The battle for Sudan’s future reached a critical point with the brutal crackdown on a protest camp in Khartoum. Much of it depends on how the ambitions of interim vice president and ex-Janjaweed chief, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo, are handled.
Over the past few months, as protesters staged a sit-in in Khartoum, “the bush” was gradually seeping into, and asserting its presence, in the Sudanese capital.
Perched on Land Cruisers mounted with machine guns, heavily armed troops in desert khaki uniforms seemed to take over the city, stationed at every bridge, street junction and around the main opposition protest camp in Khartoum.
The armed men were not part of the regular Sudanese army. They belonged to the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group born out of the Darfur conflict and led by a warlord whose name sparks terror among the non-Arab tribes of the western Sudanese region who experienced his brutality.
Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo — widely known by his nickname “Hemedti” was a commander of the government-backed Janjaweed militias accused of committing war crimes in Darfur. His fighters got an official upgrade when the government of the deposed president, Omar al-Bashir, formed the RSF in a bid to control the paramilitaries operating in Sudan’s hinterlands.
From a lowly Janjaweed commander, Dagalo has risen up the ranks to the Number Two spot in Sudan following Bashir’s April 11 ouster. The 40-something-year-old RSF chief is now the deputy head of Sudan’s ruling Transitional Military Council (TMC).
While the TMC is led by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, most Sudanese believe Dagalo is the brains, and the brawn, behind Monday’s bloody crackdown on protesters in Khartoum, which killed at least 38 unarmed civilians, according to doctors linked to the opposition.
Hours later, Burhan announced the TMC had ditched a three-year transition period negotiated with opposition leaders and that the country would hold elections within nine months.
Scenes from Darfur in Khartoum
Shortly after dawn on Monday, as a convoy of RSF Land Cruisers moved toward the Khartoum protest camp, marking the start of a deadly crackdown on unarmed civilians, video clips shot by Sudanese activists began to surface on Twitter with just one word in Arabic or English: Janjaweed.
The brutal scorched-earth techniques that Khartoum unleashed for decades in peripheral regions such as Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and Kordofan had reached the capital city.
As activists scrambled to outwit the Internet blockade, reports of female protesters being raped began to circulate. In a WhatsApp interview with FRANCE 24, a Khartoum resident who wished to be identified as “Morgan” said he was stopped by armed RSF troops who made him squat on the street and proceeded to shave his head. They did not manage to shave off his entire head since his hair was thick and long, said Morgan, but multiple accounts of public shavings, particularly of women as a shaming measure, have been reported.
“If allegations and accounts of yesterday’s attack are true, #Sudan‘s government basically did in #Khartoum what they’d done in Darfur for years: rolled in on pick-ups, shot at a bunch of unarmed people, raped women, torched the place, and then denied it happened,” tweeted journalist Jason Patinkin from Khartoum on Tuesday.
If allegations and accounts of yesterday’s attack are true, #Sudan‘s government basically did in #Khartoum what they’d done in Darfur for years: rolled in on pick ups, shot at a bunch of unarmed people, raped women, torched the place, and then denied it happened. #SudanUprising
The revulsion was palpable in elite circles in the Sudanese capital, according to Patrick Smith, editor of The Africa Report. “The chatter among the elites has been, ‘this guy’s a bushman who got away with these things in Darfur. This can’t be done in Khartoum,’” explained Smith.
The ‘real power in government’
The battle for the soul of Sudan’s popular, peaceful revolution has reached a critical point, one that can determine whether the country will be on the path to a democratic future or doomed to repeat the oppression and chaos of its northern neighbours, Egypt and Libya.
Much of it depends on how Hemedti’s ambitions are managed, and whether his forces can be tamed or contained before they wreak havoc in Sudan or across the country’s borders with troubled neighbours such as Libya, Chad and the Central African Republic.