Never did Sudanese shepherd boys penetrate the center of power. The periphery is taking revenge on the elite in Sudan and is doing so for the first time in the cities. Now an endless civil war threatens, as in Somalia.
Since the battle broke out more than a month ago between the bush fighters of Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo’s Rapid Support Forces – also known as Hemedti – and the government army of General Fattah al-Burhan, the RSF fighters have been firing at random, as if they were still in the desert. They plunder from the urban elite they look down on, just as they misbehaved against civilians during the guerrilla war in the bush of Darfur in Western Sudan at the turn of the century. “The RSF soldiers do not want to talk to you, they just give orders to civilians and if you don’t react quickly, you will get a beating. The presence of these desert rats feels like occupation,” says a resident of Khartoum.
When the autocrat Omar al-Bashir was overthrown in a popular revolution in 2019, RSF soldiers settled in Khartoum and set up their own, separate bases, although they are officially part of the national army. Just before Bashir’s fall, the RSF numbered 20,000. Now that number has increased to 100,000, due to massive recruitment among the numerous militias in Sudan itself and in countries in the region.
Already before the war broke out, these shepherd boys, adorned with amulets and magical bracelets, raced at high speed on their pick-ups through the narrow streets, ignoring other road users. Although the inhabitants of Khartoum are known for their special hospitality -according to the traditions on the hot sands of the Sahel and the Sahara- for them the RSF shepherd boys remained the odd one out. “They treat us like dirt, they pretend we don’t exist,” residents of the Sudanese capital complained.
Never in Sudan have shepherd boys from marginalized rural areas penetrated the center of power. They see the government as booty. Such a war as now in Khartoum, with warlike youth from the bush, had never happened in modern Africa, only in Mogadishu in 1991. Nomadic warlords then divided Somalia’s capital into blocks, exploited the city dwellers and threw the country into civil war. At the time, the Somali nomads took revenge with their “arrogant” behavior on what they considered to be a decadent elite in the city.
The Nile elite
All Sudanese leaders, such as presidents Jafaar Numeiri and Bashir and now Fattah al-Burhan, originate from an area north of the capital, where the Nile makes sharp turns. Light-skinned Arabs or highly Arabized people monopolize the economy in favor of the Nile Valley riparian people. They exclude other peoples – especially of African descent, but also Arab nomads like Hemedti – from the central power, unless they need them to quell rebellions on the periphery.
“Since its independence, Sudan has therefore always been at war with itself,” says Kenyan Simon Simonse, an anthropologist with extensive work experience in the country. “The rulers imposed an Arab identity on the country and used the differences between the populations as a divide-and-conquer tool.”
Mutual suspicion and the unfamiliarity with each other’s cultures and customs determine the mutual relationships. In addition, the history of the slave trade by Arabs among black Africans in the south and west hangs like a shadow over the present; a significant portion of the population is descended from slaves.
In the bush of South Sudan, guerrillas and traditional chieftains spoke out against the clique in Khartoum “where terrible people live.” A well-educated trade unionist in Khartoum, confronted with this hostile image of ‘the never-to-be-trusted Arab’, replied: ‘We were taught as children that the people of the south are bad. That is stamped in my mind.”
South Sudan wanted nothing more to do with the north and separated in 2011 after a long war. In what remained of Sudan, a mixture of those who call themselves Arab and African peoples remained. Although discrimination was always the biggest in South Sudan, not everyone was on an equal footing in North Sudan either. This was revealed by an investigation in 2000 by opposition Sudanese into the origins of civil servants in all government bodies. In the so-called Black Book, they proved with figures the dominance of northern Arabs and Arabized Sudanese in all branches of government. Since independence, most of the ministers have come from the region North of Khartoum, where only 5 percent of all Sudanese live.
“There has never been a serious attempt to build a nation-state since independence,” says Sudanese journalist Abdulrahman Mohamed. “The so-called tribal societies were not involved, and the two major political parties were exclusively regionally based.” The Islamic fundamentalists who seized power in Bashir’s coup in 1989 did have a national project. “But they did not want to build a nation state but an Islamic state. Their reign was the final blow to nation building. Since then, it has only gone downhill with Sudan.”
General Hemedti is a product of this violent political market of Sudan, where power is divided as in horse-trading. As an outsider of the Khartoum establishment, he is now seen by some Sudanese as a hero of the downtrodden and marginalized peoples of Sudan, even though he has blood on his hands and thousands of deaths on his conscience.
His RSF consists of Arab or Arabized Sudanese who live off their cattle and are known as Janjaweed. Their battle began in 2003 hundreds of miles from the Nile, in a thirsty and overcrowded landscape. On their horses and camels, but equipped with modern communication equipment, they fought alongside the government army against Sudanese of African descent.
Then President Omar Al-Bashir invited Arabs from all over the Sahel and Sahara to come and plunder in Darfur. He used, among others, Mohammad Hamdan Dagalo, whom he nicknamed Hemedti, which means “my protector” in local Arabic. In this war of annihilation, the Janjaweed captors who raped African women uttered cries like “We are going to make you little Arabs” and “You are slaves, not human beings.”
That criminal act by the Janjaweed, now called Rapid Support Forces, continued when the desert warriors landed in Khartoum and had traded their camels for pickup trucks. Together with the government army of General Fattah al-Burhan, they tried to destroy the unique popular revolution of 2019.
For weeks, hundreds of thousands of protesters had held a sit-in in front of the military complex and celebrated their liberation from Bashir. They demanded the exit of all military forces from politics. It was one of the most hopeful, citizen-supported revolutions ever seen in Africa. For the first time in a long period, Sudanese Arabs and African descents embraced each other. But the revolutionary movement was highjacked by the military.
After two months, the RSF fighters fired live fire at the demonstrating civilians and evacuated the sit-in. They retaliated by raping young women in their barracks and dumping the bodies of their victims in the Nile. They continued to do so when civilians continued to demonstrate weekly against the military.
The monster created by Bashir and then nurtured by Burhan now wants all the power, at the expense of the regular army and civilian politicians. As fighters, the RSF soldiers do surprisingly well, moving like elusive hares in the streets, dodging the bombs of the Sudanese air force. They are more mobile and braver than the government soldiers. If they win, an endless civil war awaits Sudan, just like in Somalia.
This article was first published in NRC on 17-5-2023