Meet the former camel trader who now sits at the pinnacle of power in Sudan

Meet the former camel trader who now sits at the pinnacle of power in Sudan

A lanky man with a primary school education, four wives and no formal military training, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan is enjoying the trappings of his new position.

Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, also known as Hemeti, the de-facto ruler of Sudan, at the country’s military headquarters in Khartoum, June 13, 2019. Hamdan was the handpicked protégé of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, Sudan’s leader of 30 years. When crowds swelled to oust al-Bashir in April, Hamdan deserted him, and now sits at the pinnacle of power. (Declan Walsh/The New York Times)

(Written by Declan Walsh)

Once a camel trader who led a militia accused of genocidal violence in Darfur, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan now sits at the pinnacle of power in Sudan, overlooking the scorched streets from his wood-paneled office high up in the military’s towering headquarters.

From his office in the capital, Khartoum, he can see the site where his unit, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, cleared thousands of pro-democracy protesters in a storm of violence that began June 3.

The heavily armed troops burned tents, raped women and killed dozens of people, some dumped in the Nile, according to numerous accounts from protesters and witnesses.


The blood bath consolidated the vertiginous rise of Hamdan, widely known as Hemeti, who by most reckonings is now the de facto ruler of Sudan. To many Sudanese he is proof of a depressing reality: Although they ousted one dictator in April, the brutal system he left behind is determined to guard its power.

“We thought this might happen,” said Alaa Salah, 22, the woman dressed in white who led chants from atop a car and brought the world’s attention to Sudan’s revolution. “For years Hemeti killed and burned in Darfur. Now Darfur has come to Khartoum.”

For years, Hamdan was an enforcer for President Omar al-Bashir, the brutal dictator who led Sudan for 30 years. When protesters filled the streets in April, roaring for al-Bashir’s ouster, the military toppled him.

Gen. Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo, top right, the deputy head of the military council that assumed power in Sudan after the overthrow of President Omar al-Bashir, stands on military vehicle as he waves to his supporters during a rally, in Garawee town, north of Sudan, Saturday, June 15, 2019. (AP)

Hamdan, claiming to support the revolution, abandoned his patron.

But when the protesters refused to disperse, demanding an immediate transition to civilian rule, the generals refused to budge. With power-sharing talks stalled June 3, the Rapid Support Forces began their crackdown.

Sudanese doctors put the toll at 118 dead.

Read | Civil unrest, rape, massacre: This is why Sudan is in turmoil

With international pressure building, Hamdan, 45, wants to present himself as Sudan’s savior, not its destroyer.

FILE — An activist speaks at a sit-in outside Sudan’s military headquarters, in Khartoum, April 30, 2019. International pressure is building over the lethal paramilitary attack that dispersed the protest site, one committed by troops loyal to Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, whom most now regard as the de facto ruler of Sudan. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

“If I did not come to this position, the country would be lost,” he told The New York Times in a rare interview with a Western journalist.

But he declined to answer direct questions about accusations that his troops committed atrocities, citing a continuing investigation that, he said, will publicize its findings in the coming days.

“I’m not escaping the questions,” he said. “I’m just waiting for the investigation.”

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As he spoke Thursday, a newly appointed US envoy to Sudan was arriving in Khartoum to press the military to stop attacking civilians. A day earlier, the UN Security Council formally condemned the violence.

FILE — Sudanese troops fighting on behalf of Saudi Arabia near Hudaydah, Yemen, Oct. 2, 2018. Most of the Sudanese fighters in Yemen belong to the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, a tribal militia previously known as the Janjaweed; war has enriched its commander, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, whom most now regard as the de facto ruler of Sudan. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

The US envoy, Donald Booth, a former ambassador to Sudan, also called for an independent investigation into the June 3 killings, military withdrawal from Khartoum and an end to the internet blackout that has severed Sudan’s links to the outside world.

Hamdan, for his part, said his troops had been goaded into action by what he called “unspeakable provocations.”

“One protester pulled out this,” he said, pointing to his crotch, “and waved it at our soldiers. Our vehicle was torn apart in front of us, and they filmed it live. There were many provocations.”

A lanky man with a primary school education, four wives and no formal military training, Hamdan is enjoying the trappings of his new position.

At his office in the military headquarters, courtiers, advisers and waiters swarmed around him. Golden swords and military medals, awarded to past military leaders, filled the cabinet outside his door.

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A Sudanese protester holds a national flag as he stands on a barricade along a street, demanding that the country’s Transitional Military Council hand over power to civilians, in Khartoum, Sudan June 5, 2019. (Reuters)

His fighters lounged in khaki-colored battlewagons at the gates, showing off the weaponry that underpins his authority. Some cleared piles of paving stones from the deserted streets outside, effacing the traces of the exuberant protest that a few short weeks ago enraptured the country.

Sudan is formally under the rule of Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, an older army officer who heads the Transitional Military Council that seized power from al-Bashir on April 11. But few doubt that, with Khartoum in his grip, Hamdan is the true power.

Since the rampage June 3, angry residents have started to refer to Hamdan’s men as “the Janjaweed,” after the notorious Arab militias that terrorized ethnic African communities in Darfur in the 2000s.

The term offends Hamdan, who rose to prominence by commanding one such militia.

“Janjaweed means a bandit who robs you on the road,” he said. “It’s just propaganda from the opposition.”

It’s certainly true that, under his control, the Rapid Support Forces has evolved into far more than a gun-toting rabble.

A soldier at the site outside Sudan’s military headquarters in Khartoum, where pro-democracy protesters were dispersed in a lethal attack by paramilitary forces, June 11, 2019. International pressure is building over the incident, one carried out by troops loyal to Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan, whom most now regard as the de facto ruler of Sudan. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

With 50,000 fighters by some estimates, the force has been deployed to quash insurgencies across Sudan and to fight for pay in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition.

War has made Hamdan rich, with interests in gold mining, construction and even a limousine hire company. His patrons include Mohammed bin Salman, the hawkish crown prince of Saudi Arabia.

Long-standing fears about the dominance of his group, which al-Bashir groomed for years as a sort of praetorian force, are being realized.

“Army generals and Darfur Arab leaders had repeatedly warned the Bashir regime that the militias were a time bomb,” said Jérôme Tubiana, a researcher and journalist who has covered conflicts in Chad and Sudan for more than 20 years. “Now here we are, and it may be too late to step back.”

For now, the Rapid Support Forces watch over Khartoum like hawks. Armed pickup trucks sit on intersections and bridges, or snarl the sandy streets with long convoys manned by fighters brandishing sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

Others work from offices. At a five-story villa in the upscale neighborhood of al-Manshiya on the banks of the Blue Nile, uniformed officers sit in air-conditioned offices with computers and printers.

On every floor, the elevator opens to large posters that show a smiling Hamdan embracing the poor, opening schools or meeting tribal leaders. Surveillance cameras dot the ceilings.

Faced with a barrage of international condemnation, those officers are trying to shape an explanation for the violence June 3, portraying the raid as a moral crusade against degenerate, armed pro-democracy protesters.

In one office, Gen. Nooreldeen Ahmed, a former Sudanese diplomat, heads the force’s human rights unit. A timetable of lectures on human rights for soldiers sat on his desk. A sign on the office next door read: “Child Protection Unit.”

In the past, the Rapid Support Forces have faced accusations of recruiting child soldiers to fight in Yemen. Ahmed dismissed such claims and accounts of atrocities by soldiers during the June 3 operation as “fake news.”

Their purported proof was available downstairs, where an intelligence officer piled items that he said were confiscated from protesters onto a table: a sword, an old pistol, batons, half-empty bottles of Sudanese moonshine, hashish and a fistful of condoms.

He then summoned five barefoot men in dirty clothes and with downcast eyes to the room — a few of the 300 people they said they had arrested. He did not permit questions.

Sudanese news channels, now under strict military control, pump out a stream of such propaganda every day. Protesters, who relied on the internet to mobilize opinion against al-Bashir, say they have videos and images that document army killings and beatings. But with the internet shut down, they cannot distribute them.

Dr. Sulaima Sharif, head of the Ahfad Trauma Center in Khartoum, said her staff has treated dozens of traumatized women who were beaten or abused by the Support Forces this month. At least 15 said they had been raped, she said, and many more had been beaten on the genitals by stick-wielding soldiers while in military detention.

The true number of rape victims is likely much higher, she added, because of stigma and cultural sensitivities.

Like many strongmen, Hamdan claims his ominous reputation is overblown. “People say Hemeti is too powerful and evil,” he said. “But it’s just scaremongering. My power comes from the Sudanese people.”

Still, there are signs that his dominance of Khartoum has stoked resentment and anger inside the regular army, where some officers view him as an impudent upstart.

Those tensions exploded into the open Thursday, when a spokesman for the Transitional Military Council said it had foiled an apparent takeover plot led by army officers this past week. But dislodging Hamdan would be difficult, requiring the army to start a civil war on the streets of Khartoum, said a Western official in Khartoum who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the military situation. That seems unlikely for now, he said.

At the top ranks, generals of all stripes are joined by powerful, shared economic interests.

Under al-Bashir, Hamdan and the army generals became business tycoons who cornered entire sections of the economy, said Suliman Baldo of the Enough Project, which seeks to end atrocities in African conflict zones.


“This is not just about power; it’s about money,” he said. “Army commanders and Hemeti are up to their necks in corrupt proceeds — that’s why they have zero tolerance for civilian rule in Sudan.”