Gen Mohamed Dagalo's unlikely journey to power took advantage of Sudan's turmoil

With fighting unlikely to produce a clear winner, experts warn of foreign meddling and the threat of a further break up of the country

Sudanese Gen.  Mohamed Dagalo, the deputy head of the military council. AP
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The unlikely journey of Sudan’s Gen Mohamed Dagalo from cattle trader to powerful warlord now battling the nation’s army is thanks to the Darfur native’s guile and a nation ruled for decades by power-hungry generals.

Better known by the nickname Hemedti, Gen Dagalo and his paramilitary Rapid Support Forces are a by-product of the Darfur war in the 2000s.

The conflict left 300,000 dead and 2.5 million displaced. Its ramifications continue to shape Sudan’s politics to this day.

The roots of the general and his RSF are in the Arab Janjaweed militias, whose rise to the position of strength they have today is owed in large part to the support of former dictator Omar Al Bashir and the chaos and lawlessness that so often engulf the Afro-Arab nation of 44 million.

Now locked in a bitter, winner-take-all urban war against his former ally — army chief Gen Abdel Fattah Al Burhan — Gen Dagalo is looking for an outcome that would turn into reality his dream of becoming the country’s top soldier and the source of ultimate power.

“A lust for power is at the very heart of this conflict and war was the only option for both parties to attain it,” said Abla Karar, a senior member of the main pro-democracy coalition, the civilian group Forces for Freedom and Change.

It may look like a reach for Gen Dagalo to be trying to secure a position of supremacy. But, if realised, it would crown years of manoeuvring and brinkmanship against enemies with greater political clout or superior firepower.

Al Bashir loyalist

A school dropout who never attended military college, Gen Dagalo owes his high rank to Al Bashir who bestowed it on him as a reward for his support in the Darfur war.

The former dictator also legalised the RSF in 2013 and his parliament made it a part of the armed forces, albeit with a high degree of autonomy, in 2017.

To Al Bashir, Gen Dagalo and the RSF were best placed to protect him and his regime against ambitious generals or the mass street protests that took place in 2018 and 2019.

But Gen Dagalo switched sides, refusing to crush the protests and playing a key role in removing his patron and benefactor from power in April 2019.

Gen Dagalo’s choices served him well. His men stayed in Khartoum and his participation in a joint military-civilian administration that took power in August 2019 gave him a level of legitimacy that allowed him to court regional powers.

Russia also saw in Sudan’s rising star a useful ally to help it gain a strategic foothold on Sudan’s Red Sea coast.

Awash with money, the RSF expanded and now boasts 100,000 men, large economic interests including gold mining and the confidence to buy weapons abroad and retain foreign military advisers.

Acceptance at home remains elusive, particularly in the powerful pro-democracy movement, and it may just be the one thing that denies him his dream.

But he has not given up trying.

He has frequently used his part in overthrowing Al Bashir as evidence of his disdain for dictatorship.

More recently, he has professed a desire to see a democratic, civilian-led Sudan, accusing Gen Al Burhan and his associates of clinging to power.

More recently, he has accused the army of forging an alliance with extremists loyal to Al Bashir regime.

But the RSF’s record of systematic abuse of Darfur civilians and its participation in the deadly break-up in June 2019 of a sit-in protest outside the armed forces’ headquarters — at least 100 were killed and thousands were wounded — make his acceptance by the pro-democracy movement virtually impossible.

“We will wait and see who wins this battle. When a victor emerges, we will rally against that party on the streets to force it out,” said Sulaima Ishaq, a veteran rights campaigner.

Gen Dagalo was asked by a local television network this week about what he would do if the RSF emerged victorious from the battle that began on April 15.

“All I want is to stay with the Rapid Support Forces,” he said. “The winner of this war loses, too.”

But the fighting, interrupted by only short-lived spells of quiet, may never produce a definitive winner, in part because of the nature of urban warfare, said Mohamed Anis Salem, a former career diplomat who now sits on the Cairo-based think tank the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.

“This one has the ingredients of becoming a prolonged, low-intensity conflict with neither side able to defeat the other,” Mr Salem told The National.

“It is the kind of conflict in which civilians pay the highest price and which also attracts foreign players.”

And because a clear winner is unlikely, he said, Sudan could break up under the strain of a prolonged conflict with Gen Dagalo’s native Darfur a top candidate for secession.

South Sudan seceded in 2011 after more than 20 years of civil war, something that cost the nation a third of its original size as well as most of its oil wealth.

Another narrative employed by Gen Dagalo to improve his image is one that paints him as a champion of the cause of the “peripheries” — Sudanese political parlance for outlying regions suffering underdevelopment or discrimination by Khartoum’s ruling political and military establishment whose members invariably hail from the north of the country.

It’s a narrative, warns Mr Salem, that could encourage the secession of a region like Darfur where Gen Dagalo has considerable leverage among cattle-herding Arab tribes with a long history of enmity with farming communities of ethnic Africans.

Recently, Gen Dagalo has been playing down that rivalry, arguing that Darfur’s Arabs and Africans were equally victimised by Khartoum and have more in common than outsiders believe.

Last year, he spent a total of five months, including three in one stretch, in Darfur, meeting tribal leaders and local army and police commanders. It was an unusually long trip for someone who holds the nation’s most senior position after Gen Al Burhan’s.

The other key narrative Gen Dagalo has been using for weeks and which he has intensified since the fighting began is that extremists loyal to Al Bashir were fighting on the army’s side.

In the weeks running up to the outbreak of hostilities, Gen Dagalo has distanced himself from the October 2021 takeover he co-led with Gen Al Burhan, saying it served as a gateway for Al Bashir loyalists to make a political comeback.

There is no hard evidence to support that claim, but prominent Sudanese analyst Rasha Awad is one of several who believe the hostilities were instigated at least in part by extremists within the army who remain loyal to Al Bashir’s regime.

“This fight is essentially between the RSF and a segment of the army made up of extremists loyal to Al Bashir’s regime. They pressured Al Burhan into starting this fight,” she told The National.

“They have a score to settle with him [Gen Dagalo],” she said, alluding to the RSF’s decision not to support the former president’s regime when faced with the protests of 2018 and 2019.

“To him (Gen Dagalo], this is an existential battle,” Ms Awad said. “To Sudan, it is a battle that is ripping it apart and threatens to evolve into a full-fledged civil war.”

Updated: April 25, 2023, 5:55 PM