of commercial convoys traveling across the west of Sudan, Chad, and east Libya. In 2010 he started dabbling in politics, establishing himself as an alternative to the former strong-man of the Darfur war, his distant cousin, Moussa Hilal. Hilal, a former advisor to al-Bashir, a chief of the Janjaweed—the infamous quasi-official militia—and the head of the border guard was ostracized following an internal purge, and captured by Hemetti himself in November 2017.

Initially, under the patronage of both the powerful National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) and the president’s office, the RSF mutated out of the Janjaweed. In 2013, it was officially recognized, and Hemeti and the militia grew together.

Though the RSF has imposed itself as the premier force in the country, the command and control structure of the militia remains opaque. Their prerogatives definitively surpassed the army after parliament passed the rushed and contested Rapid Support Force Law in January 2017, which substantially increased their funding and formalized their autonomy. Though they don’t take orders from the army hierarchy their violence is legitimized and even aided by the state. When al-Bashir was deposed, Hemitti as leader of RSF was well-placed to fight for a high position.

Governor of the margins

In only a few years, Hemeti rose to become a militia “general,” entirely outside of formal military structures. He accumulated innumerable functions within the al-Bashir regime, and became “governor” of the country’s margins, meaning he took brutal control over “internally displaced people” camps in Darfur, and in regions like Jabal Marra, the Blue Nile and South Kordofan, which all remain gripped by violence.

Hemeti has established himself as the premier border guard in both the east—the region bordering Eritrea and Ethiopia—and the west, his stronghold. There, he attempts to control—not without difficulty—the borders with Libya and Chad. He flatters himself as working on behalf of the European Union and its borders policies, enacted in 2014 through the controversial Khartoum Process, through which the Sudanese state receives EU funds to police migration. In this position, he has become the ambiguous promoter of the fight against human trafficking in Sudan, which is both a “transit” and “departure” country, whilst generating private income—somehow—from the trade.

He is a main player in Sudan’s involvement in the war in Yemen, as led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, though he has had to face mutineers amongst the young forces sent there. Of late, he has become the owner of a gold mining operation in Jabal Amir, in north Darfur, which in turn has allowed him to strengthen his militia.

In an October 2016 interview with a newspaper in Um El-Gura, his fief, on his role, he announced; “my forces and I have assumed every role, even the police, the army, and the local leadership. We’ve done a lot, for security and reform to development …”

For some observers of the Sudanese political scene, Hemeti manages the tensions between the army, paramilitary forces, and the various Islamist tendencies within the state—and replicates what al-Bashir managed to achieve for so long before he was ousted: to resolve and evade contradictions.

Hemeti’s troops are now abundantly present on the outskirts of Khartoum. The number of RSF men in Khartoum is estimated to be between 5,000 and 7,000, and he is reportedly enlisting new recruits, particularly in the east of the country.

Following the June 3rd massacre, the central sit-in is no more.

The war of the barricades

One of the obsessions of Hemeti and the TCM are the al-Matārīs (the barricades). Built with stones and wood, these barricades represent Khartoum’s symbolic and physical recovery on the part of protesters. They served as the protesters’ security checkpoints guarding access to the largest sit-in, in front of the army’s Khartoum headquarters, which began on the 6th of April. This re-appropriation of space has made it possible to counter repression: a key part of the peaceful self-defense that has characterized the movement since the beginning. Several attempts at dismantling these barricades have been reported by protesters and the SPA during the April 15th confrontations, the repeated intimidation attempts on May 6th, and so on.

For Hemeti, overthrowing this re-appropriation is a priority: to subdue Khartoum, it is necessary to attack and neutralize the insurgents’ esprit de corps from all sides. This will to recapture Khartoum—the desire for an authoritarian restoration—became evident during what some protesters called the “barricade war.” In an issue which became a point of discord amongst protesters, the TMC put pressure on the movement to dismantle the matārīs as a condition for the resumption of negotiations. The tacit agreement by the FFC (which includes the SPA) to remove some barricades has been badly received by many Sudanese, adding to questions about the balance of forces within the opposition coalition.

For the young F., contacted by telephone:

The dismantling of some of the barricades is dangerous for the movement and its pursuit; it is an additional restriction and an obstacle to maintaining a balance of power between the protesters and the SPA, in the face of Hemeti’s omnipotence and the delaying attitude of the TMC.

‘A new Darfur!’

The night of Monday, May 13th would become a premonition of the events we witnessed on Monday, June 3rd, with the death toll of that first night standing at 11 and the injury list at 200.

That first murderous night will be remembered in the common imaginary as the “Massacre of 8 Ramadan.” Present at the edge of the sit-in, M. said:

What Khartoum has experienced these last nights is almost routine at the margins of the country, in Darfur; something similar happened in the attack of May 4 in the city of Niyala. The moving of this visible violence to Khartoum—it’s already well-known in the margins—is relatively new. It’s like a test, a further provocation made to the movement. It bares the signature of Hemeti.

The modus operandi leaves little doubt about the involvement of the RSF and Hemetti in the June 3rd slaughter. By night, men in RSF uniforms surrounded the sit-in. According to witnesses, shooting live bullets, they felled a dozen peaceful demonstrators in a few minutes.

Removing himself from all responsibility, Hemetti said on television that he had captured those responsible for the killings who “disguised themselves” as the RSF. There has been no official commission to investigate the facts. Speaking after May 13th, for G., “the RSF are a bit like the guard dogs of the regime. They do not attack neighbors, they do not attack thieves, but they terrorize all the inhabitants as soon as the master is no longer there.”

The RSF now patrol several areas of the city. It is a regime of terror and rumor that seeks to impose itself. It is what some protesters now call “Hemetti’s reconquest of Khartoum.” It is governance by terror, familiar in the country’s margins, and it has now come to the capital.

The offensive of June 3rd

The dawn of June 3rd marked the beginning of a terror offensive against the revolution and the peaceful movement calling for the transfer of power to civilians. It resulted in the bloody dismantling of the sit-in with live ammunition, tear gas, and the razing of protesters’ tents by uniformed men driving unmarked vehicles.

In one day, the repressive offensive resulted in tens of deaths, hundreds of wounded, and one hundred missing persons. According to witnesses, the toll could be more. The Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors claim corpses were thrown into the Nile.

The RSF have besieged parts of Khartoum and Omdurman, parading there. The TMC is being called the “Majlis al-Mujrimīn al-Qatalah” (Council of Murderous Criminals) by many Sudanese people. Its spokesman, General Chamseddin Kabachi justified the attack, citing “the presence of harmful and criminal elements that must be neutralized” within the perimeter of the sit-in.

The TMC press conference scheduled for mid-afternoon on June 3rd was cancelled. In Khartoum, Hemeti is widely perceived to have been the chief architect of this massacre. The FFC and the SPA denounced the attack as, “the bloodshed and the supreme betrayal, through live ammunition, of the Transitional Military Council.”

The SPA called for:

An action of total civil disobedience throughout the country, to erect barricades in the streets, as well as extended general strikes and total paralysis of all sectors until the fall of the Transitional Military Council, now renamed “Treason Council,” the regime’s security apparatus, its militia as well as its “shadow forces.”

Many cities in Sudan responded to the call for solidarity with Khartoum, with protests in El-Doueim, Niyala and Port Sudan.

Back to the future

Hemeti does not have a political base, much less a popular one. Although, he is attempting to compensate by securing a consensus amongst the historic opposition parties and various armed groups. Called in Arabic the “Habūt al-Nʿaīm (the Soft Landing), this counter-revolutionary strategy appears to be the solution preferred by the international and regional powers.

He is probably not the most militarily powerful in Khartoum and is still unable to conquer the capital by force—as he was able to rule the country’s margins. But, he is more reckless and feared than any other potential leader, and because of that he could prevail over the army and other security apparatus.

Hemeti and the RSF were developed by key elements of the Sudanese “deep state,” and are still supported by the security services. Together they are attempting to make Sudan a security state par excellence, under the shadow of the gloomy Salah Gosh, former chief of the NISS.

Under these circumstances, will Hemeti  be accepted as a partner for the next three years, pending elections? Will he be represented in the National Council, which is still a matter of contention between the TMC and the Forces for Freedom and Change (even within the civilian forces)?

In any case, he is a threat. His forces now appear strong enough to attack any opposition groups, whether it be the FFC, the SPA, or any army or even security cadres resistant to his rule. Even if the military remains in power, he could turn it into a Frankenstein monster, which would not only annihilate the hope for a new Sudan, but it could turn against those who helped create him as well.

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