When Omar Hassan al-Bashir wanted protection during his extended rule as president of Sudan he turned to Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, a commander of widely feared Arab militias.
General Dagalo, who goes by the nickname Hemedti, could become the most powerful man in Sudan following the military coup that ousted his ally Western diplomats and opponents say.
Hemedti plays down his political ambitions. As deputy head of the Transitional Military Council (TMC) set up by the military to run Sudan until elections, he is the second most powerful man in the country.
Western envoys and opposition figures, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, say Hemedti is hungry for more power and he helped force Bashir out after 30 years in office because he wants the presidency.
“Hemedti planned on becoming the number one man in Sudan. He has unlimited ambition,” said an opposition figure who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.
With the TMC under pressure from the opposition and protesters to hand power to civilians swiftly, Hemedti and other generals risk being sidelined.
In his new role, Hemedti has met Western ambassadors and is well placed to influence events from his office in the Khartoum presidential palace.
The paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) he commands are deployed across the city and he is backed by Gulf Arab states that pledged billions of dollars to support Sudan since the coup.
His rise is a concern for many protesters who helped bring down Bashir and now block the Defence Ministry and surrounding roads as they press demands for a quick transition to civilian rule.
Militias he commanded were accused by human rights groups of genocide during the war in Darfur in 2003, allegations Bashir’s government denied.
Hemedti and the RSF did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a speech to army officers on Monday, he said: “I personally don’t want to be vice-president. I don’t want an inch more than the Rapid Support Forces.”
He said the priority was to defend Sudan and reach agreement on how the country should be run. He added: “We won’t allow chaos.”
He spoke in favour of a “government of competencies, technocratic, for all the people, with no relation to any party.”
“EITHER VICTORY OR EGYPT”
Protesters express fear Sudan is going the same way as Egypt after the uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. One chant is “either victory or Egypt”.
Egypt’s armed forces chief effectively brushed Mubarak aside when it became clear security forces could not contain protests against the veteran leader.
Two years later, army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi led the overthrow of Egypt’s first freely elected president, Mohamed Mursi, with the backing of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Sisi went on to win elections in 2014 and 2018, on both occasions with 97% of the vote.
A coalition of protesters and opposition groups said the TMC was not serious about handing power to civilians.
TMC head Abdel-Fattah al-Burhan told state television formation of a joint military-civilian council — an activist demand — was being considered.
The TMC warned against blocking roads and said people “exercising the role of the police and security services in clear violation of the laws and regulations” was unacceptable.
A senior Western diplomat said it was unlikely the TMC would hand power to civilians.
“It will be hard to remove Hemedti from the political theatre because he has a force at his disposal,” said the diplomat.
One option the TMC might consider is allowing formation of a government, provided the generals have the ultimate say on decision-making, some political analysts said.
“If the council (TMC) stays in power, a civilian cabinet will have no authority,” said Khalid Omar Youssef, General Secretary of the opposition Sudanese Congress Party.
FROM FIGHTER TO COMMANDER
Born in 1975, Hemedti is younger than the other officers on the TMC and is the only general on the council who did not graduate from a military college.
He was initially a fighter before becoming a commander of Arab militias later transformed into the RSF and accused by human rights groups of burning villages, raping and executing civilians in Darfur.
Hemedti’s emergence captured the attention of Bashir, who denied allegations of atrocities and said only rebels were targeted. About 300,000 people were killed in Darfur and two million displaced.
Hemedti won the backing of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia after sending his forces to fight on their side in Yemen’s civil war.
Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have not publicly called for a quick transition to democracy in Sudan. Both countries would not comment on their involvement in Sudan.
The Gulf oil powers said they agreed to send Sudan $3 billion worth of aid, a lifeline to the country’s new military leaders.
Although the RSF lacks the discipline of Sudan’s regular army they are seen as fearless fighters hardened by war in Darfur. They are armed with AK-47 assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks.
“Co-operation between Hemedti’s Rapid Support Forces and the army is strong and there is no way they will agree to hand over power,” said the diplomat.
Opposition figures said Hemedti could wield massive influence behind the scenes if he did not win power personally.