JUBA – Europe and the U.S. may face a refugee surge from Sudan if they don’t support the country’s regime under the new military-led government, according to a top Sudanese general.
Senior General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo told POLITICO that Europe and the U.S have little choice but to support the latest government to avert a refugee crisis — and he noted that Sudan’s borders are kept in check by the military, which is coming under criticism from the West for staging a coup.
He made his comments as his country is buffeted by political turmoil. In October, military leaders took control of the Sudanese government and placed civilian Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok under house arrest, drawing international condemnation.
Last week, however, Hamdok was restored to his post under an agreement between the military and civilian government — a deal that failed to quell pro-democracy protests in Sudan and left western allies uneasy.
“Because of our commitment to the international community and the law, we are keeping these people together,” he said, speaking via video-call from Khartoum, the country’s capital. “If Sudan will open the border, a big problem will happen worldwide.”
The remarks play on the international community’s increasing wariness toward refugees. The EU in recent years has become loath to take in many migrants, unable to agree on how to distribute them throughout the bloc. And the U.S. dramatically slashed its annual refugee intake under the Trump administration, before raising it earlier this year.
Dagalo said his message for Europe and the U.S. is to set aside their suspicions and regard him and Burhan as sources of stability, pointing to Sudan’s large refugee population. According to the United Nations, Sudan hosts over 1 million refugees from other countries. The international agency also notes that nearly 7 million Sudanese and South Sudanese people have been forcibly displaced, either within their own country or throughout the region.
Dagalo, who serves as the deputy to Sudan’s top general Fattah al-Burhan, isn’t a trusted figure in international circles. As commander of the country’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, Dagalo has long been linked by human rights groups to war crimes and other atrocities, especially in Sudan’s Darfur province.
In the interview through a translator, Dagalo denied such allegations, saying he was the target of “fake news” campaigns.
More broadly, western allies are skeptical of the Sudanese Army, which has yet to fulfill its promise to step away from politics and allow the country’s fledgling democratic movement to take root following the ouster of dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019.
A neighborly solution?
The EU and U.S. have both strongly condemned the military’s October coup. The U.S. and World Bank swiftly paused their financial support to the country, while the EU threatened to follow suit. More recently, a spokesperson for the EU’s high representative in the Horn of Africa told POLITICO the bloc has registered its displeasure with Dagalo directly.
“The EU has been engaging with [Dagalo] bilaterally in this capacity at several instances, messaging our support for the people of Sudan demanding a civilian government,” the spokesperson said.
In response, Dagalo is making public overtures to assuage international concerns.
He recently vowed to hand Bashir over to the International Criminal Court, where the former leader faces charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. And during his interview with POLITICO, Dagalo insisted the military will allow free elections in July 2023, describing the recent takeover as a “corrective action” in that transition.
“We need elections. The country needs an elected president,” he said, justifying the military’s recent actions as part of their “duty” to prevent Sudan’s “collapse.”
Moreover, Sudan’s army can help end conflict in neighboring countries such as Libya, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Eritrea, Dagalo claimed, arguing that Sudan — and its army — should be included in international discussions about the region’s future.
“These are our neighbors, we understand each other so we can contribute to the solution,” he said. “We can play a big part in solving all this conflict around Sudan, because Sudan is in the center [of the region].”
“Sadly the international community does not give Sudan the right attention in such big matters,” he added. “Their efforts are well appreciated, but I don’t think they will solve the problem.”
Beyond his military activities, Dagalo, also known as “Hemedti,” has also come under scrutiny for his business connections. Reuters reported in 2019 that a company owned by Hemedti’s family was flying gold bars worth millions of dollars to Dubai, despite criticizing Bashir for lining his own pockets at the people’s expense. His office denied any link between the commander and the company.
Now he is vowing to remain on the side of the Sudanese people, even as thousands of protesters take to the street to oppose his military’s ongoing involvement in the government.
That pledge has been tested in recent weeks amid numerous reports of violence at pro-democracy protests. Earlier this month, the civilian-allied Sudanese Central Doctors Committee said 10 people were shot dead by security forces during protests against the military coup.
Dagalo has pledged to conduct “a real investigation” into the matter and denied any military involvement in the violence, instead blaming “a third party.” The military, he argued, would have nothing to gain from such behavior.
“In 2019, when we took the people’s side, we protected the peaceful protesters, otherwise millions would have been killed,” he said.
Human rights groups, however, disagree. They argue military leaders bear responsibility for violence that has occurred against protesters and in the country more widely in recent years.
“Over the last two years, only low-ranking officials have been prosecuted in a handful of cases of protesters killings,” Laetitia Bader, Horn of Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “The last two months offer a dismal reflection of justice delayed. If this legacy is to end, those most responsible for these cycles of abuses can no longer get away scot-free.”
For Western allies, the situation is likely to only grow more complicated. While Hamdok, the civilian prime minister, has signed off on the political power-sharing agreement with the military, pro-democracy protesters continue to take to the streets in opposition. That has left the international community without an obvious leader to back.
“If Europe is to maintain this stance, it will have to urgently find ways to square the circle of maintaining fidelity to democracy and healing the split between the prime minister and protest movement,” wrote Theodore Murphy, director of the Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Europeans should bring pressure to bear to wring the maximum out of the military and treat the Political Agreement as a positive start to expand upon, rather than an end in itself.”