The Man Who Terrorized Darfur Is Leading Sudan’s Supposed Transition
The interim vice president, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo, was in charge of the brutal janjaweed militias. Now he is calling the shots in Khartoum.
After Omar al-Bashir was deposed on April 11, Western diplomats made no mistake about who was in charge. Ambassadors from the United States, Britain, and the European Union did not shake hands with the transitional military council’s president, the little known army general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan; they met with his younger deputy Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, better known by the nickname “Hemeti.”
The story of how an uneducated 40-something chief of the janjaweed—the Arab militias that brought death and destruction to Darfur 16 years ago—became more powerful than his seasoned mentors in the Sudanese junta is, to many, a mystery.
In fact, Hemeti is the main legacy of Bashir’s 30-year rule. Bashir himself was a product of an alliance of the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, unseen elsewhere in the Arab world, but the army grew tired of the wars it had to fight in Sudan’s south, and the Islamists fragmented. When a new war began in Darfur in 2003, Bashir was convinced by Darfuri Arab hard-liners that turning their youths to militias would allow him to win. But by creating the janjaweed and relentlessly empowering them under Hemeti, the Sudanese regime has created a monster it cannot control and who represents a security threat not only for Sudan but also for its neighbors.
It seems that for a few days after Bashir’s ousting Khartoum’s civilian opposition trusted that it could negotiate a civilian transition with Burhan and Hemeti. Darfuris were more skeptical, given that they were more intimately familiar with the new men in charge. Burhan was a military intelligence colonel coordinating army and militia attacks against civilians in West Darfur state from 2003 to 2005, at a time when Hemeti was already a known warlord, who would gradually become the janjaweed’s primary leader. During its first, most intense years, the war in Darfur led to the deaths of several hundred thousand non-Arab civilians and displaced about 2 million people, earning Bashir an arrest warrant for genocide from the International Criminal Court.
I met Hemeti a couple of times in 2009, first in a vaguely Orientalist furniture shop he owned in South Darfur’s state capital of Nyala (one of his early business efforts), from which I was driven to a more private office setting. He was a tall man with the sarcastic smile of a naughty child—yet he was then the newly appointed security advisor to South Darfur’s governor, his first official government position, obtained through blackmail and threats of rebellion.
Hemeti hails from a small Chadian Arab clan that fled wars and drought in Chad to take refuge in Darfur in the 1980s. As he told me, his uncle Juma Dagalo failed to be recognized as a tribal leader in North Darfur state, but South Darfur authorities welcomed the newcomers and allowed them to settle on land belonging to the Fur tribe, Darfur’s main indigenous non-Arab group. The place, called Dogi in the Fur language, was rebranded Um-el-Gura, “the mother of the villages” in Arabic, an old name for Mecca. The authorities also armed Dagalo’s followers, who, as early as the 1990s, began attacking their Fur neighbors.
Hemeti was then a teenager who, as he told me, dropped out of primary school in the third grade to trade camels across the borders in Libya and Egypt. When the Darfur rebellion began in 2003, he became a janjaweed amir (war chief) in his area, leading attacks against neighboring Fur villages. To justify joining the government-backed militias, he said the rebels had attacked a caravan of fellow camel traders on their way to Libya, allegedly killing 75 men and looting 3,000 camels. That fell short of his own brutal record as a militia leader.
In 2006, armed with new equipment, he led several hundred men on a raid across the rebel-held area of North Darfur. The janjaweed rammed non-Arab men with their pickup trucks and raped women in the name of jihad—according to witnesses I met at the time. His violent methods even created tensions with accompanying army officers.
At the same time, Chad and Sudan began a proxy war through their respective rebel groups. The Chadian government used its own Arab officials to push the janjaweed to betray Khartoum. Bichara Issa Jadallah, a cousin to Hemeti, was then the defense minister in Chad. In 2006, he invited the janjaweed leader to the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, and had him sign a secret nonaggression pact with the Darfur rebel Justice and Equality Movement, behind the back of Khartoum.
Shortly afterward, Hemeti announced that he had become a rebel. He then received a visit from a TV crew working for Britain’s Channel 4, which shot a documentary in his camp—his first exposure to TV—a medium to which he has become addicted since. But the journalists reportedly came late, and, as they were filming, government negotiators were also in the camp, bargaining over the price to bring Hemeti back into the government fold.
He remained a rebel for only six months before going back to Khartoum’s side. “We didn’t really become rebels,” he told me in 2009, sitting in his governor advisor’s chair. “We just wanted to attract the government’s attention, tell them we’re here, in order to get our rights: military ranks, political positions, and development in our area.”
Other janjaweed leaders were increasingly critical of the government, including the most powerful among them, Musa Hilal, who in 2013 quit his post as presidential advisor in Khartoum and began forming his own movement. At the same time, some janjaweed were openly fighting the Sudanese intelligence service in downtown Nyala. Hemeti was one of the few janjaweed leaders to remain loyal to Bashir’s government.
Consequently, Hemeti was picked to lead the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), an enhanced paramilitary force—initially in an effort to retake control of the janjaweed, but it didn’t work out as planned. The RSF became uncontrollable and engaged in looting, killing, and rape in Darfur, as well as in South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.
The RSF also began exporting Darfur’s violence to central Sudan, ransoming civilians at highway roadblocks north of Khartoum and taking part in repressing demonstrations in the capital in September 2013, when at least 200 protesters were killed. First under the intelligence service, then under the direct control of the presidency, the force became Bashir’s praetorian guard, whose role was to protect the president from protests or from any coup attempt by the army—it turned into a third pole of power within Sudan’s security apparatus, rival to both army and intelligence. Hemeti was appointed brigadier general.
Then, in 2016, as Europe began cooperating with Sudan to curb migration flows, Hemeti’s men began to intercept migrants, from Sudan itself as well as other parts of the Horn of Africa, on their way to Libya, exhibiting them on local and foreign TV stations to demonstrate to the European Union that they were the right people for the job. In fact, the RSF played a double game and filled their cars with migrants whom they sold to Libyan traffickers, who would then often jail them in torture houses. Since Muammar al-Qaddafi’s fall in 2011, migrants in Libya are commonly tortured until they call relatives and convince them to pay a ransom to set them free; those who cannot pay are turned into slaves. But on Sudanese national TV, Hemeti claimed to be acting on behalf of the EU, which he also threatened with reopening the border if he was not paid a ransom for his “hard work.”
When Sudanese troops joined the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, Hemeti’s RSF played a key role alongside a Sudanese army contingent led by Burhan, then the ground forces chief of staff. The two men got along well. They reportedly had meetings with Emirati and Saudi officials, discussing the post-Bashir era and telling them that they were the men the Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian regimes were looking for: Arab military leaders who were not Islamists friendly with Qatar, Iran, or the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
The RSF reportedly received Saudi and Emirati support, including money and weapons. Recently, at a press conference, Hemeti claimed to have set aside some $350 million to save Sudan’s finances and explained that he obtained this money for his role in Yemen and mining gold in Sudan. (He had competed with Hilal for gold concessions and eventually managed to have his rival arrested in 2017.)
In another recent TV appearance, Hemeti described how, in April, Bashir asked him and other military leaders to open fire on protesters, quoting an Islamic law supposedly allowing a ruler to kill 30-50 percent of a population in order to save the rest. He said he then decided “not to resist the change” and not oppose the protesters.
The first head of the transitional military council, Gen. Awad Ibn Auf, resigned after 24 hours, reportedly disagreeing with Hemeti, who preferred Burhan. In the following days, Hemeti continued his public relations campaign, visiting a wounded protester in the hospital. But at a press conference on April 30, he made clear who he was, accusing the protesters of being drug addicts and stating he could not tolerate them continuously “blocking the streets.” Even those who used to laugh at his blunt speeches stopped seeing him as a joke and now saw him as a threat to their democratic hopes.
Indeed Hemeti positioned his troops—reportedly 9,000 soldiers who were already in Khartoum and 4,000 who came recently from Darfur—at strategic locations all over the city, ready to fight protesters, the army, or anyone else. (On Monday, protest leaders blamed the RSF when five demonstrators and an army major were shot.)
Hemeti is reportedly backed by some of the same Darfuri Arab politicians who created the janjaweed 16 years ago. If they rise to power, it would threaten to “steal the revolution from the people,” as one protest slogan put it, transform Sudan from a military regime into a militia state, and replace Islamism with Arab supremacism.
While the West seems passive, other countries are more worried, especially Chad. In recent years, in spite of his cousin still being a close advisor to Chad’s president, Idriss Déby, Hemeti has appeared more hostile to the Chadian regime and may be supportive of an Arab takeover in N’Djamena. Chad’s president took power a year after Bashir in Sudan, and Bashir’s fall might legitimately worry him. While relying largely on his own non-Arab Zaghawa tribe, Déby also accommodated other groups, not least Arab politicians who held key positions such as the defense and foreign ministries.
Even so, ambitious Chadian Arab politicians might not refuse Hemeti’s armed support. The RSF’s ranks include hundreds of Chadian Arab youths and ex-rebels against Déby who took refuge in Sudan. Such combatants may well be more interested in regime change in Chad than in Sudan, risking an unprecedented exportation to Chad of Darfur’s racist violence.
Given that the Bashir regime repeatedly failed to abide by its international commitments to disarm the janjaweed, it seems even less likely now. Even in the most optimistic scenario—whereby a new civilian government in Sudan tries to disarm the janjaweed—at least some of them will inevitably get involved in armed activities across Sudan’s borders, in countries where they have already been active, including Chad, Libya, and the Central African Republic. There are also reports that janjaweed were among Sudanese who joined jihadi groups in Mali.
The janjaweed’s strength is now comparable to that of the Sudanese regular forces or other armies in the region. Opposing them by force could trigger bloodshed, making the stakes of the ongoing negotiations higher than ever before.
Flooring the monster may require more than unarmed protesters.