Perched on pick-up trucks adorned with machine guns and baskets of rocket-propelled grenades, the notorious Rapid Support Forces (RSF) were an unsettling sight for Khartoum when they began fanning out across the Sudanese capital earlier this year.
Already infamous for their origins in the Janjaweed militias – the “devils on horseback” accused of genocide in Darfur – the now-formalised paramilitary group was no longer rampaging through Sudan’s margins, but dominating street corners in the heart of the capital.
Amid a tussle over Sudan’s future following months of protests that brought down three-decade ruler Omar al-Bashir, the RSF has become one of the country’s most powerful forces, and many consider their commander Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, otherwise known as Hemeti, to be Sudan’s de facto leader.
Removing them has appeared impossible, despite the demands of protesters who despise the RSF for the deadly violence it has unleashed on demonstrations.
The joint civilian and military government now taking shape secures Dagolo’s position as a leader and his RSF as effectively equal to the army within the military.
The RSF’s rise involved doing Bashir’s bidding domestically, but also becoming an enforcer for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, transforming its image from a militia that raided villages mounted on horses and camels to one of a significant regional actor.
Yemen was not, however, the first time the Janjaweed played a role with implications beyond the limits of Darfur.
The path Janjaweed leaders have followed to wealth and power has also involved moving weapons and fighters over borders with Libya and Sudan’s other neighbours, exporting the products of a gold mining monopoly to the United Arab Emirates and taking advantage of Europe’s desire to stem the flow of refugees from Africa.
That international inclination does not appear to have been tempered by the increased burden of controlling Sudan’s capital, with more than 1,000 troops reportedly deployed to Libya and sales of weapons to militias in neighbouring Central African Republic continuing over recent months.
“[The RSF] is another name for the Janjaweed, repackaged in a new form, with more resources, which it managed to get both domestically and also from abroad,” Professor Ali Dinar, a senior lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of African Studies, told Middle East Eye.
“The RSF is a country inside a country. It has its own economic investment, it has its own political relations with countries. There is a lot going on.”
Along the borders: Libya, Chad, Central African Republic
Darfur’s long borders with Libya, Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR) are not nearly as hard as they appear to be on the map. They are porous, traversed by both traders and herders whose tribes span across boundaries and do little to halt the movement of transnational militias.
So when Hemeti signed a $6m lobbying deal in May that proposed sending military support for east Libya-based Khalifa Haftar, it was far from the first time fighters or weapons would be moving across those borders.
The fall of Libyan ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and the subsequent division of the country led to a surplus of weapons that often made their way south. But long before that, in the 1980s, Gaddafi was linked with the flow of weapons south of the Sahara.
“Gaddafi, both before and after he fell, was a fountain of weapons for the greater Sahel region,” said Sudan researcher Eric Reeves, describing how even now much of the RSF’s modern weaponry seems to have come from Libya.
When Gaddafi launched a series of wars against Chad throughout the 1980s, he stationed in Darfur his Islamic Legion, a paramilitary force founded to Arabise the Sahel. There, they were hosted by the Um Jalul tribe and the father of future Janjaweed leader Musa Hilal.
According to a CIA dispatch in 1986, Libya sent convoys of military equipment, technicians, special forces and other individuals, described as aid workers but who had military training.
The New York Times reported two years later that Chadian officials accused Libya of “smuggling in rifles in sacks of flour” by using roads built under the pretence of aid to transport weapons.
Around the same time, tensions were growing between nomadic Arab communities like Hilal’s, who were losing their traditional grazing lands to a changing environment, and indigenous agricultural communities like the ethnic Fur.
The tensions had by 1987 led to the creation of a group named the Arab Gathering, which in a letter to Sudan’s then-president Jaafar Nimeiri, promoted a vision of Arab supremacy that reflected Gaddafi’s pan-Arab ideals.
“Dating back a long time ago, [there was] a kind of war between different Arab groups who settled in the region and the Fur who were there,” Dinar said. “There was this conflict throughout the 80s with a lot of destruction from both sides, and this issue intensified with access to arms during the Chadian war.”
The Sudanese government, he said, did little to intervene and even potentially benefited from the tensions. Later, the government would tap into these Arab communities to form the Janjaweed.
Hilal was one of those Arab Gathering members, and by the 2000s he was telling his Janjaweed fighters to “change the demography of Darfur and empty it of African tribes” – playing a crucial role in a state-sponsored campaign the UN estimates killed at least 300,000 people.
Two decades after Gaddafi’s incursions into Chad, another Chadian rebellion launched from Darfur in 2008 would help cement Hemeti’s ties to Bashir’s government – at a time when various Janjaweed militias were fracturing and even rebelling against the government after their initial campaign against Darfuri rebels slowed down.
Hemeti himself briefly defected, before returning to the government’s side and being deployed with 4,000 men near the border to support Chadian rebels trying to topple President Idriss Deby – who himself had come to power with Khartoum’s support.
According to a cable sent by the US charge d’affaires at the time, Khartoum’s need for fighters to support the Chad offensive led it to agree to Hemeti’s conditions which it had previously rejected, including the formal integration of his forces, the promotion of his commanders and a payment of 3bn Sudanese pounds, then worth close to $120m.
By 2012, another Janjaweed leader was recruiting fighters to leave Darfur for a foreign war: Moussa Assimeh.
Assimeh gave himself the title of general when he became one of the leading commanders of a grouping of militias known as the Seleka, which drew mostly from Muslim inhabitants of the CAR to topple the government in Bangui.
The Seleka temporarily achieved their goal, but the violence unleashed on Christian Central Africans along the way prompted a backlash against Muslims, and the Seleka coalition soon fell apart. More than 5,000 were killed in fighting between communities, according to a count by the Associated Press.
Though Assimeh was not part of Hemeti’s Janjaweed faction, Africa Confidential reported that some of the fighters who fought in CAR were later absorbed into the RSF.
According to UN reports, the RSF has continued to sell weapons, equipment and pick-up trucks used to transport fighters to CAR militias, despite a peace agreement signed with the government. These sales have continued to involve Assimeh and even Hilal, despite the latter’s imprisonment in Sudan since 2017.
The reports detail how militias take their vehicles for repair in southern Darfur’s town of Nyala, while Hemeti has himself met with Noureddine Adam, one of the most influential leaders of the Seleka rebellion.
Across the Red Sea: Gold, weapons and the war in Yemen
When Bashir needed fighters to send to Yemen to support his Saudi and Emirati allies in 2015, it was to Hemeti he turned.
The RSF was in the perfect position to provide troops to fight on the ground in Yemen, providing a physical presence to complement Saudi and Emirati air strikes, by recruiting in Darfur and reportedly, even across the border in Chad.
“It’s not a secret. People were recruited specifically from south Darfur, from Nyala, to Yemen and were promised a lot of money,” said Dinar. “When you think of the unemployment rate in Sudan in general and that region of Darfur in particular… Instead of going and working as a civilian, you go and maybe you won’t come back.”
Hemeti himself has claimed he has 30,000 fighters in Yemen.
According to Cameron Hudson, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former CIA analyst, Bashir used the RSF to deepen his relationship with the Saudis and Emiratis – but the relationship also helped Hemeti grow in stature himself.
“He’s been on the ground in Yemen and has routinely gone through Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, meeting with military and political figures around battle plans in the Yemen campaign and has earned their trust and respect,” Hudson said.
After Sudanese forces, apparently led by the RSF, dispersed in Khartoum a months-long peaceful sit-in in June against military rule, killing more than 100 protesters in the process, Hemeti’s forces swept across the city, some of them in UAE-made military vehicles.
After the military council took over from Bashir, with Hemeti officially named deputy leader, it was promised $3bn in aid from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Hemeti’s relationship with the Gulf has not relied solely on weapons however. He has also found fortune in Darfur’s gold mines.
The mines of Jebel Amer had been attracting small-scale gold miners from the area and even across the borders in Chad and Central African Republic since 2010, but they quickly fell into the hands of the Janjaweed.
Hilal’s forces built a monopoly, making money by imposing duties on prospectors and mining, and exporting gold themselves.
The UN estimated that from 2010 to 2014, $4.6bn worth of gold was illegally exported to the UAE from Sudan.
By 2017, Hemeti was in charge of those mines, having taken them over during a government-sponsored disarmament campaign in Darfur during which the RSF defeated Hilal’s forces and imprisoned the rival Janjaweed leader.
“Gold is money, gold is power and I think that whoever controls that gold has a lot to say in politics,” said Dinar. “Though the government of Sudan knows that, instead of putting its own hand on it, it subcontracts it to Hemeti and Hemeti has to show his loyalty.”
North towards the Mediterranean
On the long route north to Europe via the Mediterranean, Sudan is both a stopping point for and a source of refugees.
The European Union, wanting to both stem this movement of people and the numbers dying during the crossing, started the Khartoum Process in 2015 to invest in projects in the Horn of Africa.
While the projects were aimed at improving the living conditions refugees were fleeing in their countries, they also involved working with border forces to stop people from reaching Libya, the main embarkation point for Europe.
In Sudan, it was the RSF who took on these responsibilities. Though the EU denies it ever provided funds directly to the RSF or the Sudanese government, a UN employee told MEE that the EU’s partner organisations do.
Hemeti himself has claimed the RSF works on Europe’s behalf to “protect their national security” by stopping thousands of migrants.
Meanwhile, a September 2018 report by Dutch think tank Clingendael cited interviews with migrants claiming the RSF had also been involved in trafficking people to Libya.
“The EU looked the other way, it didn’t complain about this,” said Sudanese researcher Suliman Baldo, a senior advisor at the Enough Project, which campaigns for solutions to major conflicts in Africa. “It didn’t complain that the RSF were implicated in several incidences of being involved in human trafficking.”
“The EU needs to seriously subject itself to a thorough review of the negative consequences it has had, chief among them that it legitimised a deadly militia.”
Hemeti’s lobbying deal signed with Canadian firm Dickens and Madson in May promised the development of more international links beyond Africa and the Middle East, dangling the possibility of securing meetings with US officials – including President Donald Trump.
The firm also promised to lobby Russia, with which Sudan already has a strong relationship. Russian security firms train the Sudanese military and since 2018 have been operating in southern Darfur, training fighters from the CAR, according to Amsterdam-based Sudanese broadcaster Radio Dabanga.
A mercenary force
The US charge d’affaires in Khartoum wrote in February 2008 that the “ruthless Janjaweed” militias of Darfur had shown in their dealings with the Sudanese government that they were pragmatic and concerned above all, about preserving their own political and economic interests.
“[They] will go with whoever offers them the best deal,” he wrote.
Over the following decade, various Janjaweed militias have continued to engage in both domestic and regional missions, serving their own interests as well as that of the government’s.
According to Hudson, the large force Hemeti now commands will always need work to keep the fighters satiated and loyal, which increases their likelihood of continuing to work beyond Sudan’s borders.
“He needs to keep them fed and he needs to keep them happy,” said Hudson. “He has essentially a mercenary force that he’s now willing to rent out to the region and that should be a concern to all the states in the region.”
“I think the message to the Saudis and Emiratis is that he may be your man in Khartoum, but be aware that one day he might sell his services to the highest bidder.”