The convenience of pairing the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Sudan alongside the Sudanese Army for the sake of “peace and stability” was not, it is now apparent, such a great idea after all. The RSF is made up of the remnants of the infamous Janjaweed, a paramilitary force responsible for the killing and displacement of thousands of people in Sudan’s western province of Darfur. The Janjaweed and the RSF received support from the then President of Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir, who is currently facing several charges, including five counts of crimes against humanity, two counts of war crimes and three counts of genocide allegedly committed between 2003 and 2008 in Darfur.
The Janjaweed was led by General Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo, also known as Hemedti. It fell apart after regional and international condemnation of the atrocities. Hemedti re-emerged in 2013 as the leader of the RSF. Bashir allowed the group to proliferate, granting it powers to do as it pleased in the country. Importantly, the RSF turned its military capabilities to economic activities, exporting its military services in exchange for money. Since 2015, RSF troops have been fighting alongside Sudan’s regular forces and Saudi Arabian and UAE soldiers in Yemen, allowing Hemedti to forge important ties with the Gulf states. The RSF has become a money spinner for him and his family.
Notwithstanding the relationship Hemedti enjoyed with Al-Bashir, he joined forces with the army in a coup in 2019 to topple the Sudanese president. After the coup, the RSF was responsible for providing security to some key locations and infrastructure in Sudan, including the presidential palace in Khartoum. Hemedti became a deputy head of the Transitional Sovereignty Council, an interim structure meant to lead Sudan to a civilian government. Although there has always been a degree of scepticism and mistrust of the RSF and Hemedti in Sudan, his involvement in the coup changed such attitudes.
In 2021, though, hundreds of protestors were killed by RSF troops during protests against the slow progress towards civilian rule. The RSF was accused of throwing some of the dead bodies into the River Nile. According to the Central Committee of Sudan Doctors (CCSD), following the protests, “Sixty people were reported to have been killed in the military crackdown in the capital Khartoum, before scores of bodies were found dumped in the river by the paramilitary RSF.”
Attitudes towards the RSF hardened after the protests. Some Sudanese started calling for Hemedti to be reported to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Then tensions between the head of the Transitional Sovereignty Council, General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, and Hemedti also began to emerge. Hemedti judged the public mood correctly about the lack of progress toward civilian rule, and started to accuse Al-Burhan of causing this. Analysts argue that Hemedti is trying to whitewash the RSF’s reputation. Al Burhan believes that before power can be transferred to a civilian administration the RSF must be integrated within the Sudanese Army.
Hemedti resists this for a number of reasons. For a start, it would weaken his leverage in Sudanese politics, making him vulnerable. Moreover, Hemedti built the RSF: “It is his asset and his most powerful tool, not only to keep him in power but to continue generating resources for him and his family,” explained Ahmed Vall, a senior political analyst. Hemedti is also likely to be arrested if he forsakes his control over the RSF, as he stands accused of crimes against humanity in Darfur and the killing of the protestors in Khartoum in 2021.
There are lessons to be learned by other African countries from the conflict in Sudan. Africa must reject all forms of military dualism if it is to achieve long lasting peace and stability. Allowing the RSF to exist as a parallel force with national recognition in Sudan — with its leader in a senior role in the Transitional Sovereignty Council — might have helped to provide some semblance of peace in the short term, but it is proving to be a disaster and, with hindsight, a terrible mistake.
Ethiopia has several regional armed forces that often act independently from the national army. Weeks ago, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced plans to integrate Amhara forces into the Ethiopian National Defence Forces (ENDF). The announcement was rejected by regional generals in Amhara followed by violent protests. The Amhara generals vowed not to allow the integration of their forces into the ENDF. Moreover, Ethiopia was engaged in a civil war with a paramilitary wing of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) from 2020 to 2022; it left scores of casualties and millions displaced.
Zimbabwe has had similar experiences. The Zimbabwe War Veterans went berserk and intensified the expulsion of white farmers from their properties in 2008. President Robert Mugabe and his government, very conveniently, supported the veterans. Politicians and cronies of Mugabe in Zimbabwe became farm owners overnight. Today, most of the farms that were taken from the white farmers are derelict. The war veterans, although weakened and rendered irrelevant in mainstream politics, remain a possible source of instability in Zimbabwe.
In neighbouring South Africa, military dualism is also an ever-present threat. The existence of uMkhonto we Sizwe Military Veteran’s Association (MKMVA), an organ of the governing African National Congress (ANC), must not be taken lightly. Unlike many paramilitary groups in Africa, MKMVA does not possess arms except for light weaponry often displayed at some of its functions. Although weakened by infighting within its ranks, the death of its leader Kebby Maphatsoe in August 2021, and the ousting of its outspoken spokesperson Carl Niehaus, it could still be a problem. In February 2021, when former President Jacob Zuma was issued with an arrest warrant the MKMVA said that it would do everything it could to prevent his arrest: “Those who want to arrest Zuma will have to go through us,” it warned ominously.
Polls suggest that the ANC could for the first time lose its majority in parliament in the 2024 election. Could the MKMVA reject the election results and a transfer of power? It’s possible. The sustained existence of MKMVA and its military ambitions should be of great concern for South Africans.
Military dualism and the parallel existence of armed groups within any country is dangerous. Africa is particularly susceptible because of the interference of outside powers vying for mineral rights and other ways to plunder natural resources. Events in Sudan should be ringing alarm bells in capitals across the continent.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.