In the hours before the Rapid Support Forces descended on the protest camp outside the military headquarters in Khartoum at 5 am last Monday, alarm bells were already being sounded on social media.
Just after 2 am, the Sudanese Professional Association published an urgent appeal to call for support in the face of what it called increasing “threats and violence” to break up the sit-in that had been in place since April 6 and had been a primary catalyst in bringing an end to the 30-year, authoritarian rule of former President Omar al-Bashir.
The state of high alert had been building as small-scale skirmishes played out over the last few weeks, with the first coming when assailants dressed in RSF-like uniforms attacked the protest camp in mid-May on the same day that opposition forces and the transitional military council that has ruled the country since the Bashir ouster reached a preliminary agreement on a transitional plan.
However, the distrust extends far beyond the immediacy of the recent violence and into the depths of the Bashir regime’s security and military apparatus. To better understand the various dynamics that came to a head on Monday, which have left at least 107 people dead — a figure that is likely lower than the true number, given accounts of widespread assaults on medical practitioners and bodies being thrown into the Nile — Mada Masr has spoken to sources and analysts and dug into research to present some context on the different players in the developments on the ground in Sudan, besides the protesting masses.
The Rapid Support Forces?
The Rapid Support Forces and its leader, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo “Hemedti,” are at the heart of the violence that unfolded on Monday. It was Hemedti’s troops, alongside what have been described as riot police, that stormed the encampment. Their involvement in the violence and relationship to the military council is part of a longer history of Sudanese governments’ reliance on paramilitary groups and the ramifications this reliance has.
The immediate history of the Rapid Support Forces begins with their formation in 2013, when the Bashir government was facing renewed attacks from Darfur rebels. The creation was a chance for the government to restructure the Arab-identifying militias in Darfur, known as the Janjaweed, who had been deployed to fight non-Arab identifying tribes in the Darfur conflict in 2003, and to establish a new paramilitary unit distinct from Musa Hilal. Hilal, a prominent tribesman, Janjaweed leader, and head of the former Border Guards, had fallen out of favor with the Bashir government and would grow increasingly antagonistic, with the RSF undertaking a “disarmament” campaign in Darfur, which was really an attempt to reconsolidate power over Janjaweed militias.
Initially answering to Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), Sudan’s intelligence body, Hemedti’s militia was then incorporated into the Sudanese Armed Forces in 2017. But rather than maintain the normal chain of command, Bashir issued a decree mandating that the RSF would report directly to him.
The RSF was initially mainly made up of kinsmen of Hemedti from the Mahariya branch of the Rizigat tribe in Darfur. Recruitment has extended, however, to Darfurian non-Arab tribes (including rebel defectors) and to areas outside Darfur, such as Southern Kordofan. According to military sources that spoke to Mada Masr, there are more than 40,000 people serving in the RSF’s ranks, 10,000 of which are deployed in Khartoum and 15,000 of which are fighting in Yemen beside the Saudi-led coalition, where Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Bourhan, the current head of the Transitional Military Council, coordinated the deployment of troops.
Hemedti and the RSF’s role can also be seen in several other arenas. He deployed thousands of his forces to the border with Eritrea in January 2018, when the government claimed that Eritrea was preparing to launch an imminent attack, with backing from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The RSF has also been deployed in the northern Sudan on the border with Libya, having a controversial role in combating the influx of the African refugees through Libya to Europe. Media reports have asserted that the European Union has given legitimacy and money to RSF in return, but the EU commission has repeatedly denied such claims.
Hemedti himself was born in North Darfur in 1975. He had to move to South Darfur in 1983 due to drought and desertification. He worked as a merchant, driving camels, until, by his own account in a 2016 interview, he was brought into the conflict in Darfur in 2003 through an “agreement” with the government.
Since the start of the uprising in Sudan, Hemedti has distanced himself from Bashir. In December, just after the nationwide protests broke out, he gave a speech to his forces in North Darfur, denouncing the shortage of cash in banks and other essential commodities and criticizing the government for not closely following the situation.
And according to eyewitnesses, Rapid Support Forces vehicles surrounded Bashir’s palace on the morning he was arrested and ousted from power. Hemedti then distanced himself from the initial composition of the transitional military council, before proposing a divergent transitional plan from the one announced by Defense Minister Awad Ibn Auf.
While the roots of the Rapid Support Forces are located in the Darfur conflict, they extend even farther back to a policy that has seen successive Sudanese governments since the 1980s, including under Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, turn to paramilitary groups to wage “counterinsurgency” campaigns on the periphery of the country.
In a report for the independent research initiative Small Arms Survey, Jérôme Tubiana calls this policy a kind of “counterinsurgency on the cheap.” Militias were initially satisfied with the land and booty they took as spoils of the conflicts they were engaged in, and therefore the reliance on militias appeared less costly to the government than depending on the Sudanese Armed Forces. However, over time, the militias became more and more costly to the government, demanding increasing political and financial rewards for their services.
The paramilitary groups have also served another function, Tubiana argues.
“Historically, the militia strategy has always been a way to counter Sudanese Armed Forces influence, including by the Islamic movement and more recently by the NISS and the presidency,” Tubiana writes.
The Rapid Support Forces have used these dynamics to become one of the most powerful and wealthiest groups in the country, especially after Hemedti sidelined Hilal in 2017 and seized control of the rich gold mining area in Darfur’s Amir Mountains in Darfur, one of many cases of violent land expropriation that sit beside human rights abuses.
The Sudanese Armed Forces and the transitional military council
After Bashir was ousted early on the morning of April 11, the military locked itself away behind closed doors for hours of deliberations. When they finally emerged, Bashir’s Defense Minister Awad Ibn Auf announced the creation of a transitional military council that would preside over Sudan for a two-year transitional period of military rule until “free and fair elections” could be held to elect a democratic Sudanese government, as well as the dissolution of Sudan’s Constitution, president’s office, Cabinet, Parliament and a number of other state bodies.
Ibn Auf resigned from his post a day later, and the transitional military council was reconstructed. Gone were the representatives of other security and intelligence bodies. What was left was Bourhan and the Sudanese Armed Forces sitting at the top and Hemedti and the Rapid Support Forces as second in command.
Jean-Baptiste Gallopin, a sociologist who visited Sudan in April and is researching what drives armed forces’ disloyalty during mass uprisings, calls the alliance between the RSF and the Sudanese Armed Forces that has been in place since “uneasy.”
In speaking with military sources in April, Gallopin was told that many junior officers in the armed forces view the RSF with contempt, given the power they have come to consolidate, despite the lack of professional training, their youth and some of the regional dynamics that separate the two groups.
While many of Hemedti’s forces come from the border region shared with Chad, a military source, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, says that “Islamist senior officers in the military have rebuilt the armed forces on political and tribal bases” to affiliate it with Islamist and privileged northern Arab groups, which sit apart from the Arab nomadic tribes of Darfur.
Additionally, shortly after Bashir’s ouster, tensions within the military and with other security bodies played out in conflicts behind the scenes, as Mada Masr reported at the time.
The fault lines for these conflicts fell along several axes, according to the sources. First, there are divisions between the Islamist militias and the Armed Forces. And second, there are the junior officers in one camp and senior army officers in another, with Bourhan siding with the former.
Gallopin believes that the junior officers’ response to the violence that has played out over the last few days will be crucial. However, given that the RSF are deployed at nearly all strategic areas throughout Khartoum — the presidential palace, bridges, key intersections, the headquarters of the NISS and armed forces, the national radio and television broadcasting stations — they would be difficult to remove without a lot of bloodshed.
Bourhan’s position on the violence remains unclear. But in the early hours of Tuesday morning, he canceled the preliminary agreement reached with opposition forces in mid-May, stating that the transitional military council would immediately and unilaterally form a transitional government to run the country until elections are held within a period of nine months.
A week before the violent dispersal of the sit-in, Bourhan and Hemedti each made foreign diplomatic visits to countries known to be supporting a consolidation of power in the hands of the military in the transitional period. Bourhan visited Egypt, which has used its position at the head of the African Union, to prevent a handover to a civilian government, and Hemedti visited Saudi Arabia, which along with the UAE, has poured in US$3 billion in “aid” to Sudan, a clear move to exert political influence.
Since Bashir was ousted from power, various oppositional forces have been negotiating with the military, applying pressure at various points by calling for strikes and the maintenance of the sit-ins across the country. And then, in mid-March, the opposition groups and the transitional military council agreed to a three-year transition period and on the makeup of a 300-member legislative body, military spokesperson Lieutenant General Yasser al-Atta announced in a press conference.
According to the deal, the interim parliament would have been entirely comprised of civilians, two thirds of which will be representing protest groups and one third representing opposition parties. The composition of the sovereign council (the ruling body that will preside over the country until elections are held) remained a sticking point.
This deal is off the table now. And the opposition is facing a new battle. But who exactly is the opposition?
Sudanese Professional Association (SPA)
The Sudanese Professional Association, which has been one of the leading bodies calling for strikes and protests throughout the grassroots uprising, emerges out of a long history of trade union organizing.
In both the 1964 October Revolution and the 1985 ouster of former President Muhammad Numeiri, widespread general strikes led by the National Front for Professionals and the Trade Union Assembly for National Salvation (a conglomeration of railway, textile and bank employees’ trade unions) in 1964 and 1985 respectively applied significant pressure to the ruling structure. In both cases, the trade union organizations joined with other existing political and rebel groups in attempts to create broad popular fronts.
Given the important role that trade unions have played in toppling governments, the state has worked hard to exert control over these organizations.
The Sudanese Professionals Association follows in the line of this history.
A coalition of trade unions that includes more than 50 associations from different professions, including doctors, lawyers, journalists, engineers, pharmacists, and bankers, and more than 1 million supporters, according to the association’s leaders, the SPA was established in 2013 but was unable to organize due to security constraints.
After several years of a marginal existence, the association started up more robust activities in August 2018, working to bring together its different professional association with a focus on contesting the high cost of living and economic hardship. However, with the outbreak of the protests in Atbara in December, it began to make explicit political demands, calling for the ouster of Bashir and organizing protests behind the scenes, the first of which was the December 25 march in Khartoum.
The SPA has also played a key role in trying to unify the diverse political forces that make up the Coalition for Freedom and Change.
The Coalition of Freedom and Change
The Coalition of Freedom and Change has been the primary party negotiating with the transitional military council over the nature of the transitional period. The coalition was formed out of several “oppositional” blocks in January 2019. These blocks include: