After starting as a camel trader who led a feared militia accused of atrocities in Darfur, Lt. Gen. Mohamed Hamdan has steadily amassed influence and riches in Sudan over the past two decades as he rose toward the pinnacle of power.
Even when his one-time patron, the autocratic ruler President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, was ousted by pro-democracy protesters in 2019, General Hamdan turned it to his advantage — swiftly abandoning Mr. al-Bashir and, in the past year, reinventing himself as a born-again democrat with aspirations to lead 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 has supplied military equipment to his forces.
But General Hamdan faced perhaps his toughest challenge yet on Saturday, as fighting raged across the capital between his powerful paramilitary group and the Sudanese army under Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan.
“This man is a criminal,” General Hamdan said in an interview with Al Jazeera on Saturday, lashing out against General al-Burhan, the army chief who until Saturday was technically his boss and is now his mortal enemy.
“This man is a liar,” General Hamdan continued. “This man is a thief. He destroyed Sudan.”
The army hit back, with a spokesman disparaging General Hamdan 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 ruthless action, was literally fighting for his future.
And it was a reminder of a depressing reality: Although protesters ousted the widely reviled Mr. al-Bashir in 2019, the military leaders who thrived in his brutal system of rule are still fighting to dominate the country.
General Hamdan cut his teeth as a commander with the janjaweed militias that carried out the worst atrocities in the western region of Darfur. The conflict, which began in 2003, displaced millions and caused the deaths of as many as 300,000 people.
His ability to crush local rebel groups won him the loyalty of Mr. al-Bashir, who in 2013 appointed him to lead the newly-created Rapid Support Forces.
After protesters flooded the streets of Khartoum in early 2019, roaring for Mr. al-Bashir’s ouster, General Hamdan turned on Mr. al-Bashir, helping to push him out of power.
But two months later, in June 2019, when protesters demanding an immediate transition to civilian rule refused to leave a protest site, General Hamdan’s Rapid Support Forces led a brutal assault.
His troops burned tents, raped women and killed dozens of people, dumping some of them in the Nile, according to numerous accounts from protesters and witnesses. At least 118 people were killed, according to Sudanese medics.
General Hamdan denied any role in the violence and bristled at those who referred to his fighters as janjaweed, despite the militia’s key role in his rise to power. “Janjaweed means a bandit who robs you on the road,” he told The New York Times. “It’s just propaganda from the opposition.”
Since then, the Rapid Support Forces has evolved into far more than a gun-toting rabble. With about 70,000 fighters by some estimates, the force has been deployed to quash insurgencies across Sudan and to fight for pay in Yemen as part of the Saudi-led coalition.
War also made General Hamdan very rich, with interests in gold mining, construction and even a limousine hire company.
He has also emerged as a surprisingly agile politician, traveling across the Horn of Africa region and the Middle East to meet with leaders and developing close ties with Moscow.