Facing mounting political and economic pressure, and failing health, Sudan’s president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, has reconstituted the janjaweed militias as his personal army. Reincarnated as the Rapid Support Forces, or R.S.F., the janjaweed fighters are being used by Mr. Bashir to consolidate his grip on power and counter the waning loyalty of the conventional army, the Sudanese Armed Forces.
It was 10 years ago this month that the United Nations Security Council demanded that Mr. Bashir disarm the militia force — notorious for the atrocities it committed during the government’s counterinsurgency campaign in the western region of Darfur — and bring its leaders to justice. The president’s response to the call to disband the janjaweed was to incorporate its fighters into the Central Reserve Police and the Border Guards. In the decade since, Mr. Bashir has been indicted on charges of war crimes by the International Criminal Court, and violence has spread across Sudan’s border with South Sudan, which became an independent state in 2011. The government is now fighting both rebels and civilians in Darfur, and in the Sudanese states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile — with no military solution in sight.
In the face of these open-ended conflicts with rebels on Sudan’s periphery, the army’s allegiance has been in decline since at least 2008. Those in the highest ranks remain loyal to Mr. Bashir. They are from the same elite, and benefit from the privileges conferred on the president’s inner circle. Their fate is tied to his.
Junior officers, however, are disillusioned. The counterinsurgency campaigns against the various rebel groups are deeply unpopular: Foot soldiers from the restive regions they are deployed to quell are reluctant to fight against their own people, while mid-ranking officers have petitioned the government to seek political solutions. Dismayed at corruption in the senior command, these officers have even called for the removal of the defense minister, Gen. Abdel Rahim Muhammad Hussein, a Bashir loyalist and fellow fugitive from the I.C.C.
In contrast to the army, the janjaweed has proved a reliable machine of terror with little capacity or ambition to rule. It has no prominent political leaders or educated cadres; it remains mostly a group of fighters for hire, unlikely to challenge Mr. Bashir’s leadership.
In May of last year, the newly formed R.S.F. was instrumental in rebuffing an attack on the city of Umm Ruwaba in southern Sudan by the Sudan Revolutionary Front, a rebel coalition from Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile. With the insurgents less than 200 miles from Khartoum, and his official army proving reluctant to fight, Mr. Bashir used the former janjaweed forces to check the rebels’ advance.
The repackaged janjaweed deploys the same scorched-earth tactics as it did a decade ago, except that now its militiamen ride S.U.V.’s instead of horses and are equipped with high-powered weapons. According to the American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, more than 300,000 Darfuris have been displaced this year; in particular, she condemned the R.S.F.’s use of barrel bombs — shrapnel-packed explosive devices dropped from an Antonov aircraft — against Sudanese civilians.
In May, Mr. Bashir used the force in Khartoum — not for the first time, but on an unprecedented scale — deploying at least 3,000 of the R.S.F.’s estimated 10,000 fighters in the capital and placing it under the direct command of the National Intelligence and Security Services. The regime’s main security force is already notorious for its gross violations of human rights. Mr. Bashir has also promoted the janjaweed leader, Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, also known as Hemeti, to the rank of brigadier, though he did not attend military college or receive any formal education. (Another janjaweed leader and senior government adviser, Musa Hilal, who had let it be known that he was dissatisfied with his treatment by Mr. Bashir, has been sidelined.)
These moves, which were an attempt to create a counterweight to the army and intimidate political opponents, have complicated Sudan’s national crisis. They have alienated opposition parties that seek a peaceful solution, while insulting and provoking regular army officers.
When Mr. Bashir stepped out of the public eye in May because of his health (he is reported to be seriously ill with throat cancer), it was Hemeti who stepped in, commenting on domestic politics and national security, foreign policy and the economy. In a decade, Hemeti has gone from being a militiaman for his clan, the Mahariya (part of the Rizeigat tribe, one of the largest Arab groups in South Darfur), to holding a senior rank in the security services and speaking on matters of state.
Mr. Bashir’s decision to raise Hemeti’s profile and the janjaweed’s status is a risky tactic. It could provoke an all-out power struggle in Khartoum, further destabilizing the country. While the president has cultivated ties of military cooperation with Iran, numerous Sunni extremists, who support the jihadists in Iraq and Syria, are waiting in the wings in Khartoum. Given Mr. Bashir’s practice of meddling in South Sudan, Chad, Libya and the volatile Sahel region, Sudan’s stability matters beyond the country’s borders.
Showing no more than a rhetorical commitment to national political dialogue, Mr. Bashir appears to believe that he can continue to rule by force, using the janjaweed as a mercenary army. But he has miscalculated: Without peace and greater political unity, Sudan is economically nonviable and destined to become ever more divided and lawless.
There is a common interest in putting Sudan on a path to prosperity. And a wider regional stability, including oil-producing South Sudan, is also at stake. Rather than turning a blind eye to Mr. Bashir’s remobilization of the janjaweed, Khartoum’s friends among African states and allies like China, Russia and Qatar need to use their leverage — if necessary, through an internationally managed regional conference — to bring about a political transition. This means addressing the grievances of Sudan’s periphery and ending Khartoum’s piecemeal approach to the country’s conflicts. It also means insisting upon the decade-old Security Council resolution that the janjaweed be disarmed, once and for all.
Ahmed Hussain Adam is a visiting scholar and the co-chairman of the Two Sudans Project at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University.