Nearly a year after backing a coup in Sudan, the feared paramilitary leader Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo is trying to sell himself as a useful partner for the pro-democracy groups that have been regularly protesting against the country’s military rule for months, his critics and some analysts say.
In recent weeks, Dagalo – better known as Hemeti – has declared the October 25, 2021 coup a failure due to the ongoing protests and a spiralling economy, and touted his efforts to reduce violence in Sudan’s neglected peripheral regions.
But as the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a group widely blamed for killing more than 120 protesters in the capital of Khartoum in June 2019, many in the pro-democracy movement do not trust Hemeti.
“Hemeti knows that the military coup failed … that’s why he is now claiming to support the people of Sudan. But all he wants is power in the next government,” said Sammer Hamza, a 25-year-old pro-democracy activist.
Hemeti is widely considered a shrewd and calculating figure after turning on his previous sponsor and Sudan’s former President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019. He eventually became the second-in-command to top army General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, his partner in the coup.
Now after months of cracking down on pro-democracy demonstrators, the RSF leader is backing efforts to form a civilian government to secure popular and international legitimacy while strengthening his position via al-Burhan, according to activists and analysts.
Competing for friends
In 2013, the RSF was formed out of the tribal militias that spearheaded mass killings in the western province of Darfur. Al-Bashir feared he might be toppled by his own military or intelligence units, so he incorporated Hemeti and his men into the military in exchange for loyalty and protection.
The move troubled senior officers from Sudan’s Armed Forces (SAF) who saw the RSF as a threat to their legitimacy. Al-Burhan and Hemeti are now in competition to be Sudan’s top security chief.
Since the coup, al-Burhan has leaned on members from al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) – part of the Islamic movement in Sudan – for political support.
Many figures from this movement despise Hemeti for what they say is a betrayal of his former ally.
Forced into a corner, the RSF leader is now trying to curry favour with pro-democracy factions to safeguard his political future.
“We affirm our aspiration for the revolutionary forces to agree to form a fully civilian government to complete the tasks of the transitional period, in a way that will lay the grounds for real democratic change,” he tweeted on September 16.
While the pro-democracy movement as a whole opposes Hemeti, some elite politicians see him as a tool to isolate al-Burhan and his constituency of NCP officials, says Kholood Khair, the founder of the Khartoum-based think-tank Confluence Advisory.
“The problem with choosing [Hemeti] over [al-Burhan] … is you are potentially hastening a confrontation between the two,” she told Al Jazeera. “It makes zero sense to turn one against the other, since it only means that one will win and not that both will be neutralised.”
Other politicians believe that it is necessary to incorporate the RSF, or else the group could be a major spoiler for any new transition.
“We need all armed groups on board. This is the lowest cost for us, otherwise the cost will be very high,” said Ammar Hammoda, a spokesman for the Forces for Freedom and Change Central Command (FFC-CC) which is a loose coalition of political parties and one of Sudan’s main opposition blocs.
Security sector reform
The FFC-CC supports a new transitional draft constitution that calls for a civilian prime minister to command the security forces and oversee security sector reform, which is a key demand of the pro-democracy movement.
Genuine reform requires the RSF – and other armed groups – to partially disarm and demobilise and then integrate the rest of their men into the military, which would in theory strip Hemeti of his political and financial power.
However, previous contexts show that armed groups subsumed into the military remained in possession of their lucrative assets and territory and maintained their command-and-control structures.
One such case is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where members of an rebel faction joined the armed forces after the end of a civil war in 2003 before later forming the M23 rebellion against the state in 2012.
Hemeti still faces a tough choice, says Jonas Horner, an expert on Sudan and a former researcher for the International Crisis Group.
“By refusing to subsume the RSF into SAF, Hemeti dooms the paramilitary RSF to be a secondary partner in the military and in politics, even as he dooms his more personal ambitions if he subsumes his force into the SAF,” Horner said.
Al Jazeera has attempted to contact the spokesman of the RSF, Osman Mohamad Hamid, for comment, but he had not responded at the time of publication.
Hemeti is rumoured to harbour desires to run in any eventual elections since rising to power in 2019. Driving those suspicions is the campaign he has launched to rehabilitate his reputation and improve his image.
“The most important thing for Hemeti is for his RSF to be seen as legitimate, rather than seen as a militia,” Hammouda said.
The campaign has seen the RSF cooperate with aid groups, finance human rights activists, and hire lobbyists with influence in the United States. Most recently, Hemeti posed for a photo with children, claiming to be a champion of child rights, despite reports that his own force has recruited teenagers to fight on behalf of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.
“Hemeti is definitely trying to sanitise his image,” said Khair.
Hemeti’s efforts have not changed the opinion of Sudan’s resistance committees, neighbourhood groups who have kept the hope of democracy alive through coordinating nationwide protests since the coup. They are calling for both Hemeti and al-Burhan to face justice for the killing of at least 117 anti-coup protesters.
For them, any union of convenience with Hemeti would be a terrible mistake that would enable him to consolidate power at a later time.
“The resistance committees know that Hemeti is in a corner and that he just wants to be part of the next government so he doesn’t lose legitimacy,” Hamza, the pro-democracy activist, told Al Jazeera. “But if given the opportunity, he or al-Burhan would wage another coup.”