The Platform


When deciding who to back in Sudan, there is clearly a lesser of two evils.

In mid-April, fighting broke out between the Sudanese military and militia fighters associated with the Rapid Support Forces, under the command of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also referred to as Hemetti. During the initial hours of the fighting, militia fighters seized a few strategic locations including the presidential palace, an airport in the north of the country, and television and radio stations. The ongoing fighting has left many dead in addition to widespread destruction.

But long before this recent episode of violence, Hemetti had started to prepare for it by both increasing his militia’s military capabilities and building relations with regional and international allies. In the West, Hemetti sought to influence policymakers and invest in shared interests, notably, control over migrants arriving in Europe by boat. The West, however, should not rely on promises being made by Hemetti, and should instead collaborate with Sudanese civil society groups, and yes, despite his many flaws, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the de facto ruler of Sudan until elections can be held.

The origins of Hemetti’s Rapid Support Forces started in 2013. The goal was to help the Sudanese government in suppressing an insurgency in Kordofan. Sudan’s parliament passed a law that legalized and organized the activities of the militia. The core group of fighters is comprised of the notorious Janjaweed, a militia group, that fought in Darfur on behalf of the government. The funding for Hemetti’s passion project comes from different sources such as selling gold, and financial backing from the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In exchange for financial backing, Hemetti provides child soldiers to fight on behalf of the Saudis and the Emiratis in Yemen.

Controlling migration flows is a salient issue that defines relations between Brussels and Hemetti. In a bid to control its southern borders from the flow of migrants, the European Union launched an initiative aimed at addressing this issue at its origin. The plan called for allocating funding and logistical support to the Sudanese government and by extension the Rapid Support Forces to build detention camps and monitor migrants who made their way to Europe through Libya and elsewhere.

Hemetti’s role in this initiative was criticized by human rights organizations. Brussels repeatedly claimed that it does not provide support to Hemetti’s Rapid Support Forces but many observers and activists say there is no way to corroborate this claim given the absence of any public and independent oversight over the initiative. In July 2019, Brussels declared that it had suspended the initiative over human rights concerns. Despite Brussels shelving the initiative, some European countries apparently decided to move forward. In September 2022, the Italian parliament started an investigation that Italians had reportedly provided training to Hemetti’s Rapid Support Forces.

In a bid to influence Western lawmakers, in June 2019, Hemetti signed a $6 million contract with the Montreal-based Dickens & Madson lobbying firm to arrange a meeting with then-U.S. President Donald Trump. Hemetti also hired a French public relations firm to polish his image. A French journalist with Le Figaro was severely criticized and investigated internally for an article that called upon the international community to support Hemetti. Moreover, Hemetti used a Dubai-based private equity company to shield his public relations activities and sent a special bulletin to UK parliamentarians aimed at controlling the narrative on the ground.

The West should not buy into Hemetti’s narrative that positions his forces as a stable and legitimate actor in Sudan for the following reasons.

Hemetti’s forces have committed numerous crimes against the Sudanese people including unlawful detention of activists, using rape as a weapon, and using deadly force to disperse demonstrators. During this recent episode of fighting, Hemetti’s forces have looted homes and are using hospitals as shields.

It has been widely reported that Hemetti has cultivated strong ties with Russia’s Wagner Group headed by Yevgeniy Prigozhin. In his visit to Russia just before the invasion of Ukraine, Hemetti stated clearly that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was justified. Additionally, the Wagner Group has sent light weapons and equipment to the Rapid Support Forces. The United States has been monitoring Hemetti’s Rapid Support Forces activities throughout the region, as they suspect it played a part in an attempted coup in Chad. In July 2020, the U.S. sanctioned Yevgeniy Prigozhin for his activities in Sudan. Needless to say, if Hemetti wins, Sudan will be wide open to Russia and by extension, the Wagner Group.

Ultimately, the West should think of the long-term interest of the Sudanese people and their dream to establish a democratic country. This goal isn’t compatible with the interests of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo who has refused to disarm and become part of the process. In June 2021, Hemetti stated that he will refuse to integrate his forces into the Sudanese army. He has clearly shown how far he is willing to go to pursue his personal ambition even at the expense of the Sudanese people.

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