In late June 2016, Sudanese newspapers reported that mass forces from the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) reached Al-Daba, a town on the banks of the Nile in Sudan’s Northern state. This came days after the Governor of the Northern state gave a speech in which he said that there are bandits moving on the border of his state with Libya.
Two weeks earlier, the governor had asked for federal support to fight what he called human trafficking and drug smuggling activities in his state, saying that this kind of organized crime can not be fought by the state alone and needs federal intervention.
The speech was made during a session in which the 2015 state plan was assessed and the 2016 plan was launched in front of the Council of States, a body that brings together the authorities of all Sudan’s states.
It did not take long for “the help” to come. It came in the form of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) which is a new and advanced form of the Janjaweed force that wreaked havoc on Darfur, mostly in the early days of the conflict and this new force came into full-force in 2014 as a paramilitary force to support the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) counter insurgency in Darfur and also to suppress the conflicts in the two areas, Blue Nile and Southern Kordofan. The RSF have an awkward position, they are not integrated in the SAF and they receive their funds from the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) , but are directly managed by the president himself as stated in a recent presidential decree. Known for its ruthlessness, Human Rights Watch released a report on the RSF in 2015 in which it called them “men with no mercy”.
In July 2016, the RSF’s leader, Mohamed Hamdan who is known as Hemedity, told the press that they (the RSF) protect the Sudanese-Libyan borders from gangs and bandits and not long after this statement, Hemedity has said that his forces have captured 300 in the Chevrolet area on the Libya-Sudan border on their way to Libya. 300 what? As described in the newspaper, they captured 300 “victims of human traffickers”. In this context, the terminology is very important as Sudan has been marketing itself as fighting human trafficking activities since the EU fund came into the picture last year. In June 2016, the country handed over what it claimed to be one of the main king pins of human trafficking of Eritrean nationals to the Italian police and during the same period, Al-Siha newspaper reported that a number of police officers were arrested and charged in a human trafficking operation while an electronic newspaper, Al-Tareeq newspaper reported that the trial of 130 defendants accused of human trafficking in the Eastern state will commence after they were arrested in late 2015. The trials are carried under the 2015 human trafficking law which sentences those accused of human trafficking to between 5 to 20 years in detention.
Shortly after this statement, it turned out that the bandits referred to by the governor of Northern State and the RSF leader, Hemedity, were actually illegal migrants from Ethiopia as reported in the 31st of July 2016 issue of Akhir Lahza, a pro-government newspaper also owned by the national security. The article quoted Hemedity saying that the RSF was able to capture around 600 illegal migrants identified as Ethiopians on their way to Egypt and to Libya. The migrants were supposedly handed over to the North Darfur authorities. An Eritrean activist interviewed around that time said that about 475-485 Eritreans were arrested as they tried to enter Libya and were deported back to Eritrea while about 325 Eritreans were arrested also on the Libya border and the majority said that they hail from Ethiopia and were taken to the Ethiopian embassy in Khartoum and they faced possible deportation to Ethiopia while 14 confirmed that they are Eritreans and were separated from the group and deported to Eritrea.
The Eritrean activist interviewed by Africa Monitors could likely be speaking about the same group identified and held by the RSF. It should be noted that a very small number of Ethiopians make the precarious journey through Libya and Egypt to the Mediterranean. In fact, 2015 UN statistics confirm that Ethiopians do not even appear in the 50% non-Syrians who cross the Mediterranean.
In this regard, it is fair to say that when the first group was arrested by the RSF, the second batch felt the needed to identify themselves as Ethiopian in an attempt to escape the fate of the former group. As reported in an earlier blog post by Africa Monitors, those refugees who faced deportation from Sudan in May 2016 were imprisoned when they reached Eritrea.
As the RSF found itself in the midst of securing borders from refugees, the SAF came forward and said that it is doing its role in protecting the border areas. In fact, the border patrol troops who are the actual body entrusted with securing Sudan’s borders are part of the SAF while RSF is not. At the same time, on the 30th of July 2016, the joint Sudanese-Libyan Forces celebrated the opening of a new headquarters for its leadership in Dongola, Northern State. One of the major tasks of this force is to secure the borders and in the opening ceremony, a representative from the armed forces said that Sudan is putting a lot of effort in fighting trafficking.
The timing of the opening of the headquarters as well as the deployment of RSF could be viewed as a way to send a message to the European Union as it is expected to start depositing millions of euros as part of a fund to Sudan to assist the transit country in countering migration; in other words, keeping the migrants and especially Eritrean migrants inside the country as Sudan is the second defense frontier after Eritrea.
The newspapers are now quiet and the RSF is no longer making statements. The reason could be the fact that this is the rainy season in Sudan and most roads are actually in worse conditions than during normal times. Only when the migratory waves commence once again will we have enough information to understand the nature of the activities being carried out by the RSF and be able to gather more evidence against this group, the most feared militia in Sudan.