Six weeks after a coup d’etat in Sudan, high-profile military leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo is becoming an increasingly influential political force.
The involvement the powerful a military chief in politics could undermine efforts to create a democracy in the north-east African country and provoke army officers wary of his ambitions, opponents and Western diplomats say.
Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti, is deputy chairman of Transitional Military Council (TMC) running Sudan since President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s fall in April.
Unlike junta leader Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Hemedti has grabbed the limelight, often delivering speeches in public as Sudan navigates a volatile transition period after a 30-year dictatorship.
“Hemedti is increasingly prominent, ranging beyond his core security brief. This suggests ambition for a longer-term political role,” a senior Western diplomat told Reuters.
“A more prominent leadership role for Hemedti would undermine popular demand for civilian leadership .”
In his rise from humble beginnings as a desert livestock trader to one of Bashir’s most trusted aides in a country of constantly shifting alliances, Hemedti has shown determination and skill manoeuvring behind the scenes.
A tall, imposing figure with an office in the presidential palace, Hemedti is backed by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the feared paramilitary fighters who number in the tens of thousands and control Khartoum.
Hemedti gained vital support from oil powers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates after he sent RSF forces to back them in Yemen’s civil war. The Gulf Arab states pledged $3 billion in aid to Sudan last month.
POLITICAL AIMS POSE RISKS
The general’s growing political strength is welcomed by some Sudanese.
“Hemedti is getting stronger. He is a patriot who helped lead the revolution,” said travel agent Mu’min Hamed. “He handles the affairs of state. I think he could lead the country.”
Others regard him as a symbol of the past.
“The military council does not want to hand over power to civilians because the generals would be vulnerable to prosecution over human rights abuses,” said university student Mahmoud al-Zeyn.
His emergence could complicate a delicate stage of Sudan’s planned transition to democracy.
Tensions are mounting between the TMC and an alliance of protest and opposition groups who want a quick handover of power to civilians. Political analysts and Western diplomats say his advance could be opposed by some officers, who believe he did not deserve his rapid rise through the ranks.
Born in 1975, Hemedti is the youngest member of the TMC and unlike its other generals attended military college. His success was largely due to close ties to Bashir.
RSF fighters, armed with assault rifles, machine guns mounted on trucks and rocket-propelled grenades, are better paid than some army officers. They were hardened by war in Darfur against rebels who rose against government.
“There is no junior or senior army officer who accepts what Hemedti is doing,” said political analyst Faisal Saleh.
There are no signs of hostility between the RSF and the army. Ties between junta leader Burhan and Hemedti appear strong.
“He is trying to co-operate as much as possible with the army,” said Khalid al-Tagani, a prominent newspaper editor and political analyst.
This does not rule out violence, especially if Hemedti pushes to consolidate his position, according to Western diplomats and political analysts.
“I don’t expect a civil war like in Libya or Syria. In the long term it could turn into confrontation,” said Saleh.
Hemedti was commander of Arab militias later transformed into the RSF and accused by human rights groups of genocide in the 2003 Darfur war. Bashir’s government denied the allegations.
Hemedti now portrays himself as a man of the people who can heal a country suffering from multiple armed rebellions, US sanctions, poverty and economic crises.
When unrest over economic hardships erupted in December, Hemedti said protesters’ demands were legitimate and spoke out against corruption. Realising Bashir could not cling to power in the face of a mass uprising, he ensured his forces did not join a crackdown in which dozens of protesters were killed.
Hemedti fires up audiences in simple, colloquial Arabic with wide appeal across Sudan.
“We can’t please everyone, but we try to be active in everyone’s problems, the real problems. Because every shepherd is responsible for his sheep,” Hemedti told army officers at the Khartoum prison where Bashir is held.
Hemedti paid airport workers’ salaries for three months, told the RSF to crack down on smuggling flour and other commodities and offered to help indebted prisoners.
He also sought to show he can handle foreign policy. On a trip to Saudi Arabia, he met its powerful crown prince and said he would back the kingdom against threats and attacks from Iran, according to a TMC statement.
Hemedti recently spoke for nearly 20 minutes after breaking the Ramadan fast to an audience including the top US embassy official and the Saudi ambassador, as well as local and international media. He said he favoured “real democracy”.
“Democracy is consultation … that’s it, we want real democracy,” he said in a speech punctuated by applause and laughter. “We want a man who comes in through the ballot box. We want free and fair elections.”