Seeking to Secure Power, Sudan’s Military Ruler Hires Lobbying Help

Top general brokers a multimillion-dollar deal with a Canadian firm and hosts a former U.S. congressman.

Sudanese protesters sit on a bridge during a demonstration outside the army headquarters in the capital of Khartoum on April 19.
Sudanese protesters sit on a bridge during a demonstration outside the army headquarters in the capital of Khartoum on April 19. Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Sudan’s military leaders are increasingly reaching beyond their own borders for help from lobbyists, wealthy Persian Gulf states, and even a former U.S. congressman to shore up their legitimacy and control in the aftermath of a coup.

The de facto military ruler of Sudan, Gen. Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemeti, brokered a multimillion-dollar lobbying deal to increase his sway in the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and multilateral institutions and welcomed a former member of the U.S. Congress to Khartoum for meetings amid a growing power struggle in the east African country. 

The posturing comes ahead of a massive pro-democracy rally in Khartoum on Sunday, which some experts and U.S. officials fear could turn violent, after forces under Hemeti killed at least 100 protesters and wounded hundreds more in a bloody crackdown at the beginning of June. 

Sudan’s Transitional Military Council, which has led the country since the ouster of longtime leader Omar al-Bashir in the wake of widespread protests, signed a $6 million deal with a Canadian lobbying firm in May to curry favor in the United States, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.

The lobbying contract, which was signed by Hemeti, according to public disclosures filed last week with the U.S. Justice Department, sheds new light on the general’s shadowy behind-the-scenes push with foreign interlocutors to consolidate control and illustrates how many foreign governments have worked to stake claims in Sudan. The Canadian lobbying firm working with the military council, Dickens & Madson, seeks to secure a meeting between Hemeti and U.S. President Donald Trump and the heads of Middle Eastern governments and will work to ensure that it “attain[s] recognition as the legitimate transitionary leadership of the Republic of Sudan,” according to the contract. 

The contract also outlines other priorities, including the lobbying firm working to “provide military training and security equipment”; obtain “infrastructural and food security support” from the Russian government; and even obtain funds from a Libyan general vying for power in that country in exchange for military help. 

The lobbying firm is led by a former Israeli intelligence operative, Ari Ben-Menashe, and has worked in the past for the Zimbabwean and Libyan governments.

Hemeti took de facto control after Bashir was toppled in April following months of anti-government demonstrations. Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, remains under arrest in Sudan, but the powerful security forces and military junta that propped up his rule for three decades are still in place. Hemeti, the head of the notorious paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF), implicated in war crimes in Darfur, has tried to portray himself as the one man who can bring stability to Sudan.

Main opposition groups and pro-democracy protesters have challenged the military council, insisting that it should cede power to a civilian-led democratic government, calls that are backed by the United States. Hemeti has sought support from wealthy Gulf states and other countries to shore up his legitimacy in the ensuing power struggle. 

In addition to backing from a Western lobbying firm, Hemeti also received a public relations boost from a former U.S. congressman, James Moran, who visited Sudan last week and met with the Sudanese leader. Moran, now a senior legislative advisor and lobbyist at the law firm McDermott Will & Emery, spoke at what appeared to be a rally in Khartoum after meeting with Hemeti, praising his time with the general and saying he was “impressed” with everyone he met, including the Sudanese leader. 

Moran’s visit gave Hemeti a potential public relations win, reinforcing the perception—at least in state media—that he is backed by the international community. During the rally, Moran was incorrectly introduced as a U.S. senator. Hemeti and the junta have shut down regular internet access in Sudan, and Moran’s visit was displayed on state television, making his speech the only information that many Sudanese have regarding the international community’s stance toward the general. 

Moran and his office did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Foreign Policy, including questions on the purpose of his visit with Hemeti and who funded his trip. 

Moran, according to Sudanese opposition figures and former U.S. officials familiar with internal deliberations, also met with the opposition Sudanese Professionals Association and the top U.S. diplomat in Sudan, Steven Koutsis, the chargé d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy. The State Department did not answer questions regarding Moran’s apparent meeting with Koutsis, other than to say he is a private citizen and doesn’t represent the U.S. government.

An official trip by current members of Congress, including Democratic Rep. Karen Bass on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was canceled due to the unstable political situation in Sudan. 

Powerful lawmakers in Washington are already raising alarm bells about Hemeti’s rise to power, however. On Friday, Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called on the Trump administration to slap sanctions on Hemeti and the RSF for their role in violence against protesters

As recently as September 2018, Moran was a lobbyist for Qatar, according to public disclosure filings. The Gulf state paid at least $40,000 per month for Moran and his law firm to speak with journalists, engage with Congress members and their staff, and send letters regarding Saudi Arabia’s blockade on Qatar.

Qatar is a rival to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt, which have given substantial support to Hemeti.

Moran’s visit, and Hemeti’s new lobbying contract, comes during a potential flash point in Sudan’s revolution.

Hemeti and the military council face a June 30 deadline set by the African Union to hand over power to civilians. The Sudanese Professionals Association and other civilian groups, called the Forces for Freedom and Change, eventually accepted the proposal from the Ethiopian government to share power with the military, a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policy.

The agreement calls for the junta to chair a body of seven civilians, seven military officials, and one civilian agreed to by both sides for the first 18 months of the country’s transitional period. In the following 18 months, a civilian would lead the council, followed by national elections. The military has not yet responded to the proposal. 

Two civilian negotiators told Foreign Policy that they did not expect the military to agree to the power-sharing agreement and said even if the junta signed it, it would not follow it. A million-strong march organized by civilian groups is planned for the June 30 deadline, which has experts concerned. 

“There are a number of warning signs that show violence is imminent for the protest on Sunday,” said Cameron Hudson, a former White House official under George W. Bush and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “The wheels are coming off. The military council is both losing patience and feeling emboldened by the lack of strong international response. They want to prevent a second wave of protests that could reinvigorate the whole movement.”

Central to the negotiations between the civilians and the junta is the role of Hemeti.

Some in the Sudanese Professionals Association say they will not accept a government that includes Hemeti. They demand an investigation into crimes in Darfur and responsibility for the June 3 massacre of protesters. (The general has denied responsibility for the massacre and said he launched an investigation to find the perpetrators.)

But other civilian groups, and even some inside the Sudanese Professionals Association, say they must be practical and include Hemeti in the transitional government. Still, Hudson warned that the military’s involvement in Sudan’s political future may be a formula for disaster.

“The idea that the Transitional Military Council or the Rapid Support Forces can bring stability is insane.”

Justin Lynch is a journalist covering Eastern Europe, Africa, and cybersecurity. Twitter: @just1nlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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