The Man Who Terrorized Darfur Is Leading Sudan’s Supposed Transition
The interim vice president, Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo, was in charge of the brutal janjaweed militias. Now he is calling the shots in Khartoum.
BY JérôME TUBIANA | MAY 14, 2019, 2:34 PM
Gen. Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagalo, the deputy head of Sudan’s military council, speaks at a news conference in Khartoum on April 30. ASSOCIATED PRESS
After Omar al-Bashir was deposed on April 11, Western diplomats made no mistake about who was in charge. Ambassadors from the United States, Britain, and the European Union did not shake hands with the transitional military council’s president, the little known army general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan; they met with his younger deputy Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, better known by the nickname “Hemeti.”
The story of how an uneducated 40-something chief of the janjaweed—the Arab militias that brought death and destruction to Darfur 16 years ago—became more powerful than his seasoned mentors in the Sudanese junta is, to many, a mystery.
In fact, Hemeti is the main legacy of Bashir’s 30-year rule. Bashir himself was a product of an alliance of the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, unseen elsewhere in the Arab world, but the army grew tired of the wars it had to fight in Sudan’s south, and the Islamists fragmented. When a new war began in Darfur in 2003, Bashir was convinced by Darfuri Arab hard-liners that turning their youths to militias would allow him to win. But by creating the janjaweed and relentlessly empowering them under Hemeti, the Sudanese regime has created a monster it cannot control and who represents a security threat not only for Sudan but also for its neighbors.
It seems that for a few days after Bashir’s ousting Khartoum’s civilian opposition trusted that it could negotiate a civilian transition with Burhan and Hemeti. Darfuris were more skeptical, given that they were more intimately familiar with the new men in charge. Burhan was a military intelligence colonel coordinating army and militia attacks against civilians in West Darfur state from 2003 to 2005, at a time when Hemeti was already a known warlord, who would gradually become the janjaweed’s primary leader. During its first, most intense years, the war in Darfur led to the deaths of several hundred thousand non-Arab civilians and displaced about 2 million people, earning Bashir an arrest warrant for genocide from the International Criminal Court.
I met Hemeti a couple of times in 2009, first in a vaguely Orientalist furniture shop he owned in South Darfur’s state capital of Nyala (one of his early business efforts), from which I was driven to a more private office setting. He was a tall man with the sarcastic smile of a naughty child—yet he was then the newly appointed security advisor to South Darfur’s governor, his first official government position, obtained through blackmail and threats of rebellion.
Hemeti hails from a small Chadian Arab clan that fled wars and drought in Chad to take refuge in Darfur in the 1980s. As he told me, his uncle Juma Dagolo failed to be recognized as a tribal leader in North Darfur state, but South Darfur authorities welcomed the newcomers and allowed them to settle on land belonging to the Fur tribe, Darfur’s main indigenous non-Arab group. The place, called Dogi in the Fur language, was rebranded Um-el-Gura, “the mother of the villages” in Arabic, an old name for Mecca. The authorities also armed Dagolo’s followers, who, as early as the 1990s, began attacking their Fur neighbors.
Hemeti was then a teenager who, as he told me, dropped out of primary school in the third grade to trade camels across the borders in Libya and Egypt. When the Darfur rebellion began in 2003, he became a janjaweed amir (war chief) in his area, leading attacks against neighboring Fur villages. To justify joining the government-backed militias, he said the rebels had attacked a caravan of fellow camel traders on their way to Libya, allegedly killing 75 men and looting 3,000 camels. That fell short of his own brutal record as a militia leader.
In 2006, armed with new equipment, he led several hundred men on a raid across the rebel-held area of North Darfur. The janjaweed rammed non-Arab men with their pickup trucks and raped women in the name of jihad—according to witnesses I met at the time. His violent methods even created tensions with accompanying army officers .
At the same time, Chad and Sudan began a proxy war through their respective rebel groups. The Chadian government used its own Arab officials to push the janjaweed to betray Khartoum. Bichara Issa Jadallah, a cousin to Hemeti, was then the defense minister in Chad. In 2006, he invited the janjaweed leader to the Chadian capital, N’Djamena, and had him sign a secret nonaggression pact with the Darfur rebel Justice and Equality Movement, behind the back of Khartoum.
Shortly afterward, Hemeti announced that he had become a rebel. He then received a visit from a TV crew working for Britain’s Channel 4, which shot a documentary in his camp—his first exposure to TV—a medium to which he has become addicted since. But the journalists reportedly came late, and, as they were filming, government negotiators were also in the camp, bargaining over the price to bring Hemeti back into the government fold.