Foreign Policy | From Camel Herder to Dictator

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.

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