Problems of Africa’s militias

Haitham Nouri , Thursday 1 Jun 2023

Africa’s militias often compound the threats their countries face and compromise their stability.

Problems of Africa s militias
Amhara regional forces in their graduation ceremony (photo: AFP)


The Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) have adopted the slogan “Unifying the guns” in the war against the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), with a large portion of the Sudanese siding with the army in a conflict that has been gutting the country for six weeks.

The slogan is not a new one in the African continent and the Arab world, however. It was first adopted by Lebanese politicians to express their rejection of the Iran-backed Hizbullah movement, even as the latter justified its breaking ranks with the Lebanese Army because it was “fighting the Israeli occupation of Lebanese land.”

The slogan was then adopted in Yemen, Libya, and a large number of African countries.


Until the eruption of the war, RSF leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemedti, was deputy to the President of the Sovereign Transitional Council and Commander of the SAF Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan.

Observers of the Sudanese arena mistakenly thought Hemedti and Al-Burhan were in harmony against civil forces, but since the toppling of Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir, who ruled the country for 30 years, Hamedti had been courting the militia forces more than the army and its tribal supporters.

“As a result, a large number of civilians became supporters of the RSF, under the pretext that the army was creating tyranny,” said Abdullah Al-Sheikh, a Sudanese journalist.

When first established, the RSF was mainly comprised of Janjaweed forces formed by the Sudanese Muslim Brotherhood regime under Al-Bashir to fight in Darfur in western Sudan.

Throughout the Darfur war from 2003 to 2020, the Janjaweed, hailing from Arab pastoral tribes, especially the Abbala (camel herders), committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in a conflict that claimed the lives of 300,000 people and left thousands of women and girls raped and millions of displaced persons and refugees.

“Can a movement accused of such crimes and wanted by the International Criminal Court help to achieve a democratic transformation,” Al-Sheikh asked.

Salah Ahmed, a broadcaster on Radio Omdurman, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “Hemedti does not want to rule, but to arrest Al-Burhan and then hand over power to civilians.”

“But is it plausible that a criminal who stole camels when he was young can defeat a century-old, trained, internationally recognised army and then simply hand over power to civilians,” Al-Sheikh countered.

“It cannot be denied that the military rule in Sudan was tyrannical, but we also cannot deny that the militias are not a solution. Good militia elements have to be integrated into the army and the rest must be compensated to begin their civil life,” Al-Sheikh added.

The war between the SAF and RSF broke out when Al-Burhan offered the integration of RSF militia members into the army over two years. Hemedti rejected the offer, suggesting the integration should take place over the course of 10 years.

“Hemedti rejected the integration because it strips him of his power. He would not have a political presence if he was not the commander of the RSF, because he is not a tribal leader, nor a trade union leader or political figure,” Al-Sheikh noted.

Al-Sheikh referred to late Sudanese president Jaafar Numeiri (1969-1985) who integrated the armed militia of the southern Sudanese rebellion after the Addis Ababa Peace Agreement in 1972. The precedent would have been successful had Numeiri not sided with the Muslim Brotherhood to implement Sharia Law in 1983.


Following the fall of the Marxist Derg regime under the leadership of Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam in 1991, a long Civil War led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and its allies culminated in the establishment of a federal system of nine states in Ethiopia, each of which was granted the autonomy to establish its own police.

Subsequently, the Tigrayans, who governed the country until the ascension of current Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali in 2018, established their own militias, while the Amhara and other groups followed suit, albeit on a smaller and weaker scale.

“These developments had little impact as long as the state remained robust and was led by an iron-fisted figure like late prime minister Meles Zenawi,” said Khaled Mahmoud, a researcher in African affairs.

“However, with the Civil War breaking out in Tigray, chaos spread throughout Ethiopia.”

“At the outset, Ahmed dismantled the Ethiopian army which had been under the control of the Tigrayans for three decades,” noted Omar Mohamed Al-Hassan, a professor of Amharic at the Institute of Afro-Asian Studies at the University of Khartoum.

“Despite the fact that the Tigrayans made up less than seven per cent of the population, they accounted for roughly 36 per cent of the officers in the army,” Al-Hassan said.

These then joined the Tigray militia in their mountainous strongholds, prompting Ahmed to rely on the Amhara militia that constitute 27 per cent of the population.

Motivated by a desire for vengeance against the Tigrayans, the Fano, “youth” in Amharic, waged a fierce war against Tigray, resulting in the deaths of at least 500,000 people in the small northern region, according to academic and relief estimates.

“Now that the war has ended, the Ethiopian Prime Minister is apprehensive about the Amhara gaining control of the state and isolating him, hence his request for them to surrender their weapons and integrate into the army,” said Al-Hassan.

“Meanwhile, the Amhara are concerned about being absorbed into the army and losing control of the state and army to the Oromos [who make up 34 per cent of the population], to whom Ahmed belongs,” he added.

According to Al-Hassan, “Ahmed is a Protestant from the Pentecostal sect, whereas the vast majority, if not all, of the Amhara and Tigrayans are Coptic Orthodox Christians.”

“The majority of Pentecostal adherents hail from the southern part of the country and from the Oromo people [a mix of Muslims and Christians], and this alone could be sufficient to spark a civil war between Ethiopia’s largest ethnic groups.”

“The problem is that Ahmed has convinced himself that he can manipulate Ethiopia’s diverse ethnic groups, but even the most skilled circus performer can fall off the tightrope.”


For three decades, the Somali army was a unifying force in a country that is culturally, religiously, and linguistically homogeneous but deeply divided along clan lines.

However, following the ousting of the country’s authoritarian leader, General Siad Barre (1969-1991), each clan established its own army, and the most closely related clans formed their own republics.

“At the time of independence, the blue flag with a five-pointed star represented the multiple Somalias, but now we need an eight- or nine-pointed star,” said Rashid Abdi, a Somali journalist based in Cairo.

Somalia was divided between Italy and Britain (forming the Somali Republic), France (which acquired Djibouti), Ethiopia (which claimed the Ogaden region of Somalia), and Kenya in the far east.

A few years after Barre’s fall, the Republic of Somaliland and the Republic of Puntland, an ancient Egyptian name for Somalia, were formed, although they were not recognised by any other nation.

They now each possess their own army. Somalia, meanwhile, is internationally recognised, and its capital is Mogadishu.

Late Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Sudan’s Al-Bashir, and Ethiopia dealt with the small republics, but “this situation could not last long. Any country requires international recognition, otherwise any deals with it are deemed illegal,” Abdi said.

“Attempts to merge these military forces in the near future will pose a significant threat that may not be resolved peacefully, as the leadership of the two republics have significant interests in maintaining their respective armies,” he noted.

“Like in Sudan and Ethiopia, every militia has value for its leaders in Somalia, even if it is referred to as an army, and they are unwilling to relinquish it,” Abdi said.

Mahmoud said that the challenge of the African militias is that they are founded on ethnic, national, or tribal elements, which the central government must appease to persuade their fighters to integrate into the national army.

Abdi disputed the ability of the legitimately recognised army and government to satisfy these elements.

“Somalia currently has two de facto states that enjoy greater stability than the internationally recognised Somalia, which has allowed the ruling elite to become rich. Uniting with the internationally recognised Somalia could jeopardise their wealth,” Abdi said.

“I anticipate that Somalia will undergo another civil war, whether Mogadishu becomes more powerful and no longer feels the need to placate anyone or becomes weaker if it is impacted by the impending famine in the Horn of Africa.”

Al-Hassan believes that war can be used to eradicate militias. However, Mahmoud said that the state’s failure to honour its agreements with militia leaders could result in significant consequences, citing Sudan’s experience.

“During the 11-year Addis Ababa Peace Agreement in southern Sudan, southern fighters were afforded the Army’s benefits, but they quickly defected after Numeiri reneged on his agreement with them,” Mahmoud said.

“John Garang, the leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement that led to the independence of South Sudan in 2011, was a colonel in the Sudanese Army, and the president of Southern Sudan was a middle-ranking officer in the army when the war broke out in 1983,” Mahmoud added.

“This is a vicious cycle that can only be broken by achieving justice and addressing the people instead of appeasing the leadership of militias that may not represent them,” Abdi stated.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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