From Camel Herder to Dictator

Originally published by Foreign Policy on July 2, 2019.

Khartoum’s long-standing strategy of fighting Sudan’s civil wars by empowering tribal militias—such as the infamous Darfurian janjaweed—has finally come back to bite it in the form of Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as Hemeti.

Hemeti is the commander of the country’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the deputy chairman of the Transitional Military Council, which has ruled Sudan since the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir in April. A poorly educated militiaman from a remote village—he and most of the commanders and fighters who surround him are Darfurian Arabs who first saw combat serving in the janjaweed—Hemeti has none of the normal credentials for a national leader. But he is the most powerful man in Sudan today, even more than Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the general who actually leads the council.

In his few months in power, Hemeti and the RSF have already attracted criticism for a brutal June 3 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters—a vicious attack in which 128 nonviolent demonstrators died, either burned alive in their tents, shot at point-blank range, or raped, chased through the streets, and then killed. On Saturday, his forces also carried out a raid on a press conference being held by pro-democracy forces. The next day, June 30, they fired tear gas to disperse what were the largest mass protests ever held in Khartoum and in other cities across Sudan. The date was doubly symbolic as it marked the 30th anniversary of the coup in which Bashir seized power as well as the date given by the African Union for the military to hand over power to civilians. Ten protestors are reported to have died.

Hemeti, who blew past that deadline, is quickly emerging as Sudan’s new dictator, but even if he were removed from power, his style of politics cannot be so easily rooted out.

On April 11 this year, peaceful protesters from the Alliance for Freedom and Change brought down Bashir, who had been in power for almost 30 years. During the rallies, Bashir ordered his army generals to fire on the protesters, but they refused, not least because the young people in the streets around the military headquarters included some of their own children.

The chain of events followed the same script as two previous nonviolent revolutions in Sudan, in 1964 and 1985, when power passed from one dictator to a coalition of senior generals and civilian politicians. In those cases, the coalition was drawn from the country’s social and ethnic elite—the “sons of the Nile” from Khartoum and nearby towns.

In this case, the Transitional Military Council is the group that seized power, and since April it has been negotiating with the Alliance for Freedom and Change over the formalities of a civilian government to replace Bashir. Three times, the council and the alliance have come close to agreement, and each time the council has found a pretext to suspend the talks. On Friday, the council agreed to a power-sharing formula proposed by an Ethiopian mediator—but few believe that it did so in good faith.

The Transitional Military Council is a cabal of generals, but the man who wields real power is Hemeti, a 45-year-old camel herder-turned-militia commander from Sudan’s farthest periphery in Darfur. His ascent was the logical culmination of the last 40 years of Sudanese politics.

Through all the twists and turns of Sudanese politics—swings between military and civilian regimes in the 1980s and the different flavors of the Bashir regime since 1989—three political truths have been consistent.

The first is that the armed forces subcontract their wars. The regular army’s officer corps is drawn from Sudan’s social elite. Rather than sending its own units to fight perilous and intractable counterinsurgencies hundreds of miles from home, it has preferred to arm tribal militias to do the dirty work. While the army command focused on procuring expensive battle tanks and aircraft, and on building a vast citadel in Khartoum—the same compound that was besieged by nonviolent protesters in April—the tribal militias have been responsible for massacres, enslavement, massive sexual violence and exploitation, forced displacement, and starvation.

Alex de Waal is a Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads the WPF research programs on African Peacemaking and Mass Starvation.

Considered one of the foremost experts on the Horn of Africa, his scholarly work and practice has also probed humanitarian crisis and response, human rights, pandemic disease, and conflict and peace-building. His latest book is New Pandemics, Old Politics: Two Hundred Years of War on Disease and its Alternatives. He is also author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine and The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa (Polity Press, 2015) Following a fellowship with the Global Equity Initiative at Harvard (2004-06), he worked with the Social Science Research Council as Director of the program on HIV/AIDS and Social Transformation, and led projects on conflict and humanitarian crises in Africa (2006-09). During 2005-06, de Waal was seconded to the African Union mediation team for Darfur and from 2009-11 served as senior adviser to the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel for Sudan. He was on the list of Foreign Policy’s 100 most influential public intellectuals in 2008 and Atlantic Monthly’s 27 “brave thinkers” in 2009 and is the winner of the 2024 Huxley Award of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Professor de Waal regularly teaches a course on Conflict in Africa at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.  During this course, students should gain a deeper understanding of the nature of contemporary violent conflict in Africa. Students will be expected to master the key theoretical approaches to violence in Africa, and to become familiar with a number of important case studies. The focus is on the origins and nature of violence, rather than policy responses and solutions. The course is inter-disciplinary and involves readings in political science, international relations, and social anthropology, while also touching on economics, environmental studies, and history. 

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