In 2004, Darfur’s Janjaweed militia men earned global infamy as “devils on horseback" for the ethnic cleansing they carried out with al-Bashir's government in Western Sudan. It's now more than half a decade later and this group has shook the world with its crackdown on protesters demanding democratic reform.
Using the United Nations definition, the Janjaweed comprised Sudanese Arab tribes, the core of whom are from the Abbala (camel herder) background with significant recruitment from the Baggara (cattle herder) people. However, as the group grew, members from other tribes also became a common sight within the group.
Unlike in their past incarnations, notably from 2004 and 2014, the group is now an organised and constitutionally recognised government unit. In true dictator fashion, a move that was meant to strengthen his position, Omar al-Bashir's government organised the Janjaweed militia into the Rapid Support Forces in an operation that began six years ago. This was despite a UN Security Council directive more than a decade ago to disarm the militia.
The government's tango with the militia began in 2003, after two non-Arab groups, the Sudan Liberation Army and the Justice and Equality Movement, took up arms against the Sudanese government, alleging mistreatment by the Arab regime in Khartoum. In response to the uprising, the government carried out a joint operation with the Janjaweed militias pillaging towns and villages inhabited by members of the African tribes from which the rebel armies drew their strength—the Zaghawa, Masalit, and Fur tribes.
With such a history, it is easy to see why it has been the weapon of choice for the violent clampdown on the civilian uprising in Khartoum. The forces are known to be ruthless and a report by Human Rights Watch noted that the group's activities were characterised with "killing, rape, and pillage - even stealing emergency relief items -- with impunity."
The unit is commanded by Dagalo, an Abbala Arab of Hemeti clan, who is now the deputy chairman of the Transitional Military Council that forced al-Bashir out of power in April 2019. The council is chaired by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan but many believe Dagalo has the real power.
Dangalo has had considerable influence due to his strong loyalty ties and grip over the group. Most of the members making up the Rapid Support Forces are Darfurians who were selected by Dangalo. This has managed to create a strong sense of loyalty within the force.
In addition to this loyalty, the commander enjoys the financial backing of Arab nations, most notably Saudi Arabia. It was not a shocker to insiders when the junta received a financial package from the gulf nation just after toppling al-Bashir.
This relationship has been strong since Sudan joined the Saudi-UAE-led military intervention in Yemen's war in 2015. Members of the RSF were deployed in Yemen and received support from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, including money and weapons
Tsega Etefa, Associate Professor of History, Colgate University, notes that it is the failure of international community to solve the Darfur crisis that has left Sudan in its current predicament. With the streets of Khartoum being roamed by such a militia, known to have signed up criminals, convicts and prisoners, it is heartbreaking to imagine how much damage they have caused. The wounds can take decades to heal.
Header Image Credits: Radio Dabanga