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The new Sudan, unfortunately, may end up looking like the old Sudan

Thanks, Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed Hamdan Dagolo
A picture of the head of Sudanese Rapid Support Forces Mohammed Hamdan Dagolo is seen on a rickshaw in Nyala, Darfur, Sudan in 2017.
REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

Well, they tried.

The protest movement that ended the 30-year rule of a war crimes suspect in Sudan looks like it will result mostly in more brave, idealistic protesters dead. If you’re okay with what happened in Darfur and Egypt and is currently happening in Yemen, you’ll probably be fine with the new Sudan.

Among those you can thank are the commander of a paramilitary force Human Rights Watch referred to as the “Men with No Mercy” for their abuses in Darfur — with an assist from Saudi Arabia.

The commander, Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, appears to have played this perfectly. He ditched longtime leader Omar Bashir in favor of the protesters this spring, only to emerge as the No. 2 figure (and the real power, according to many) in the transitional military government. Now Dagolo is moving against the protests. It was his Rapid Support Force, a mostly repackaged version of Darfur’s infamous “janjaweed” militias that attacked protesters in Khartoum last Monday, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.

Several leading opposition figures were arrested over the weekend and on Sunday, security forces used tear gas and live ammunition against protesters on the first day of a general strike. Several more people were reported killed.

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Unlike Bashir, Dagolo has managed to avoid charges by the International Criminal Court for his actions in Darfur. That western area of Sudan has mostly disappeared from the news for more than a decade. A joint U.N.-African Union peace force formed in 2007 still is stationed there. But Darfur has been far from peaceful. The Rapid Support Force conducted major campaigns in 2014 and 2015.

Human Rights Watch accused it of committing war crimes:

Human Rights Watch found that the RSF committed a wide range of horrific abuses, including the forced displacement of entire communities; the destruction of wells, food stores and other infrastructure necessary for sustaining life in a harsh desert environment; and the plunder of the collective wealth of families, such as livestock. Among the most egregious abuses against civilians were torture, extrajudicial killings and mass rapes. 

Many civilians were killed by the RSF when they refused to leave their homes or give up their livestock, or when they tried to stop RSF fighters from raping them or members of their family.

As for the Saudis, and their allies in the United Arab Emirates, they have little interest in seeing a democracy movement get a foothold in Sudan which could inspire others — including their own citizens. To be fair, few such movements have ended well. Nor do they want instability that could send refugees fleeing (and perhaps make it easier for extremist groups to establish themselves and move around the region). The Saudis appear quite comfortable with the military being in charge of Sudan.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have long bankrolled Sudan — as they do Egypt under another harsh post-Arab Spring military man, Abdel Fattah Sisi. They’ve recently pledged another $3 billion to keep Sudan’s military authorities afloat. Sudan also needs the money Sudanese workers send home from Saudi Arabia.

Egypt has its bilateral problems with Sudan, its southern neighbor, particularly over territorial issues and water. But Sisi doesn’t want to see Sudan come apart, and he knows he also is vulnerable to the kind of economic protests that brought down Bashir.

What else do the Saudis get? When they needed foreign fighters for their conflict in Yemen, they turned to Sudan. (A reminder: The U.N. has called Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. It’s bad enough that members of both parties in Congress came together to try to force an end to U.S. military support for the Saudi war effort. President Trump vetoed the measure.)

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton criticized the attack on protesters last Monday as “abhorrent.”

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Overall, the cynicism of this Saudi-Sudanese deal is breathtaking. Sudan has supplied up to 14,000 fighters for the conflict in Yemen, many of them from Darfur. They go because taking Saudi money, up to $10,000, is the only way to provide for their families. Reports indicate that many of those who go are teenagers. Sudanese fighters have reported that Saudi and Emirati commanders stay far back of the front lines, issuing orders to Sudanese commanders by radio.

Most of those going from Darfur have been signed up as members of the Rapid Support Force, strengthening Dagolo’s ties with the Saudis. Dagolo and other generals have been meeting with Egyptian, Saudi and Emirati officials in recent weeks, including with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Reports say Dagolo has promised to keep Sudanese forces in Yemen.

One French researcher said the generals were urged during their visit to the Gulf to show “determination,” and to avoid the chaos that engulfed Libya and Yemen. Last Monday’s crackdown happened days after they returned home.

It’s possible Dagolo has, or will, overplay his hand. But Sudan’s biggest foreign backers want the chaos brought under control. He already has shown he’s willing to do the dirty work — and he is clever enough that he might just be able to stay on top.