(Bloomberg) -- A one-time camel trader turned leader of a Sudanese militia known as the “devils on horseback” now holds the fate of Africa’s third-largest nation in his hands.
Known popularly as Hemeti, Mohamed Hamdan dominates the military council that overthrew President Omar al-Bashir in April. He also commands the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group accused of killing more than 100 protesters in June in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Swaggering and unaccountable, his fighters have become the most tangible obstacle to Sudan’s escape from three decades of dictatorship.
“All roads forward in Sudan now run into the Hemeti problem,” said Alan Boswell, an analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “Over time, his power will need to be reined in, yet any action against him at the moment risks civil war.”
The stakes go beyond Sudan, which has been rocked by coups, insurgencies and mass protests since independence in 1956. The battle for its future after the fall of Bashir -- an Islamist general and international pariah accused of war crimes -- has become another battleground for the biggest power rivalries in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have been drawn in, looking to retain influence in the Red Sea nation as their tussles with Iran and Turkey for regional supremacy spread to the Horn of Africa.
The oil-rich Gulf nations in April pledged a combined $3 billion in aid to Sudan, which has been ravaged by decades of economic mismanagement that helped ignite the nationwide unrest in December. The promise of cash has given breathing space to the country’s new rulers -- mainly Bashir’s old guard -- and fueled opposition doubts there’ll be a genuine democratic transition as the elite seeks to defend its privileges.
Still, negotiations between the council and the opposition group that led the protests may have yielded a breakthrough. A deal signed Wednesday would see civilian and military representatives form an 11-seat sovereign council with executive responsibilities, and elections would be held after three years.
While the global outcry over the Khartoum massacre gave Sudan’s military rulers little choice but to reach a deal, they’ll probably seek to stall its enactment, according to Salah Aldoma, a professor of international relations at Omdurman Islamic University in Khartoum’s twin city. Hemeti’s denials of responsibility for the Khartoum attack have veered from blaming infiltrators in uniform, to vowing to hang any of his fighters who participated.
Rights groups including Amnesty International say Hemeti’s forces must withdraw from the city. On the streets, one can sense a palpable fear of his fighters, who regularly harass youths deemed sympathetic to the protests. Many residents make sure they’re home by nightfall to avoid any run-ins with the feared security services.
The militia earlier this week said in a statement it would be “gradually withdrawn from Khartoum in accordance with the security situation,” the state-run SUNA news agency reported.
Hemeti’s vertiginous rise saw him deploy his fighters alongside Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The RSF, a reconstituted version of the brutal counter-insurgency group known as the janjaweed he helped organize in the western region of Darfur, is now regarded as Sudan’s most powerful military force.
While Sudan’s Gulf backers hope the nation follows the Egyptian path of military rule after the Arab Spring, they’re missing a key difference, said Boswell: “Sudan lacks a cohesive military.”
The army -- and the military council -- are officially led by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, a lieutenant-general who helped coordinate Sudan’s contribution to the Yemen campaign. Burhan, though, has ceded influence in public to Hemeti, who regularly addresses rallies aired on state TV.
Hemeti’s alleged role in the violence would complicate any designs he might have on the presidency. Much of Sudan’s remaining elite are desperate to improve relations with the U.S., which lifted a two-decade-old sanctions regime in 2017.
“Hemeti is looking for some guarantees so he can make a safe exit,” said Aldoma. “His use was only as a military assistant to oust Bashir.”
The Darfuri warlord is also likely to face resistance from the elites from the Nile Valley hundreds of miles to the east who’ve traditionally led the country.
While the RSF has helped them tame the protest movement and sideline some of Bashir’s hard-line Islamist supporters, the rest of Sudan’s military council could be ready to jettison him at a later date, according to Asiel Alamin, a prominent activist.
But in the short-term, any move to check Hemeti’s power risks splitting the council, said Harry Verhoeven, author of ‘Water, Civilisation and Power in Sudan.’
“It’s a dangerous proposition and very few actors in the army, RSF or other security forces have a realistic vision of political order beyond the next couple of weeks,” he said.
(Update with statement from RSF in second paragraph under Feared Fighters subheadline.)
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