Starting out as a camel trader leading a militia accused of atrocities in Darfur, Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan has steadily amassed influence and wealth in Sudan over the past two decades as he rises to the pinnacle of power.
Even when his one-time patron, autocratic President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, was ousted by pro-democracy protesters in 2019, General Hamdan turned it to his advantage – increasingly Mr. Al-Bashir left and in the previous year, re-established himself as a born-again democracy with aspirations of leading Sudan himself.
At the same time, he allied himself with Russia and its Wagner private military company, whose mercenaries guard gold mines in Sudan and which supplied military equipment to his forces.
But General Hamdan faced perhaps his toughest challenge on Saturday as fighting continued in the capital between his powerful paramilitary group and the Sudanese army led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
“This man is a criminal,” General Hamdan said in an interview with Al Jazeera on Saturday.
“This man is a liar,” continued General Hamdan. “This man is a thief. He destroyed Sudan.
The army retaliated, with a spokesman describing General Hamdan as a “rebel”. But the heated language brought home to many Sudanese that despite his earlier talk about democracy, General Hamdan, a commander with a long record of brutal crackdowns, was literally fighting for his future.
And it was a reminder of a depressing reality: despite the protesters widely maligned Mr. al-Bashir In 2019, the military leader who flourished under the brutal system of his regime is still fighting to dominate the country.
General Hamdan cut his teeth as a commander with the Janjaweed militia, which committed some of the worst atrocities in the western region of Darfur. The conflict, which began in 2003, has displaced millions and killed more than 300,000.
His ability to crush local rebel groups has won him the loyalty of Mr. al-Bashir, who in 2013 appointed him to lead the newly-created Rapid Support Force.
After protesters flooded the streets of Khartoum in early 2019, roaring for Mr. al-Bashir’s ouster, Gen. Hamdan helped oust Mr. al-Bashir from power.
But two months later in June 2019 when Protesters demanding an immediate change to civilian rule refused to leave the protest site, General Hamdan’s Rapid Support Forces led a ferocious assault.
According to multiple accounts from protesters and witnesses, his soldiers burned tents, raped women, and killed dozens of people, throwing some of them into the Nile River. According to Sudanese medics, at least 118 people were killed.
General Hamdan denied any role in the violence and lashed out at those referring to his fighters as Janjaweed, despite the militia’s key role in coming to power. “Janjaweed means a robber who robs you on the street,” she said told the New York Times, “It’s just opposition propaganda.”
Since then, the Rapid Support Force has evolved into much more than a gun-toting rabble. With some 70,000 fighters according to some estimates, the force has been deployed to crush insurgency across Sudan and fight for pay in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition.
The war also made General Hamdan very wealthy, with interests in gold mining, construction and even a limousine rental company.
He has also emerged as a surprisingly agile politician, traveling across the Horn of Africa region and the Middle East to meet leaders and develop closer ties with Moscow.