In December, Sudan's state-appointed Human Rights Commissioner named the feared paramilitary leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemeti, as its "person of the year." Sudanese activists and observers suspect that Hemeti paid a hefty bribe for the farcical award as part of a broader campaign to launder his reputation. As the leader of the notorious Rapid Support Forces—a group born out of the Arab tribal militias that led state-backed massacres in Darfur under longtime autocrat Omar al-Bashir—Hemeti has been trying to shred the brutal reputation he earned during Bashir's rule.
In 2013, Bashir created the RSF to coup-proof his regime from both senior military officials and his powerful National Intelligence Security Service, or NISS. The RSF took orders directly from the president, with Bashir famously referring to Hemeti as Hemyatee—"my protector" in Arabic.
Yet Bashir's protector turned on his former patron in April 2019 following months of pro-democracy protests in Khartoum that were triggered by a cut in bread and fuel subsidies. Hemeti became deputy chairman of the Transitional Military Council, the junta that took power after ousting Bashir in the face of the mass demonstrations. When the junta transferred power to a joint civilian-military Sovereignty Council in August 2019, Hemeti was one of its key members.
Since then, Hemeti—who has amassed a vast fortune through various business interests, including capture of Sudan's gold mines—has invested millions of dollars to remake his image by co-opting notable human rights activists and opening up hospitals and clinics across the country. Sudan expert Alex de Waal has described Hemeti as "one of the richest men in Sudan" at the time of Bashir's ouster, "probably with more ready cash than any other politician." And thanks to Hemeti's control over major banks in Sudan, which lends him easy access to international financial markets, he has no issue paying his many advisers.
The central theme to Hemeti's well-funded PR drive is that the RSF is a benevolent national force and a defender of democracy.
"Hemeti always claims that he's protecting the Sudanese people," said Mabrooka Rabih, a member of Sudan's resistance committees, neighborhood groups spearheading the pro-democracy movement. "And that he supports civilian governance. But Hemeti just wants to convince people that he is defending them so they will stop protesting and stop showing the world all the abuses still happening in Sudan."
To help him rebrand, Hemeti relies on Western PR firms to lobby on his behalf in foreign capitals. At one point, he hired the Canadian lobbying firm Dickens and Madison, which is run by an ex-Israeli spy and stands accused of violating sanctions in Libya. Hemeti is now reportedly coveting the French PR firm Think Doctor, hoping they will have more success in portraying him as a respectable figure, according to Africa Intelligence, a leading source of intel and analysis on the continent.
The task is steep due to the RSF's role in arresting and killing protesters since 2019 and their involvement in recent massacres in Darfur. The paramilitary group, of course, also thwarted popular aspirations for democracy when Hemeti backed the military coup that toppled Sudan's brief civilian administration in October 2021.
"Hemeti wants acceptance from the people of Sudan, and he wants them to forget everything that the RSF has done to them. But everyone in Sudan knows that Hemeti is a fake."
Last December, the RSF signed the U.N.-backed Framework Agreement along with the military, several political parties that make up the bloc known as the Forces for Freedom and Change, or FFC, and some civil society groups. After having been deputy to military commander Abdel Fattah al-Burhan on the post-Bashir Sovereignty Council, Hemeti became Burhan's equal in the Framework Agreement, exacerbating tensions between the two powerful military figures as they compete for power and control in Khartoum.
The RSF, in particular, is reportedly at odds with a number of Bashir-era Islamists who occupy prominent positions in the army and who view Hemeti as a traitor for turning on Bashir. The feud has brought FFC politicians closer to Hemeti in order to thwart the revival of Islamists, according to Kholood Khair, the founding director of Confluence Advisory, a think-tank based in Khartoum. "The FFC is propping up Hemeti because they believe that without some sort of military backing and without guns, then they won't get very far," she told Democracy in Exile.
The FFC has reportedly promised Hemeti that he won't have to integrate his forces into the military right away, a process that senior military officers want to see accelerated. In exchange, the RSF is helping the FFC regain a semblance of power by pressuring the military to surrender control to a civilian government immediately. The military ostensibly agreed to do so by April 11, based on recent negotiations.
"I can say confidently that [Hemeti] wants to be legitimate by being part of the army," Ammar Hammoda, from the Unionist Alliance Party, told Democracy in Exile. "But what kind of branch of the army will they be in? The devil is in the details."
Protesters believe that neither the RSF nor the Sudanese military are serious about giving up their influence over politics. According to Reuters, both forces will have an officer involved in drafting Sudan's new constitution that will shape the parameters around the incoming civilian government.
"Hemeti can't just say that he supports us and then expect us to forget that he participated in the June 3 massacre."
On June 3, 2019, the RSF spearheaded a massacre of protesters staging a sit-in outside the Defense Ministry in central Khartoum, killing at least 120 people, according to survivors and open-source research. At the time, demonstrators were calling for security elites to surrender power to a civilian government. The popular pressure eventually led, two months later, to the power-sharing agreement of the Sovereignty Council between Sudan's military council and the FFC.
Since then, the RSF has tried to regain credibility among pro-democracy protesters. During the World Cup in Qatar late last year, Hemeti opened up venues across Khartoum to attract disadvantaged youth who wanted to watch the games. However, resistance committees urged their neighborhoods not to attend RSF-sponsored events, so few people showed up.
"Hemeti wants acceptance from the people of Sudan, and he wants them to forget everything that the RSF has done to them," said Sammar Hamza, a 26-year-old member of a resistance committee. "But everyone in Sudan knows that Hemeti is a fake."
Last month, Hemeti conceded that the October 2021 coup was a mistake, while his brother and deputy, Abdel Raheem Dagalo, said that the RSF would not allow the military to kill any more protesters in the streets. Dagalo's warning came days after the police shot and killed a young demonstrator named Ibrahim Mazjoob, bringing the death toll of the crackdown on protesters since the coup to 125.
"[The RSF] is repeating the same speeches that we have heard [from other Sudanese leaders] for the last five years," said Dania Atabani, a member of a resistance committee in Khartoum. "Different stakeholders and politicians have claimed to support the revolution and vowed that they won't allow anyone to kill protesters."
"But Hemeti can't just say that he supports us and then expect us to forget that he participated in the June 3 massacre."