KHARTOUM (Reuters) - The leader of a powerful paramilitary force in Sudan has put himself at the forefront of a planned transition toward democracy, unsettling fellow military rulers and triggering a mobilisation of troops in the capital Khartoum last week.
General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo commands tens of thousands of fighters in the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and has amassed considerable mineral wealth. He is also deputy leader of Sudan's ruling council, which took power in a coup more than a year ago.
Recently however, Dagalo, widely known as Hemedti, has pulled away from military colleagues and found common ground with a civilian political alliance, in moves that could establish him as a major figure even after the democratic transition.
Central to Hemedti's disagreement with the military is his reluctance to set a clear deadline to integrate the RSF into the army, two military sources said, referring to a stipulation within the outline deal signed in December that paves the way for a two year civilian-led transition to elections.
The sources said the standoff led Hemedti to bring additional RSF forces in recent weeks to bases in Khartoum from Darfur, the western region where the group emerged from the so-called Janjaweed militias accused of atrocities during the early 2000s.
Concerned about his intentions, the army under ruling council leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan stationed more soldiers in the capital on a state of alert, the sources said.
Speaking to RSF troops earlier this month, Hemedti said his forces would never fight the army, but "our problem is with these people who are clinging to power" - an apparent reference to Islamist-leaning elements of the former regime that retain influence in the army and civil service.
The reasons for the troop movements have not been previously reported. Spokespeople for the military and RSF did not respond to requests for comment.
While tensions have since cooled, Hemedti's underlying differences with the army have not been resolved, and the risk remains of a confrontation that could tip Sudan, which sits in a volatile region between the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, into deepening instability.
Hemedti and other military men are unlikely to be able to stand for election in the short term. But in a country where power has long been held by the Khartoum elite, Hemedti, from a nomadic camel-herding background, is trying to become "a force to be reckoned with in the national power structure," said Suliman Baldo, head of the Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker, an independent think-tank.
In a BBC interview last year, Hemedti said he would not stand by and watch the country fall apart, but denied having leadership ambitions. His office did not respond to questions submitted by Reuters.
EDGING TOWARDS TRANSITION
A handover of power to civilians under the outline deal could restore billions in Western aid and restart an economic and democratic opening that was halted when, in October 2021, army and RSF officers deposed the fledgling civilian government that had followed the overthrow of former president Omar al-Bashir.
The main signatories to the outline agreement are Burhan's military and Hemedti's RSF on one side and the civilian Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) coalition on the other. The two sides had shared power in the aborted transition between Bashir's overthrow and the coup.
Hemedti has increasingly aligned himself with the pro-democracy civilian movement in speeches. On the other hand, Burhan has delayed a final signing of the transition agreement by pushing to broaden it and bring in former rebel groups and pro-military civilian factions.
On March 11, the army said accusations it was reluctant to hand over power were "open attempts to gain political sympathy, and obstruct the process of transition". Later that day, Hemedti and Burhan met, according to a statement by the ruling council.
Under pressure from Western and Gulf powers, the process of finalising a framework for forming a new transitional government before elections has since shown renewed signs of momentum.
The sides are due to meet this month to hash out details of military restructuring, but there has so far been no indication of when the RSF will be merged with the army, and what role Hemedti would play in the enlarged armed forces.
The army wants to see the RSF, which by some estimates has up to 100,000 fighters spread across one of Africa's largest countries, integrated under their control by the end of the new transitional period, the two military sources said.
Many in Sudan's pro-democracy movement are uneasy about Hemedti's prominence in the new transition push.
Resistance committees that have led anti-coup demonstrations blame the RSF for leading the killings of dozens of protesters in June 2019, a charge Hemedti denies.
They also point to Hemedti's role in the war that escalated in Darfur after 2003, during which he rose as a leader in the Janjaweed militias.
When protests raged against Bashir in 2019, however, Hemedti joined the putsch against him, setting himself against Bashir's Islamist base.
At the signing of the outline deal in December, Hemedti apologised for violence by the state towards communities throughout the country, without elaborating.
Four FFC leaders told Reuters that Hemedti currently appears to share their goal of ushering in a civilian government and their opposition to Bashir loyalists including in the military. They requested anonymity as they were not authorised to speak for the coalition.
Their willingness to work with Hemedti or Burhan is conditional on progress, one said, adding that they would return to their opposition roles if either reneged on the agreement.
Since the 2019 uprising, Hemedti has used his place on the ruling council to take the lead on economic issues, steer a peace deal with many of the rebels he fought in Darfur, and nurture foreign ties with countries including the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
His domestic influence is apparent in Darfur, where violence has escalated despite the signing of a peace deal in 2020.
A U.N. panel of experts report published in February said elements from the RSF, as well as rebel groups, were involved in recent violence.
Hemedti has visited often, gathering tribal leaders to sign ceasefire agreements, donating cars to government agencies, and sponsoring sports championships.
Any final transition agreement would likely bar Hemedti and Burhan from standing in the first post-deal elections, one international diplomat said. But Hemedti, still in his late 40s, has time on his side.
"He wants to reinvent himself as not a militia leader, but a statesman," said the diplomat.
(Reporting by Khalid Abdelaziz; Editing by Aidan Lewis and Frank Jack Daniel)