By Michael Georgy
KHARTOUM (Reuters) – Six weeks after a coup d’etat in Sudan, high-profile military leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo is evolving into an increasingly influential political force.
The involvement of so powerful a military chief in politics could undermine efforts to create a democracy in the northeast African country and provoke army officers who are wary of his ambitions, opponents and Western diplomats say.
Dagalo, commonly known as Hemedti, is deputy chairman of Transitional Military Council (TMC) that has been running Sudan since President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s fall in April.
Unlike junta leader Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Hemedti has grabbed the limelight, often delivering speeches in public as Sudan navigates a volatile transition period after a 30-year dictatorship.
“Hemedti is playing an increasingly prominent role, ranging beyond his core security brief. This suggests an ambition to play a longer-term political role,” a senior Western diplomat told Reuters.
“A more prominent leadership role for Hemedti would undermine the clear popular demand for civilian leadership in Sudan.”
In his rise from humble beginnings as a desert livestock trader to one of Bashir’s most trusted aides in a country of constantly shifting alliances, Hemedti has shown his determination and skill at manoeuvring behind the scenes.
A tall, imposing figure who has an office in the presidential palace, Hemedti is backed by the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the widely feared paramilitary fighters who number in the tens of thousands and control the capital Khartoum.
Hemedti also gained vital support from oil powers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates after he sent RSF forces to back them in Yemen’s civil war. The Gulf Arab states pledged $3 billion in aid between them to Sudan last month.
The general’s growing political strength is welcomed by some Sudanese.
“Hemedti has been getting stronger. He is a patriot who helped lead the revolution,” said travel agent Mu’min Hamed. “He is the one handling the affairs of the state. I think he could lead the country.”
Others regard him as a symbol of the past.
“The military council does not want to hand over power to civilians because the generals would be vulnerable to prosecution over human rights abuses,” said university student Mahmoud al-Zeyn.
His emergence could complicate an already delicate stage of Sudan’s planned transition to democracy.
Tensions are mounting between the TMC and an alliance of protest and opposition groups who want a quick handover of power to civilians. Political analysts and Western diplomats say his advance could also be opposed by some officers, who believe he did not deserve his rapid rise through the military.
Born in 1975, Hemedti is the youngest member of the TMC and unlike its other generals has never attended a military college. His success was largely due to his close ties to Bashir.
RSF fighters, armed with assault rifles, machine guns mounted on trucks and rocket-propelled grenades, are better paid than some army officers. They were hardened by the war in Darfur against rebels who rose up against the government.
“There is no junior or senior army officer who accepts what Hemedti is doing,” said political analyst Faisal Saleh.
There are no signs of hostility between the RSF and the army. Ties between junta leader Burhan and Hemedti appear strong.
“He is trying to cooperate as much as possible with the army,” said Khalid al-Tagani, a prominent newspaper editor and political analyst.
But this does not rule out the possibility of violence, especially if Hemedti pushes hard to consolidate his position, according to Western diplomats and political analysts.
“I don’t expect a civil war like in Libya or Syria. But in the long term it could turn into confrontation,” said Saleh.
Hemedti used to be a commander of Arab militias that were later transformed into the RSF and were accused by human rights groups of genocide in the Darfur war that began in 2003. Bashir’s government denied the allegations.
Hemedti now portrays himself as a man of the people who can heal a country which has suffered from multiple armed rebellions, U.S. sanctions, poverty and economic crises.
When unrest over economic hardships erupted in December, Hemedti said the protesters’ demands were legitimate and spoke out against corruption. Realising Bashir could not cling to power in the face of a mass uprising, he ensured his forces did not join a crackdown in which dozens of protesters were killed.
Hemedti fires up audiences in simple, colloquial Arabic that has wide appeal across Sudan.
“We can’t please everyone, but we will try to be active in everyone’s problems, the real problems. Because every shepherd is responsible for his sheep,” Hemedti told army officers at the Khartoum prison where Bashir is held.
Hemedti has paid airport workers their salaries for three months, told the RSF to crack down on the smuggling of flour and other commodities, and offered to help indebted prisoners.
He has also sought to show he can handle foreign policy. On a trip to Saudi Arabia this month, he met its powerful crown prince and said he would back the kingdom against any threats and attacks from its rival, Iran, according to a TMC statement.
Hemedti recently spoke for nearly 20 minutes after breaking the Ramadan fast to an audience including the top official in the U.S. embassy and the Saudi ambassador, as well as local and international media. He said he favoured “real democracy”.
“Democracy is consultation … that’s it, we want real democracy,” he said in his speech, which was punctuated by applause and laughter. “We want a man who comes in through the ballot box. We want free and fair elections.”
(Reporting by Michael Georgy, Editing by Timothy Heritage)