Young, brash and with an estimated 50,000 blindly loyal and combat-hardened fighters behind him, Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo is perhaps the most powerful, some would say dangerous, man in post-Omar Al Bashir Sudan – at the least, a kingmaker who could hold the key to the country's future.
The 44-year-old general's meteoric rise to power has been all the more impressive given Sudan's notoriously shifting politics, complex spectrum of tribal rivalries and the ethnic tensions that were tirelessly fuelled by Mr Al Bashir and the clique of Islamists around him to maintain their grip on power.
Better known by the nickname "Hemedti", Gen Dagalo was named deputy chairman of the Transitional Military Council that took over after the army removed Mr Al Bashir on April 11, ending his 29-year-old authoritarian regime following four months of deadly street protests against his rule.
Taking the second-most powerful job in the land at a critical juncture in Sudan's history is a fitting next step in Gen Dagalo's fantastic journey: from school dropout in his native western region of Darfur in the early 1990s to involvement in the treacherous world of desert trade and warfare to leading a powerful paramilitary outfit that has rapidly grown into the country's most feared strike force.
His new job and the spacious and opulent office he has taken over at the Nile-side presidential palace reflect his weight on the streets. Thousands of his men, distinguished by their red berets and pickup trucks with red-and-green number plates, are deployed across Khartoum, keeping the peace while he and other generals negotiate with protest leaders over the handover of power to a civilian administration.
But this is unlikely to be the end of the road for a general who, despite his denials, is widely seen to be ambitious and a seasoned political player.
A combination of carefully weighed decisions and public statements since the start of the anti-government protests in December has significantly raised Gen Dagalo's profile and political capital. In the early days of the protests, for example, he declared the protesters' economic demands were legitimate, berated the government for failing to control food prices and blamed corrupt officials he did not name for the economic woes.
Sections of his paramilitary, the Rapid Support Forces, were summoned to the capital to protect vital state installations, but he made sure his men were never part of the security forces’ crackdown in which dozens of protesters were killed and thousands injured or detained.
When hundreds of thousands of Sudanese began a sit-in outside the armed forces headquarters in central Khartoum on April 6, some of his men quickly took up positions nearby in a show of force designed to discourage Islamist militias loyal to Mr Al Bashir from making good on their threats to attack the protesters.
Diplomats, analysts and activists who spoke to The National in Khartoum said Gen Dagalo played a key role along with a handful of army generals in Mr Al Bashir's removal, with his troops entrusted with arresting the president and neutralising his personal security detail.
His participation in Mr Al Bashir's removal betrays the extent of Gen Dagalo's ambitions, given that the former president was his generous patron and protector throughout his rise. The former president spent millions arming the RSF and raised its leader to the rank of major general. In 2017, Mr Al Bashir issued a decree that formalised that Gen Dagalo’s line of command goes 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 went further in showing where his new loyalties lie by suggesting that he was instrumental in the decision to move Mr Al Bashir from house arrest to jail after an alleged plan by the former leader to smuggle millions of euros out the country was uncovered.
"There would have been a massacre if we had not removed the president," he said recently in televised comments, explaining the rationale behind the coup and alluding to threats by Islamists to attack the protesters. "The rights of the Sudanese people must be restored. I don't mess around when it comes to this. The age of niceties is gone. We are now a nation governed by the law."
Gen Dagalo has been portraying himself as a generous and patriotic benefactor, claiming to have spent more than $1 billion from the RSF coffers to finance imports of desperately needed fuel and other essential goods and depositing $250 million in the central bank. But he insists he has no political ambitions, and that the RSF is a "home" he will never leave. "I am not going to talk politics and I am not into politics," he said.
However, people who have recently met or spoken to him tell a different story.
"He is smart and he has some good ideas on the future of the country," said Mirghany Othman, a Sudanese newspaper editor. "I believe a bright political future awaits him, but he's not aspiring to climb to the very top."
A western diplomat who met the general said he appeared keen to project a upbeat image of himself to the world, giving a series of media interviews in which he made positive statements on the outlook for Sudan and even adopted the chief slogan of the protests – Peace, Freedom and Justice – as the guiding principles of Sudan going forward.
Gen Dagalo's chief concern, said the diplomat, was to distance himself from the war crimes and genocide in Darfur for which Mr Al Bashir and senior officials were indicted by the International Criminal Court nearly a decade ago. He also goes to great lengths to dismiss the tribal nature of the RSF, saying its men are drawn from nearly 70 Arab and ethnic African tribes, but acknowledges that Arabs make up the majority and that he relies more on them. "If an Arab goes absent without permission, I will know where to find him," he once said.
"He took over the Rapid Support Forces around 2012 when the war in Darfur was basically over with just mopping up operations left to do, but God knows what he did there before that," said the diplomat, who spoke to The National on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.
Gen Dagalo is not facing any ICC charges related to the war in Darfur, which left 300,000 people dead and displaced two million. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing while serving there, initially with the paramilitary border guards and later as a member of a militia led by Darfur's Arab Reizayqat tribe, a group that has a long history of enmity with ethnic African tribes in western and southern Sudan.
As he tells it, Gen Dagalo's decision to take action against the rebels in Darfur came after they raided trade convoys to or from neighbouring Libya and Egypt. It is widely believed that the genesis of his militia, prior to fighting the rebels on the government's behalf, is rooted in a force he created to protect commercial convoys travelling the desert.
Underlining his go-it-alone attitude and knowledge of Darfur's terrain, he has repeatedly made clear in the past that his force operated under military command but did not always see eye to eye with the top brass on strategy or tactics. On one occasion, he once recounted, he went over the generals' heads and spoke directly to Mr Al Bashir to argue his case against orders he was given. In interviews dating back to 2017 and 2018, he also lightly berated the military for a lack of actionable intelligence and complained about its rigid discipline that, in his words, did not suit him or his men.
Gen Dagalo has quietly been establishing regional credentials too, dispatching some of his force to join the Saudi-led Arab coalition fighting Iran-backed rebels in Yemen. His men have also stemmed the smuggling of weapons into Libya and Egypt, fought rogue armed groups roaming the deserts in the region where Egypt, Libya, Sudan and Chad meet, as well as curtailing the flow of migrants using Sudan to cross into Libya and later across the Mediterranean to Europe.