In a military-ruled Sudan mired in turmoil, the general who shares centre stage with the country's top soldier is a former Darfur warlord who has used his militia's firepower, wealth and political opportunism to steer himself into a position of formidable power.
In the weeks before a military coup last year derailed Sudan’s democratic transition, Gen Mohamed Dagalo was the most outspoken critic of the military’s civilian partners in a transitional administration that ruled after the 29-year regime of Omar Al Bashir was overthrown in April 2019.
Like army chief and coup leader Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan, Gen Dagalo has repeatedly asserted that the military takeover was needed to protect the country from slipping into civil war and branded the military’s civilian partners in Sudan's toppled government as corrupt and power hungry.
Protests in Sudan after man is killed in clashes
The political crisis caused by the October 25 coup has brought into focus the extent of Gen Dagalo's influence and the menacing presence in Khartoum of thousands of his battle-hardened, well-armed and blindly loyal militiamen.
Forces loyal to Gen Dagalo, Sudanese analysts say, constitute a tough obstacle to another military coup that, like one in 1985 led by Gen Abdel Rahman Swar Al Dahab, would organise elections and hand over the reins of power to an elected government.
“We took the option that saves the country and prevents its collapse,” Gen Dagalo said of the October coup.
“Regrettably, they [civilian politicians] excluded everyone and empowered themselves”, just as Al Bashir’s ruling Congress party did, he told a television interviewer in November.
That Gen Dagalo has political ambitions of his own is beyond doubt despite his persistent denials. The Sudanese analysts, however, believe his meteoric rise to power will most likely stop just short of the land’s highest office on account of the limitations rooted in his background as well as his questionable track record in Darfur and more recently in Khartoum.
But the general, they say, may happily settle for the role of a political kingmaker with extensive influence, given the deterring presence in Khartoum of his militiamen.
“He has been a key component of the post-Al Bashir political order and is now vital to anyone trying to bring about change,” said Ashraf Abdelaziz, editor of Khartoum’s independent daily Al Gareeda.
“But his ambitions are offset by his fears,” he said.
Gen Dagalo’s name has not been cited by the International Criminal Court in connection with the crimes against humanity in Darfur, genocide and war crimes for which Al Bashir and several of his associates were indicted more than a decade ago.
Like other analysts in Sudan, Mr Abdelaziz believes the alleged atrocities committed against civilians in Darfur in the 2000s by Gen Dagalo’s militia – now known as the Rapid Support Forces, or RSF – would eventually catch up with the general.
Gen Dagalo has in the past sought to distance himself from the Darfur atrocities documented by the ICC and dismissed linking him and his men to them as an attempt to “demonise” him and the RSF.
Another impediment to Gen Dagalo’s possible rise to the top is the alleged RSF involvement in the killing of about 100 protesters in June 2019 when security forces broke up a sit-in protest camp outside the army headquarters in central Khartoum.
Witnesses and activists say RSF fighters took the lead in the violence and were also to blame for sexually assaulting female protesters during the operation.
A high-profile investigation into the killings began soon after but has yet to publish its findings nearly three years later amid claims by activists and victims' families that it was stymied by Gen Dagalo and the military for fear it could incriminate senior officers.
Gen Dagalo’s third source of concern, according to the analysts, is the persistent demands by the pro-democracy movement for the RSF to be integrated into the armed forces, something he has so far managed to prevent to maintain his independence and so retain his influence.
Integrating the RSF into the army was known to be a pressing demand by the military’s top brass. Moreover, there had until recently been persistent reports that the army's top brass also wanted the RSF to leave Khartoum.
There was also discontent among senior officers that Gen Dagalo was given a top military rank although he did not graduate from the military academy.
These concerns, however, have disappeared or been brushed under the rug since the rift between the military and civilian politicians first surfaced last summer, with the generals, including Gen Al Burhan, finding Gen Dagalo a useful ally at a time when they faced a spirited and popular opposition by the pro-democracy movement, according to the analysts.
“His [Gen Dagalo's] fate and that of Gen Al Burhan are now intertwined,” said Al Rasheed Ibrahim, an analyst in Khartoum’s independent Sudanese Academy for Security.
“It’s an alliance dictated by facts and forces on the ground.”
Already, powerful pro-democracy groups are calling for the two generals to face trial for toppling a constitutional government when they staged the coup in October and for killing scores of protesters since then.
The prospect of the two generals standing in a defendants' cage in a courtroom may not be far fetched or unreal given the tenacity of the pro-democracy movement and its resolve to topple the military regime.
There have been more than 15 major anti-military rallies in Khartoum and elsewhere in Sudan since the October 25 coup. Nearly 80 protesters have since been killed by security forces and close to 3,000 injured.
With an eye on the road ahead, Gen Dagalo has been cultivating a power base for himself and rallying support for the military as the nation's guardian that will shepherd it to elections next year.
He has also used his Darfur roots to woo “the marginalised” – the Sudanese term for residents of western and southern Sudan – as well as incite them against Sudan’s traditional political elite in Khartoum and northern areas.
He has also been trying to secure the support of the tribal chiefs and elders who are appointed by the government to settle local disputes in rural areas. He has also been wooing the leaders of several rebel groups in Sudan’s south and west with whom he negotiated peace accords signed in October 2020.
“He has the money to buy loyalties as well as votes for the candidates he will support in the 2023 election,” said Yasser Zarouq, an independent Darfur researcher. “His simple manners and words on top of money could secure him many votes.”
Born in Darfur into the Arab Reizayqat tribe, the general has no formal education and joined a local militia, the Janjaweed, that collected money from commercial convoys headed to Egypt, Libya or Chad in exchange for their protection.
The Janjaweed later joined the government side in the 2000s war against ethnically African rebels in Darfur fighting to end discrimination.
Its battlefield services allowed the militia and its leaders to secure vast resources from Al Bashir's regime and gain extensive influence in Darfur. The militia became the RSF. Gen Dagalo became its leader in 2012.
Five years later, Al Bashir decreed that Gen Dagalo report to him directly, not the defence minister, and declared his militia part of the military, which the president is said to have deliberately weakened to leave RSF as Sudan's strongest force.
Gen Dagalo has shrewdly used the RSF to serve his political goals since Al Bashir's removal.
His men entered Khartoum for the first time during the anti-Al Bashir, 2018-2019 uprising when the former president summoned some of the RSF to come to the capital to protect him from his generals.
Significantly, the RSF did not take part in the regime’s attempt to suppress the uprising. Instead, RSF militiamen took part in the April 2019 removal of the dictator and his detention days later.
Now, the RSF are stationed across much of Sudan, with the force awash in cash from gold mining in western Sudan and growing economic interests.
Regionally, the general has endeared himself to several of the region's powerhouses. His dispatch of hundreds of his men to fight on the side of the Saudi-led coalition against Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels won him support in Riyadh and its allies.
But the general's intentions and his end game remain a source of concern at home and beyond the country's borders.
“People in the area are keenly interested in what Gen Dagalo is up to,” said Michael Hanna, the New York-based US programme director at the International Crisis Group. “He continues to be something of a warlord to this day. Al Burhan does not trust him and some of Sudan’s neighbours are suspicious of him.”