The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

Once the fighting ends in Sudan the problem becomes what to do about Hemetti and his well-armed militia.

The ongoing fighting in Sudan between the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) militia can be traced back well before April. The RSF militia, which once defended the deposed regime of Omar al-Bashir, is now facing growing pressure from the Sudanese people to disband or integrate into the country’s military. Although Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, commonly known as Hemetti, who now leads the RSF militia, signed a political agreement that included merging his militia into the national army, these promises seem to be merely strategic moves. In reality, the militia intends to maintain its existence and seize power, endangering the lives and future of the Sudanese people. A collaborative effort must be made to put an end to this dire scenario.

The RSF militia originated from the infamous Janjaweed militia and was employed by the deposed regime for counterinsurgency operations in various parts of Sudan, such as Darfur and South Kordofan. The militia has committed numerous crimes, including burning villages, using rape as a weapon, killing peaceful protestors during demonstrations in Khartoum, unlawfully detaining activists, exporting child soldiers to fight in Yemen on behalf of the Saudis, and using hospitals and churches as shields.

The militia was officially formed in 2013, and for several years, the militia operated under the National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). In 2017, the Sudanese parliament passed a law to regulate the militia’s activities. Following the revolution, amendments were made to this law, granting the militia greater autonomy. It is estimated that the militia consists of 10,000 soldiers. A general framework signed in December 2022 aimed to integrate the RSF into the national army, but there were disagreements regarding the process and timeline. Western countries, including the U.S., expressed concerns about the militia’s ties with Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group and called for its disbandment.

Despite the agreements and promises made, the dissolution or integration of the militia into the national army will not occur peacefully due to practical and strategic reasons. Hemetti has built an empire by exploiting gold resources and exporting them through the Sudanese gold firm Algunade, registered to Abdul Rahim Hamdan Dagalo, the brother of Hemetti. Given his family connections, Dagalo’s company has received preferential treatment. Clearly, the dissolution of the RSF militia would subject the wealth accumulated by Dagalo over the years to scrutiny and public oversight, and potentially lead to its nationalization by the state.

In addition to the recent violations during the ongoing fighting, the militia has committed numerous crimes in Darfur and is responsible for the Khartoum massacre. Consequently, the militia acts as the main safeguard for its leader, shielding him from legal consequences and preventing another people’s revolution that could result in his imprisonment.

The future of the militia is not solely determined by Hemetti. Countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which heavily invested in and supported the militia with financial resources and military equipment, will not readily accept its dissolution. These countries have political and economic interests in Sudan, which they believe can be achieved through the RSF militia rather than a democratic government. The UAE backs the militia against the national army, assuming it is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood movement. For years, the RSF militia has been fighting in the Yemen war at the behest of the Saudis, and the dissolution of the militia would significantly impact their unjust war.

Dagalo himself appears to have no limits in defending the existence of his militia. For example, in June 2021, he publicly threatened that any attempt to integrate his fighters into the national army would result in the dismantling of the entire country.

The current legal status of the militia changed with the outbreak of the fighting in April. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the de facto leader of Sudan, initially froze the militia’s bank accounts and later declared it a rebel group. These decisions indeed delegitimize the militia, but only from the perspective of the national army.

The fall of the militia will not happen overnight but will require diverse efforts. The war will weaken the militia’s military capabilities but not completely destroy it. The international community and Sudanese democratic powers should increase pressure on the countries sustaining the militia, imposing further sanctions beyond those already introduced by the U.S. Additionally, human rights activists and advocates should call on the EU to sever all ties with the militia and any support that may reach it through immigration control operations.

Mohamed Suliman is a senior researcher at Northeastern University and also holds a degree in Engineering form the University of Khartoum.