Sudanese Gen Mohamed Dagalo, the commander of the country’s powerful Rapid Support Forces militia, was in Moscow on Thursday on a visit that has fuelled concerns he could be planning a power grab.
Local media reports in Sudan this week warned that Gen Dagalo, better known by his nickname Hemedti, might be positioning himself to facilitate a military takeover that would make him the source of ultimate, behind-the-scenes power.
With Russian forces now engaged in a major military assault on Ukraine and with Sudan still paralysed by political crisis after a military coup last year, Gen Dagalo’s visit to Moscow appears curiously timed.
Sudanese analysts and experts say the stop-off in the Russian capital, which followed visits to South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Gulf, was intended to shore up the general’s position in Sudan.
“Hemedti wants to secure his position in Sudan’s current balance of power. He’s looking for powerful backers at home and abroad, perhaps for his own coup,” said Rasha Awad, editor of the online news service Al Taghyeer.
“He is acting like someone who is laying the foundation for something down the road. He is definitely not making these visits for the benefit of the state.”
The RSF said Gen Dagalo was in Moscow at the invitation of the Russian government and that he would meet senior officials there.
On Thursday, he met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to a Facebook post by the Sudanese general. The pair discussed bilateral issues and ways to implement “existing” agreements between the two countries.
“Sudanese-Russian relations are deep and entrenched. We look forward to making them even stronger and taking them to wider horizons," he said.
But analysts say the Kremlin wants a naval base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast and that this was likely to be on the agenda. Gen Dagalo, they said, also wanted to buy Russian arms and secure training for his officers in Russia.
The establishment of a Russian naval base in Sudan was agreed in 2017 by Al Bashir and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but that agreement was never introduced.
Russia is known to have been pressing Khartoum on the issue as part of its efforts to maintain a significant military presence in the Red Sea.
“The file of the naval base in Sudan is the most vital item in relations with Moscow now. The Sudanese military had some reservations about the size and role of the base. Russia did not like that and wants the process to be sped up,” said Sudanese analyst Omar Abdel Aziz.
The RSF’s genesis are rooted in the Darfur conflict in the 2000s when Al Bashir enlisted the militia to fight alongside government troops against mostly ethnic African rebels. It is widely blamed for atrocities against civilians in Darfur.
More recently, it has used revenues from gold mines it controls to broaden its vast economic interests.
Gen Dagalo owes his military rank and the formalisation of his militia to Al Bashir, who relied on the RSF to counter the power of the military, which has a track record of seizing power in coups since Sudan gained independence in 1956.
Gen Dagalo, however, sided with the army generals who removed Al Bashir in 2019.
Now, the RSF’s battled-hardened and heavily armed fighters are menacingly deployed on the streets of Khartoum and maintain a presence across the vast Afro-Arab nation.
Gen Dagalo has presented himself as a reliable Russian ally since his arrival in Moscow, where he told a television interviewer he supported the Kremlin in its dispute with Ukraine.
“Russia has the right to defend its citizens. That right is enshrined in constitutions and international law,” he said.
His visit to Moscow comes at a time when Sudan is deeply mired in political and economic crises sparked when army chief Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan seized power on October 25.
That coup, which was zealously supported by the RSF commander, derailed Sudan’s democratic transition after Al Bashir’s removal in a popular uprising.
The power seizure has met a wave of mass street protests that killed more than 80 people and injured thousands. It was also met with strong international condemnation led by the US, which froze hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of aid to Sudan.
Washington has since been a vocal critic of the Sudanese military, calling for a return to civilian rule and decrying the use of deadly force against peaceful protesters.
“The visit is clearly related to the American-Russian rivalry in the Red Sea and Africa,” said Sudanese analyst Mohammed Sheneidy.
“I see closer co-operation with Moscow as we move forward with Sudan helping in the promotion of Russian interests in Africa.”
Mr Abdel Aziz, the Sudanese analyst, said Gen Dagalo may be seeing an opportunity in winning over Russia as Sudan’s political crisis shows no sign of easing any time soon.
“Hemedti may be viewing the exclusion of civilians from power after the coup as an opportune moment to strike a deal with Moscow on the Red Sea base in return for its support,” he said.
“Russia is a superpower whose support will be vastly useful to him.”