The transition to civilian rule in Sudan has been marred by violence between the military and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a powerful paramilitary group led by General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, also known as “Hemedti” or “Little Mohamed”. Dagalo rose to prominence as the deputy leader of a transitional council after the overthrow of former strongman Omar al-Bashir in 2019. His RSF and the army staged a coup in 2021 against a joint civilian-military leadership, but Dagalo has since expressed dissatisfaction with the military, claiming that its ranks are still filled with loyalists who will impede the process towards democracy.
Dagalo was born in around 1974 into the Mahariya tribe of the Rizeigat community in Darfur. He had little formal education, dropping out of school in the third grade and later becoming a camel trader. He joined the Janjaweed, a group of Arab tribal militias mostly drawn from camel-trading tribes and active in Darfur and parts of Chad. Dagalo rose through the ranks and caught the eye of President al-Bashir, who was recruiting Janjaweed to fight non-Arab people who began revolting against his rule in 2003 in Darfur. Dagalo soon became a commander.
Human rights groups have accused the Janjaweed of war crimes – including killings, rapes, and torture of civilians – throughout the conflict in Darfur. The RSF was formed in 2013 under Dagalo’s leadership. It combined elements of the Janjaweed into a new force under the auspices of al-Bashir and his National Intelligence and Security Services. Soon, Dagalo was given further legitimacy and a large degree of autonomy as al-Bashir began to rely on him and his fighters to stamp out his enemies in Darfur and elsewhere in Sudan.
Despite being a longtime al-Bashir ally and benefiting greatly under his rule, Dagalo took part in overthrowing the president when the 2019 uprising broke out and ended his nearly 30-year rule. Following al-Bashir’s departure, a civilian-military partnership was set up, and Dagalo positioned himself well in that transitional period. He became the deputy head of the Transitional Military Council, which held power right after al-Bashir fell, and then became part of its successor, the Sovereignty Council. However, he cracked down hard on dissenters, with his RSF forces killing more than 100 people at a protest camp in 2019 outside the Ministry of Defence, a crackdown Dagalo denied ordering.
Over the years, Dagalo has forged powerful ties both in the region and internationally. He sent RSF forces to fight Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen, allying with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. He has also met Western ambassadors, held talks with rebel groups, forged peace between warring tribes, and spoke publicly about the importance of democracy in Sudan as he made no effort to hide his animosity towards the army.
The latest violence broke out after the army, the RSF, and Sudan’s civilian pro-democracy forces reached an agreement in December that plotted out the path to civilian rule. Under the agreement, the army would return to its barracks and the RSF would be absorbed into its ranks, so the two forces would be brought together under one commander, which currently is General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. However, both Dagalo and al-Burhan have calculated that the leadership contest is now a zero-sum game and have moved against each other. Unfortunately, the Sudanese people must stand on the sidelines as both military leaders fight it out till the bitter end. Despite Dagalo’s murky role in the transition to civilian rule, no charges have been brought against him despite accusations by rights groups of war crimes committed by the forces he has headed over the past decade.