Khartoum at night. Photo by Aamirco/Wikimedia

In Sudan, intense fighting between the Sudanese army and the paramilitaries of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) has devastated the capital Khartoum and sparked ethnically driven attacks in Darfur, threatening to plunge Sudan into a civil war and destabilise the region. 

It all started with a power struggle between the leader of the RSF, General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, known as Hemedti, and General Abdelfattah al-Burhan, who commands the national army. Both remain stubbornly deaf to calls for a truce or negotiation.

Travelling to Sudan several times before the war and trawling through documents and social media, a cross-border team of journalists and researchers looked into the link between the EU, former dictator Omar al-Bashir and Hemedti, a warlord in search of a presidential seat. 

Obsessed with halting migration, the European Union entrusted Sudan almost 10 years ago with responsibility for preventing migrants from reaching Libya, and therefore heading onto Europe.

At the time, Sudan was under Omar al-Bashir’s regime. A migration partnership emerged through what is known as the Khartoum Process, which critics say legitimised Sudan’s “militia state” and was tantamount to being a pact with the devil that still has consequences today.

In Sudan, the militiamen of the RSF, recruited mainly among the nomadic tribes of Darfur, have been acting as Khartoum’s proxies in the Darfur war since the early 2000s. They are known as “Janjaweed” and they have been accused of numerous war crimes.

They were also officially in charge of border control, as the men know the desert well, particularly the northwest area of ​​Sudan which borders Libya. That was the border that was of great concern for the EU.

Hemedti’s public relations tactics started long before the conflict between the RSF and the army. He spent a fortune on communications, rebranding himself from a warlord to a credible interlocutor on the diplomatic scene.

Thanks to the Khartoum Process, he won a bargaining chip with the EU, presenting himself as “Mr Migration” in Sudan. Meanwhile, the RSF themselves have been accused by several reports from NGOs and research institutes of participating in trafficking, ransoming and mistreating migrants. 

A diplomatic source mentioned to the team a “tense” meeting with the Sudanese opposition who voiced suspicions of the “EU’s funding of Sudanese security services to strengthen the fight against illegal migration”.

Today, despite the deadly war, Hemedti persists in presenting himself as a champion of civilian rights in Sudan and a bulwark against a come-back of the Islamists of Omar al-Bashir’s regime.

In the current context of massive human rights abuses, Western democracies can no longer have an openly good relationship with him, but his emissaries are still received, discreetly, in European chancelleries.

Yet most Europeans are unaware of this and the European States’ good relationship with Hemedti has consequences today that they certainly hadn’t planned.

Without the EU’s recognition, Hemedti would most likely not have the legitimacy to claim power and launch his country into a deadly civil war, a war that might endure for years to come.

The cross-border team was composed of Gwenaëlle Lenoir, Patricia Huon, Youri van der Weide and a Sudanese researcher who prefers to stay anonymous.

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