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Hemeti - the warlord who may control Sudan’s future

Mohamed Hamdan "Hemeti" Dagolo is the vice-president of Sudan's ruling military junta and, at present, probably the most powerful man in Sudan.

He has the potential to shape the future of a broken country, but as the commander of one of Sudan's most prominent paramilitary forces, he leaves a trail of human rights abuse allegations from Darfur in his wake and has recently been accused of allowing those same forces to kill demonstrators in Khartoum.

Hemeti has said that the use of force was necessary in Darfur in order to protect its civilians and an "independent investigation" will be launched into the military's use of violence in Khartoum. Any person who had "crossed boundaries" would be punished, he said.

But he also defended the violence suppressing the protesters, explaining they had been infiltrated by rogue elements and drug dealers, and firm action was warranted.

"We will not allow chaos and we will not go back on our convictions," he said. "There is no way back. We must impose the respect of the country by law."

Hemeti and the Sudan uprising

Hemeti was a close political ally of Sudan's former President Omar al-Bashir, but as protests against the former leader escalated in December, his loyalty soon wavered.

When demonstrations in Khartoum began, Hemeti was the first high-ranking official to express his support, telling the government to "provide services and decent living to the people".

He said "the corrupt, whoever they are, should be referred to justice," the state-owned Sudanese News Agency reported on 25 December.

Hemeti switched sides to force the president out of power on 11 April and was named vice-president of Sudan's Transitional Military Council (TMC) two days later.

Why is he so powerful?

Although the TMC's president is Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Hemeti is the one at the forefront of negotiations with Western diplomats.

He is reportedly supported by the politicians who created the Janjaweed, the militia comprising of Arab groups who sowed fear into residents of the Darfur region of western Sudan during the conflict there.

BBC Africa editor Fergal Keane calls Hemeti "the most likely leader of a counter-revolution" and an "outsider" in the military elite.

Another factor behind Hemeti's power is his support from regional allies: Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Stability in Sudan is in their interest and they are very unlikely to impose sanctions on the TMC. However, Saudi Arabia has said it is concerned with developments in the region and urged the two sides to engage in dialogue.

According to Al Jazeera, Hemeti went to meet Saudi Arabia's crown prince Mohamed Bin Salman earlier in May, promising to support the country against "all threats and attacks from Iran and Houthi militias" and to continue sending Sudanese troops to help the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

It would be in the Saudi prince's interest to return the favour and maintain a strong relationship with Hemeti.

Camel trader to warlord

Hemeti grew up in a Chadian Arab clan, fleeing war to live in Darfur in the 1980s.

War in Darfur broke out in 2003, when marginalised black African clansmen in the region formed a rebel movement against the government. The army fought back, joined by paramilitary forces including the infamous Janjaweed, who were accused of riding their camels and horses into villages, killing the men, raping the women and stealing whatever they could find.

Since 2005, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been investigating allegations of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. The case involves a range of Sudanese government officials, and both Janjaweed and rebel leaders.

Hemeti's uncle is Juma Dongolo, a chief of one of the Arab groups which span the Chad-Sudan border.

Hemeti himself dropped out of primary school to trade camels and also offered security to commercial convoys in Darfur during the conflict. He was a savvy businessman and soon became rich, reports BBC Monitoring.

In 2003, as the Darfur rebellion began to gather momentum, Hemeti helped mobilise clansmen to fight alongside government forces. This earned him the support of President Bashir.

He became leader of the Border Guards, a group of Darfur militias supporting the government.

In 2013, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) was formed to help regular forces fight rebels in Darfur. A year later, the group was recognised by the government as a "regular force", but critics say it is merely a reincarnation of the Janjaweed.

Human rights abuses

Former President Bashir is wanted by the ICC for the alleged war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur.

Although he has not been named by the ICC, Human Rights Watch accuses Hemeti of overseeing civilian abuses including "torture, extrajudicial killings and mass rapes" in Darfur as well as in separate conflicts in the southern Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan states.

Human Rights Watch said that during two counterinsurgency campaigns in Darfur in 2014 and 2015, the RSF "burned and looted homes, beat, raped and executed villagers," supported by the Sudanese army and Janjaweed militia.

On 19 May 2014, Hemeti said that the RSF was protecting the people of Darfur. He warned that the RSF would "take a firm stance against anyone who tried to undermine the security and stability of citizens".

Chants about Darfur have played an active role in the latest protests in Khartoum, with demonstrators shouting: "We are all Darfur!" and "Darfur is our home! Revolution! Revolution!"

Despite witnessing Hemeti's alleged brutality in both Darfur and Khartoum, the unarmed protesters say they will not give up their fight.

© 2019, BBC News

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