The men on the roundabout
The blurry video is just a few seconds long. I could see three young men wearing the uniform that the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary force in Sudan, is known for. The men are riding mini ducks and mini elephants in a small roundabout game that is usually appreciated by kindergarteners.
I am not sure where this game is, some said it is at Al-Mogran amusement park, but it could be at any park or playground in any part of Khartoum. It could even be inside the playground of a private kindergarten or primary school.
An early start
The video is too blurry to show facial expressions, but the young men seem to be having fun. It is perhaps their first time trying this game and the men, most likely, didn’t have a normal childhood.
Most children in Sudan don’t go to kindergarten, they start school right away. In fact, kindergarten is a very urban and middle-class concept. Daycare facilities and kindergartens are important for helping children achieve developmental milestones, learn how to socialize and accept diversity as well as play.
Currently, UNICEF estimates that around 7 million children are out-of-school in Sudan, and it is not a surprise that many of them are in regions which have seen effective recruitment campaigns for teenagers and young men by the RSF.
Two years ago, a friend of mine told me that in Nyala, a city in the Darfur region, the RSF would pay families with male children a monthly stipend with the promise that as soon as they are old enough, they get to join the RSF.
Old enough is a very relative term. Minors are a norm in the RSF.
In this regard, young men become the most brutal fighters because they have likely witnessed violence from an early age. Their lifestyle itself as nomadic groups is tellingly sustained through violence because nomadic children as little as eight understand how to fire a weapon which is the bare minimum to protect their cattle. Their cattle are the wealth of their family.
The video was likely taken during the second half of April 2023 after the RSF entered into armed confrontations with the Sudanese army in the capital state, Khartoum, and in several states around Sudan. To understand what is happening today, we have to go back at least ten years.
RSF rises to the surface
In general, the postcolonial state in Sudan was always volatile and the central government continued to establish paramilitary groups to support them in crushing rebellions in the periphery of the country. The RSF was formed about ten years ago for this exact purpose. Carefully tailored by the former president, Omer Al-Bashir (1989-2019), to crush the rebellion in the Darfur region in western Sudan and in other parts of the country.
To the authorities, the RSF was successful in quelling the rebellion and in pushing the armed groups into neighboring countries, but to the civilians in Darfur, the RSF were brutal. They pillaged and burned down villages, raped women, and murdered civilians in horrendous ways.
To the authorities, the RSF was successful in quelling the rebellion and in pushing the armed groups into neighboring countries, but to the civilians in Darfur, the RSF were brutal.
The RSF continued to be empowered by Al-Bashir until he was ousted in 2019 through a popular revolt that aimed at getting rid of his security committee which was composed of several men including the two generals at war today, Hemedti and Al-Burhan.
Publicly, the RSF supported the removal of Al-Bashir and began marketing itself as close to the people of Sudan even though one of the main slogans of the revolution was: “the military to the barracks and the RSF for dismantlement”. Its leader, Hemedti, came out as a separate force and Sudan emerged as a country with two armies. No one reaped the fruits of the revolution like the RSF.
The transitional period (2019-2021) failed to carry out any serious reform of the military sector or consolidate power in the hands of civilians. In 2021, the army along with the RSF, carried out a military coup against the transitional government in an attempt to continue consolidating power to their interest. Ironically, they told us that the coup was to stop the country from sliding into war.
The international community began working with the political actors to reach an agreement that would once again realize a new partnership between the political forces and the military institution. The army saw that any security sector reform would disempower the economic interests of its leaders and the RSF would be given ample time to integrate their forces into the army and in the meantime, continue to grow its economic and political influence.
The political agreement never materialized and the long-delayed confrontations between the army and the RSF began. Two armies are always a recipe for disaster, but it is one that could have been averted.
Right now, war continues in Khartoum state amidst wrecked buildings and houses. West Darfur state is almost entirely devastated, parts of North Kordofan state are under siege and the conflict has destroyed and displaced numerous other states. Militarily, the army has ammunition that the RSF doesn’t have and most importantly, they have an air force. However, the young men who rode the kindergartners’ roundabout have shown ferocious bravery and resilience and an unsparing willingness to stand their ground. It is almost a war between millennials and Gen Z.
Two armies are always a recipe for disaster, but it is one that could have been averted.
The dynamics of the RSF
The RSF is managed by Hemedti and his family who belong to the Mahariya branch of an Arab nomadic tribe called Rizeigat. In the Mahariya, they are Awlad Mansour. The Rizeigat are one of many tribes who fall under the Jeneid umbrella and this larger group brings together dozens of tribes that call many countries home at once. The social fabric of Jeneid crosses Sudan into Libya, Egypt, Central African Republic, Chad, Niger, Mali and perhaps even more countries. The Mahamid for example who are a branch of Rizeigat and have a Nazir (tribal leader) in Sudan are also found in Libya while the Missreya are found in Sudan and Chad in what is known as the Baggara belt. The interlinkages could be seen at the political level as the current president of Niger is Hemedti’s relative while several senior politicians in the current Chadian government are also his relatives. Recently, Hemedti was also accused of trying to replace the government of the Central African Republic with another friendly government made up of his relatives. The tale of this group shows the almost satirical borders created by colonial powers and the extent by which most countries are completely made-up entities.
In Sudan, Jeneid are significant in numbers and the majority have Hawaker (tribal homelands), but they have age-old conflicts over land, resources and political representation with tribes that inhabit Darfur. The conflicts have caused massive population movements and communal violence with deep grievances at the societal level, so deep, in fact, that the former government doubled states, localities and administrative units to quell tribal competition and violence. It is unfair to say that the Arab nomadic groups of Western Sudan are always at fault. The way Sudan was ruled since independence provided the circumstances for conflict and most importantly, natural circumstances such as drought were instrumental in conflict over land and resources.
Using this strategy of rewarding violence and violent groups, the previous government of Al-Bashir created an unsustainable and deeply flawed country that rewarded violence with positions and added more people to the payroll without sustained results on the ground. Political dynamics between the central government and the nomadic and farming communities of Darfur led to further militarization and conflict. As a result, the farming communities have been pushed into internally displaced peoples (IDP) camps while the nomads have been accused of expanding their territory for the interest of their kinship from various African countries. This struggle over land, which is the most important resource, led to both sides taking up arms to protect their interests. Conflict in Darfur has become the norm.
Political dynamics between the central government and the nomadic and farming communities of Darfur led to further militarization and conflict.
For outsiders, it is difficult to understand how a young nomad from Niger, Sudan, Libya and Central African Republic would have collective interests. Hemedti brought them all together because they believed that he would realize their shared vision of living in a safe and secure resourceful country where they could be away from everyday racism as well as the communal violence that has cost each family one young man for at least a century.
In most Central and West African countries, Arab nomads are minority groups who at times struggle to prove historical claims to the lands, have different cultural values and in some countries, they are also a minority Muslim community. At the economic level, their livelihoods have been hit due to constant droughts as well as political instability. In Sudan, nomadic groups shy away from education partially because they don’t see the value of selling precious livestock to fund a long-term educational journey for their children and also because their livelihood is tied to their condition as nomads and they move with their cattle during different seasons which makes it difficult for children to access education. Governments introduced roving schools for nomadic children nearly 50 years ago, but investment in education and especially nomads’ education is minimal to say the least. Socially, the nomadic groups marry young and have many children because their economic interests require herders. They also prefer male children because they are constantly battling for their survival in unfriendly territory.
In a recent trip, a community activist in Al-Fula in West Kordofan state told me that they are tired of having to sacrifice their male children to conflicts that seem to never end. This had made the communities very bitter and also very hard-hearted. One of the things pro-RSF activities continue to repeat is how they don’t mourn their dead and they bury them somewhere in an unmarked grave and go back to the fight. Grief stops being a process, but a key mechanism to mobilize more warriors and add more fuel to the conflict.
Militarization is very high among nomads because in retrospect, they have to be armed to protect their livelihoods from looting as they move hundreds of kilometers to access water and security. Their strained relationship with African farming groups and the constant communal violence have also made them enter into agreements with armed groups and governments to arm them.
This is how Hemedti went from being a trader to a militia leader. Many years ago, he said on a television show that his camels were robbed by armed groups and he went to the presidential palace and made many attempts to meet Al-Bashir to seek his protection. He asked him for arms to protect his business and to some extent his community. Al-Bashir took a chance because he wanted to quell the rebellion in Darfur and in Al-Bashir’s own words, “ I asked him for 5,000 men, he brought me 15,000 men in one week.”
Hemedti assembled his forces quickly and over the years, grew his forces to over 100,000 because he targeted communities with existing militarized masculinities. Nomadic men like other men are not born violent, but research shows that their masculinities are constructed in interaction with social, cultural, psychological, economic and political factors, some of which are mentioned above. In retrospect, violence becomes almost a currency used to pay their way out of structural violence. Violence is needed to protect their territory as they continue to face the “settlers” and “natives” colonial-era dichotomy that Mahmoud Mamdani discusses in his book on the context of the Rwanda genocide. Violence is needed because the men are uneducated and using their strength and masculinity gives them an opportunity to advance. When the RSF were used as mercenaries in the Yemen war, the young men tried to negotiate with their superiors to give them the chance to go. Yemen was a country they knew nothing about, but fighting there for a year or so is very financially rewarding. This is manifested through social prestige as they are able to get married and provide for their families. However, the violence never stops because it gives them access to constant resources. Just last year, an RSF official spoke on video about how some men returning from Yemen buy motorbikes and use them to rob and loot.
In retrospect, violence becomes almost a currency used to pay their way out of structural violence.
The men on the roundabout game enjoyed the ride. In theory, we could argue that they are here to defend Hemedti and his dream of ruling Sudan, but in practice, they want to defend his vision of building a home for people like them, nomadic communities that want to rest, build a home and get a taste of stability. They fight hard because their entire existence as a people is at stake, along with their sense of themselves as men. If they lose, they will retreat to unfriendly territories and continue fighting for their lives, but this time, they would have less warriors, less ammunition and perhaps a faltering morale. If they win, they believe theyget to build a safe nation even if it costs displacing communities that have called it home for centuries.
Maybe the young soldiers enjoyed the roundabout game and went on to another one. Maybe it gave them a new perspective and made them think about their future children. Violence breeds violence and if we don’t protect our children from it, they grow up angry and wanting to protect themselves through hurting others.
This Sudan blog post is written by Reem Abbas, writer and researcher.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the SNAC project or CMI.
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