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Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. Picture: AFP/JIM WATSON
Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. Picture: AFP/JIM WATSON

Khartoum/Cairo — A Sudanese militia that once drew international condemnation for spearheading a bloody anti-insurgency campaign in the western region of Darfur has a new, unlikely message: Please wash your hands.

As Sudan girds for another sort of battle, this time against the coronavirus pandemic, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) led by Mohamed Hamdan “Hemedti” Dagalo  is taking centre stage. The paramilitary force is building on its rise to near the top of Sudan’s transitional government after backing 2019’s overthrow of one-time sponsor, former president Omar al-Bashir.

The militia that emerged from Darfur’s Janjaweed — the “devils on horseback” — and was accused of killing 100 protesters in June now runs a quarantine centre, disinfects the streets and distributes equipment and medical advice, lavishly promoting it all on social media. One cartoon on Facebook shows its fighters squaring off against a monstrous fanged depiction of the virus clinging like King Kong to the egg-shaped Corinthia Hotel in Khartoum, the capital.

“The RSF under Hemedti has been very clever in attending to the practical needs of the average Sudanese with basic services,” said Cameron Hudson, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Leading the campaign against the coronavirus is the latest push “to reinvent themselves as defenders of the poor and downtrodden”.

The North African country needs all the help it can get. Ravaged by years of civil conflict, international sanctions and economic bungling, Sudan’s democratic transition after three decades of Bashir’s dictatorship remains fragile.

Its crippled medical system will struggle to cope with a large outbreak of the virus, which has so far infected 29 people and claimed two lives. Authorities in the nation of about 44-million people have followed much of the world in restricting public movement and will implement a full lockdown for three weeks starting on Saturday.

While Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok heads a civilian-led government, doubts remain over how much power the military that overthrew Bashir will surrender — or the exact role Hemedti sees for himself.

The moment “is particularly dangerous for Hamdok as the military — and particularly the RSF — may move to demonstrate their ability to deliver in the absence of broader government action,” said Jonas Horner, a senior Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Sudanese are looking urgently for leadership and dividends from the revolution and the transitional government so it is imperative that Hamdok begins to spend his considerable political capital to respond.”

Yet it is the RSF that has repeatedly taken the initiative in recent months. Its fighters made up much of Sudan’s contribution to the Saudi Arabia-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, and it is still a major recruiter of young men in Darfur. Hemedti has played a pivotal role in peace talks with Sudanese rebels. He’s even offered himself as mediator for Egypt and Ethiopia’s Nile dam dispute.

The RSF’s response to the coronavirus has been aimed at winning Sudanese hearts and minds. While many of the youth who led last year’s protests against Bashir are suspicious of the group’s motives, the paramilitaries do have support.

“They want to help their people and they have the right to do that,” said Abdul Hamid Mohamed, an accountant in Khartoum.

This softer side of RSF does not wash with political cartoonist Khalid Albaih. His most recent work depicts Sudan’s transition as an early-1990s-style video game, with Hemedti ascending platforms pursuing an avatar clad in Sudan’s flag and medical mask. The virus microbe lurks ahead; a toppled Bashir lies prone far below.

“The RSF has become one of the main obstacles to the democratisation of the country,” Albaih said by phone.

A doctors group has in the past week accused members of the RSF and police of attacking health workers, which the militia denies. Hamdok has described such violence as “disgraceful and unacceptable”, without referring to specific incidents, vowing “strict legal action” to protect staff.

Unlike Hamdok’s government, the RSF can draw on its discipline, organisation and resources, according to Hudson.

It is co-ordinating with the health ministry and other government departments and has closed some of its training camps and put fighters on furlough to limit their exposure to the virus, Maj Gen Osman Mohamed Hamid, the head of the militia’s coronavirus response team, said by phone.

“We are keen to help out people amid this horrible threat,” he said. “This is not the time for political games.”



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