Hemeti, the Sudanese general fighting for absolute control

His battle against the commander of the armed forces is currently engulfing the country

Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo’s advance through life, from successful camel trader and commander of a horseback militia to a general fighting for absolute control of Sudan, is a story of marginalisation and revenge. The paramilitary leader, better known as Hemeti, has journeyed from the despised western pasturelands of Darfur to the brink of absolute power in Khartoum, the capital on the banks of the Nile.

“I cannot even describe the amount of injustice my family went through,” he once told the Financial Times in an interview in his headquarters, dressed in crisp khaki fatigues and polished Chelsea boots.

His fate will be sealed by the outcome of the fighting now raging between Hemeti and the commander of Sudan’s armed forces, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. If his estimated 150,000 fighters can overcome the better-equipped but less battle-hardened regular armed forces, he will become Sudan’s paramount leader. If not, he will probably end up dead, captured, forced into exile, or starting his own rebellion back in Darfur. More than 400 civilians have already been killed.

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When the FT reached him by phone in his bunker this week, Hemeti, who speaks in high-pitched Arabic and commands a penetrating stare, said that with God’s will he would prevail. “The battlefield will define everything,” he said. “We must do our best — and leave the rest to the Almighty.”

For al-Burhan, his deadly foe since hostilities erupted last weekend, Hemeti has nothing but contempt. The man with whom he has in effect jointly ruled Sudan since the two combined in 2019 to overthrow the 30-year dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir was the “devil’s messenger”, he said.

Hemeti was born in 1974 into a clan of Chadian-Arab camel-herding nomads in North Darfur on the periphery of Sudan. He attended primary school, becoming an avid student of the Koran, but his formal education went no further. By the age of 13, he was trading camels across the porous borders with Libya and Chad.

After 10 years in Libya, Hemeti returned to Sudan after his clan was robbed of 7,000 camels and members of his family were kidnapped and never found. That was 2003 and Darfur was in turmoil. Rebel groups had risen up against the repressive government in Khartoum. “They always looked down on us as slaves,” said a relative of Hemeti.

Yet barring six months when he switched to the rebels’ side, Hemeti fought against the Darfur uprising and for Bashir. He was on border patrol and became commander of a Janjaweed brigade, though he bristles at the term, which translates as “evil men on horseback”. The Janjaweed were accused of indiscriminate killing, rape and genocide in a conflict that raged for more than a decade and cost up to 300,000 lives, according to the UN. Bashir was later indicted by the International Criminal Court.

Bashir rewarded Hemeti for his services, making him head of a newly constituted paramilitary unit, the Rapid Support Forces, which was formed in 2013. Hemeti served as both enforcer and praetorian guard for the Sudanese president. Fearing an army uprising, Bashir had created the RSF to protect himself — something he would later regret.

During these years, Hemeti became ever more powerful, absorbing artisanal gold mines, Sudan’s largest source of export revenues, into his family business. He forged ties with Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group, which helped train RSF forces, but told the FT he had since broken with them. And, after the outbreak of war in Yemen in 2014, he began supplying men to fight Houthi rebels, another lucrative operation.

By 2019, the Bashir era was coming to an end. Angered by decades of economic hardship and repression, millions took to the streets demanding his overthrow. In April 2019, alongside Burhan and other generals, Hemeti staged a successful coup. Briefly, for some at least, he became an unlikely hero of the revolution. “His role in overthrowing Bashir earned him a new start,” said Nabil Adib, a human rights lawyer.

Many, however, continued to regard him as the butcher of Darfur. Duaa Tariq, an activist who witnessed a 2019 massacre in which the RSF was accused of killing more than 100 civilians and dumping bodies in the Nile, had little doubt. “He built his name with massacres,” she said. Hemeti has denied all involvement.

“Hemeti is a trader in a political bazaar,” says Alex de Waal, a former adviser to the African Union on Sudan. “The tragedy of the Sudanese marginalised is that the man who is posing as their champion is the ruthless leader of a band of vagabonds.”

In 2021, he united with Burhan to stage a second coup, this time against a transitional government charged with steering the country towards democracy. Though Burhan headed the new government, many Sudanese people and foreign diplomats regarded Hemeti, with his money, connections and loyal fighting force, as the real power.

The battle currently enveloping Sudan ought to settle the question once and for all. It was sparked by Burhan’s insistence on absorbing the RSF into the regular army, doubtless reinforcing Hemeti’s conviction that the Khartoum elite would never accept him.

“We are with the people,” Hemeti said this week. He insists that, even while the fate of Sudan rests between two warring generals, he remains a democrat.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023