Poverty drives Chadian youth to join Sudan's brutal RSF

Cropped Photo
10 min read
N'Djamena
13 October, 2021
In-depth: Poverty is driving thousands of young Chadians to join Sudan's notorious RSF, one of the region's most feared paramilitary organisations, where they may be deployed as far afield as Yemen. Mahamat Tahir Zene reports.

Abu Fawzi al-Razaiki (not his real name) was a member of the Chadian opposition. In 2016, he joined the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces (RSF), working both in their intelligence branch and in training their new recruits in military skills.

His long experience as a commander in the Democratic Revolutionary Council (CDR) - one of the factions of the National Liberation Front of Chad (FROLINAT) - made him well-equipped for the roles, and in return he was promised that he and his friends would be given assistance if they ever returned to their country.     

However, this was not to be. After the fall of Omar al-Bashir's regime in April 2019, a fierce dispute arose between al-Razaiki and the RSF leadership, among them the then head of the intelligence branch, Madawi Hussein.

"Thousands of Chadians have joined the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces since its inception in 2013"

"The Chadian government demanded my expulsion from the RSF and my imprisonment," says al-Razaiki. On 22 November 2019, he was dismissed from the intelligence branch for "refusing to obey orders" and sentenced to six years in jail by a military court order.

Chadian opposition leaders join RSF ranks

Al-Razaiki is just one high ranking member of the Chadian opposition who has worked in the RSF, the notorious Sudanese paramilitary organisation formed in August 2013. Others include Capt Habib Ali Hareka, who was a commander in the RSF's artillery unit, before working in the organisation's recruitment committee. Prior to this, he had been a captain in the Chadian army and a military commander in the Front for the Salvation of the Republic (FSR).

Al-Razaiki explains that a number of Chadian opposition leaders joined the RSF as individuals, rather than as representatives of their former organisations. He lists some of them: Haroun Abubakar, known as "Al-Rakhees" ("The Cheap"), former president of the Chadian Democratic Council; Lt Hamadan Al-Fadil, a former member of the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (UFDD); Hassan Idaka, a former commander in the UFDD; and Lt Gibril Adam, a former member of the CDR.

Map showing Chad, Darfur, Sudan and Yemen [The New Arab]
The Sudanese RSF have been recruiting Chadian fighters to its ranks. Some have been deployed in the war in Yemen [The New Arab]

Al-Razaiki estimates that tens of thousands of Chadian recruits have joined the RSF since its inception in 2013. However, Chadian opposition member Abdullah Al-Tahir, who also worked for a period in the RSF's intelligence department, puts the number of Chadian recruits at around 7,000.

Jérôme Tubiana, a researcher for the Small Arms Survey, believes that the former number may be closer to the truth. He states that the number of Chadians who had gone to Sudan to join the RSF between 2013 and 2017 included 6,000 Arabs and some non-Arab tribes, like the Tama.

In addition to this were "1,000 former rebels who were seasoned fighters, such as those from the FSR and the Fundamental Union of Forces for Democracy and Development UFDD-F (the biggest group of opposition rebel forces against the former President Idriss Deby).  These statistics were published on the official website for the Small Arms Survey on 4 May 2017, in a study entitled: 'Remote-control Breakdown: Sudanese Paramilitary Forces and Pro-government militias'.

"The Sudanese militias recruit fighters from neighbouring countries: Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya and South Sudan. This is happening with or without the agreement of Khartoum"

Cross-border recruitment: Loyalty for sale

The UN Panel of Experts on Sudan sent a report to the Security Council on 10 January 2019. It emphasised that "relations between Sudan and Chad are the cornerstone of stability in Darfur and the two countries have established close cooperation through the deployment of joint border forces. However, Chad expressed disquiet towards Sudan's Rapid Support Forces, because they include former members of Chadian armed groups among their ranks".

According to Tubiana: "The Sudanese militias recruit fighters from neighbouring countries: Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya and South Sudan. This is happening with or without the agreement of Khartoum".

He points out that since 2014, hundreds of young Arab men from Dar Sila in south-east Chad have been travelling across the border to join Sudanese militias, usually the RSF, which have utilised these foreign fighters to assist with ongoing operations in Jebel Marra.

Analysis
Live Story

RSF militants are also being sent further afield, which Tubiana sees as a major issue. "The willingness of Sudanese militias to engage in external conflicts threatens to contribute to further regional instability". Since November 2016 for example, Chadian RSF recruits have been deployed in the Yemen war, according to Al-Razaiki.

"Chadian fighters are highly sought after due to their reputation for discipline and ability to execute orders, as well as their ability to handle harsh desert conditions because of their Bedouin roots," he says. Nearly 4,000 Chadians are believed to have fought in Yemen with the RSF.

The first case of Chadians being sent to Yemen with the RSF was in late 2016. The unit included 600 fighters of which 450 were Chadian, according to Al-Razaiki. He himself was deployed to fight in Yemen in 2018. Tubiana says: "I don't know how many went to Yemen but I am sure that many will have joined the RSF aiming to be sent there, because it is very well paid".

"Chadian fighters are highly sought after due to their reputation for discipline and ability to execute orders, as well as their ability to handle harsh desert conditions because of their Bedouin roots"

An RSF recruit in Sudan will earn around 15,500 Sudanese pounds ($39 dollars) per month according to Issa al-Hussein, a Chadian RSF recruit. Low ranking fighters in Yemen however will receive around $480 monthly and officers will earn $530. Compensation for the families of fighters killed is between 60,000 and 70,000 Saudi riyals (SAR) ($16,000 and $18,630) whereas for an officer it will reach around 150,000 SAR ($40,000), according to Al-Razaiki.

In September 2017, it was reported that 412 RSF fighters had been killed in Yemen since Sudan's entry into the war in March 2015. Among them were 14 officers, according to press statements issued by the head of the RSF, Gen Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, popularly known as 'Hemedti'. Meanwhile, a Sudanese government source estimated that by June 2018, 850 RSF militants had been killed.

Brig Gen Yahya Sare'e, Spokesperson for the Yemeni Armed Forces (affiliated to the Houthi militias), stated on 2 November 2019 at a press conference: "The total losses suffered by the Sudanese army in Yemen is more than 8,000, including those killed, wounded, and disappeared".

Local Facebook pages showed deaths of Mohamed Tahir Adam and Shaib al-Hamidi
Mohamed Tahir Adam [L] and Shaib al-Hamidi died while fighting with the RSF in Yemen [Al-Araby Al-Jadeed]

Among the Chadians who were killed fighting in Yemen, are Shaib al-Hamidi (28) who died on 14 May 2018 on the Saudi-Yemeni border, and Mohamed Tahir Adam (20), who was killed in November 2018, according to local Chadian pages on Facebook.

Militias seen as a way out of poverty

Mohamed Ali Kilani, head of the Centre for Monitoring Conflict in the African Sahel believes that Chadians are ready to join the Sudanese militias due to the shared culture, ethnic make-up, and social structures between Chad and Sudan. He says: "There are tribes which bridge the two countries, whose members are constantly moving back and forth searching for stability and a means to make a living".

Tubiana also points out that this cross-border recruitment is not new: "The late Chadian President Deby was similarly active in recruiting members of the Sudanese Zaghawa people to his forces”.

"70% of Chadian soldiers in the RSF are from rural areas. These people are not joining the RSF for ideological reasons. They travel to neighbouring countries desperately seeking work and the only way for many of them is to join armed militias"

Alabid Moustapha al-Bashir, Commissioner with the National Committee for Human Rights in Chad, acknowledges the Chadian presence within the RSF. He says that 70% of Chadian soldiers in the RSF are from rural areas.

“These people are not joining the RSF for ideological reasons. They travel to neighbouring countries desperately seeking work and the only way for many of them is to join armed militias. The reason young Chadians are joining these factions - whether the RSF or Seleka in the Central African Republic, is the extremely high level of poverty in Chad, where even people’s basic needs are not met”.

Statistics from the World Bank database show that between 2008 and 2019, 85.7% of the total population were living in poverty. The rate of severe deprivation during the same period was 62.3%.  

Perspectives

The Chadian penal code criminalises mercenary activity and activity which threatens national security in articles 89, 93, 98, and 100. Articles 109 and 111 of the same law prohibit violation of national unity, causing instability, intimidation of civilians, armed aggression and threats against civilians, illegally carrying arms, and trading, manufacturing or importing arms, according to al-Bashir. Not only this, but Chadian law expressly forbids Chadian nationals from enlisting in foreign forces.

Article 115 of the Chadian penal code, which was added in 2017, stipulates that mercenaries are considered those to whom the following applies: a) persons recruited specifically to fight in any armed conflict in the country or abroad, b) those who participate directly in armed conflict, c) those who take part in armed conflict in exchange for receiving personal gain, including the promise, by or on behalf of one party to the conflict, of financial reward.

"Human beings must be able to live in dignity in their own homelands, instead of being forced, through poverty, to join the ranks of armed groups abroad and suffer the dangers that go along with that"

Despite these legal restrictions, al-Bashir says that “in practical terms, the state is incapable of preventing recruitment, due to the profound destabilisation which has been ongoing since the death of former president Deby. The National Committee for Human Rights has not been able to effectively mobilise around this issue at the moment for similar reasons. However, it has been able to include these issues in its annual report”.

He adds: “Human beings must be able to live in dignity in their own homelands, instead of being forced, through poverty, to join the ranks of armed groups abroad and suffer the dangers that go along with that”.

RSF response

Gen Hemedti enjoys a close relationship with a number of powerful Chadian militiamen, among them one of his cousins, who is a member of the Transitional Military Council (TMC), Gen Bichara Issa Jadallah.

Chadian recruits in the Sudanese RSF
Thousands of Chadians have joined the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces since its inception in 2013 [Getty Images]

In a call between the author of this investigation and the leader of the FSR, Ahmat Hassaballah Soubiane, who was formerly also special advisor to the president of the TMC, he denied that TMC members were fighting for the RSF and stated that he was not “responsible for Chadian fighters in Sudanese forces”.

Maj Gen Nooreldin Ahmed Abdelwahab, a high-ranking advisor in the RSF, denies that Chadian soldiers are serving in the organisation: “The RSF are Sudanese and forbid the recruitment of foreigners. Even if one of their parents is not Sudanese, we will not allow them to enlist. We are very particular about who we recruit, therefore there are no foreign elements in our forces”.

However, three Chadians currently in the RSF refute this. Ahmad Dawood (22), Hussein Abdulghani (20) and Amer Abdullah (19), who were in Sudan at the time of this investigation state that they joined the RSF at the end of 2018. Ahmad says: “Sometimes we are stationed in El-Geneina at the very western edge of Sudan and other times in Khartoum”.

Analysis
Live Story

Al-Razaiki says the recruitment of Chadians into the RSF is facilitated by Chadian military commanders or through relatives and acquaintances of RSF officers: “Many join through the mediation of mayors and tribal sheikhs who they have personal links to”.

He goes on to explain that Chadian recruits are trained for a period of six to nine months. This training is exclusively for those from Chad and is not given to those joining from Libya for example, who are regarded as seasoned fighters who will have gained experience fighting with Gen Khalifa Haftar’s forces.

He says that there is a training camp in El-Geneina where 1,500 out of the 2,500 fighters currently stationed there are from Chad, some of whom are defectors from the Chadian army, and who undergo training there in various skills such as signalling, intelligence, sniper and artillery courses.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko