BY Magdi El Gizouli
May 17, 2014 - Sadiq al-Mahdi, the leader of the National Umma Party (NUP) and patron of the Ansar brotherhood, appeared on Thursday before the prosecutor of crimes against the state in Khartoum for questioning regarding statements he recently made accusing the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) of committing crimes against civilians and including non-Sudanese nationals in its ranks. The National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) responded with a barrage of charges against Sadiq al-Mahdi under Sudan’s criminal code including ‘dissemination of false news’, ‘instigation of unrest among the armed forces’, ‘defamation’ and ‘threatening of public peace’. Sadiq al-Mahdi, in full bravado, told reporters on Tuesday he was ready to go to court as long as a free and fair trial was ensured. A cache of followers accompanied the former prime minister to the prosecutor on Thursday chanting “no dialogue with evil” and a more flat “Sadiq Sadiq the imam”. He was probably pleased to hear both.
The commanders of the RSF did not sit idle and held their own show at a press conference of the Sudan News Agency on Wednesday. The RSF is for all practical purposes the government’s most recent attempt to reconstitute a fighting force capable of countering the assortment of insurgents in Darfur, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile. Since their inception in August last year the, the RSF under the leadership of Mohamed Hamdan Daglo (Himeidti), a captain of the government’s cheap counter-insurgency campaign in Darfur, have scored a chain of victories where the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) before them had proved a chronic failure apart from notoriously inaccurate bombing campaigns that only succeed in swelling the ranks of the armed movements in the terrains of Sudan’s wars with angry combatants. Obviously, the SAF laid claim to the gains scored by the RSF, the spokesman of the army regularly appearing on state television to read out the names of the villages, khors and wadis captured by Himeidti and his men. Himeidti himself has slowly moved from the obscurity of militia operation to the limelight of national politics. State governors and senior SAF officers in Darfur receive the man as a war hero, and now he is up against Sadiq al-Mahdi, a lord of the establishment.
“All allegations against us are lies” shouted an angry Himeidti at the press conference on Wednesday. The commander’s predicament was made clear however by the fact that he was denied the uniform which draped his minder, the SAF officer officially in charge of the RSF Abbas Abd al-Aziz. Himeidti appeared in civilian dress a few numbers larger that his size guarded by an associate who made sure his pistol was on display. A few years back, while still in the jellabiya of a Rizeigati militiaman, Himeidti demanded integration into the SAF as he bargained his way back from a spell of sulky unwillingness to cooperate further with the central government bordering on frank insurgency. He had a trademark red hat back cap back then, a favourite among the Fur peasants who were once his hosts. Abbas Abd al-Aziz, the army officer, said the RSF were administered by the NISS but operate under the SAF. “These troops were gathered from different units and from volunteers. We selected people with fighting experience. We chose them very carefully,” he said. The chain of command above Himeidti and his men, it follows, is camouflaged by design to allow the officers at the helm to claim victory when it happens but avoid culpability for the carnage.
Dismissing Himeidti and his men, six thousand according to the SAF minder, as an edition of the ‘Janjaweed’ overlooks the agency of these take-away fighters who have come to occupy the recesses vacated by an exhausted state or never effectively controlled by its coercive apparatus. Much like the private companies who have taken over the lucrative venture of managing the irrigation system of the vast Gezira Scheme and made fortunes out of the win, Himeidti’s forces are an instance of ‘private-public partnership’ in the military business of counter-insurgency and related matters. The allegory does not end here though. The companies put in charge of irrigating the fields of Gezira, in the rule owned by headmen of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and associates, proved a disaster exposing the region between the Niles to one season of thirst after another. Likewise, Himeidti’s advances might provide immediate relief to the officers of an army unwilling or unable to fight the very communities from which the majority of its soldiers are drawn but conclusively dispel whatever illusions still linger regarding the capacity of the state to act as a neutral arbiter in the bloody disputes of Sudan’s hinterlands. If the Janjaweed operated in a zone of legal immunity, Himeidti’s forces constitute the law.
The best witness of the privatization of the SAF is arguably the defence minister, Abd al-Raheem Mohamed Hussein. He recently told parliament that the army suffers a severe and threatening shortage of recruits, a situation he attributed to the poor pay of its soldiers and the attraction of artisan gold mining in Sudan’s peripheries. He did not mention the lure of the joining any of the assortment of militias in the same regions, pro-government, insurgent or communal. To address this situation, said the minister, the SAF resorted to relying on the pool of ‘regular forces’ under its purview through short-term contracts, the Popular Defence Forces (PDF), the Popular Police, conscripts of the National Military Service, and the military units of the NISS. According to Abbas Abd al-Aziz, the RSF were conceived precisely to plug this gaping deficit in the SAF’s fighting power. Himeidti, a businessman with a successful record in livestock and furniture trade and a major investor in real estate in the capitals of Darfur, had already presented his bid in the battle for Heglig with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) of South Sudan back in March-April 2012 and was in a position to bargain a better deal with the SAF officers than his predecessor Musa Hilal. Unlike Musa, officially a vigilante unmarked by insignia, Himeidti achieved the proud rank of brigadier-general of the NISS.
Sadiq al-Mahdi’s alarm over the RSF is remarkable in its irony. If the business of counter-insurgency in Sudan has a pioneer it is Sadiq who as prime minister in the late 1980s resorted to arm the Baggara on the southern Sudan frontier, a solid constituency of the NUP, to battle the rebel SPLA. Fadlalla Burma Nasir, Sadiq’s defence minister at the time and today deputy chairman of the NUP, carried out the mission aside the formal structures of the SAF. The National Islamic Front (NIF), the ancestor of the NCP cycling in and out of government coalition with the NUP back then, pressed for the creation of a ‘popular force’ to assist the army, a proposal fiercely opposed by senior officers fearing further dilution of the SAF’s precarious monopoly. A draft law to launch the Popular Defence Forces (PDF) was already ripe for parliamentary approval when the NIF picked power off Khartoum’s streets on 30 June 1989 to paraphrase the memorable words of the late Zain al-Abdin al-Hindi. “Your democracy is but stinking carrion, if a stray dog ran off with it, nobody would give a damn,” he told parliament shortly before the 30 June coup.
The author is a fellow of the Rift Valley Institute. He publishes regular opinion articles and analyses at his blog Still Sudan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org