A week ago President Isaias welcomed Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, generally referred to as Hemeti, to Asmara.
Today Hemeti is Deputy Chairman of Sudan's Transitional Sovereignty Council and on the face of it this was just a meeting between two neighbouring leaders. But a great deal is at stake - including the potential use of Eritrean refugees living in Sudan by Hemeti.
It is important to understand just who Hemeti is and what he stands for. He was the leader of the notorious Janjaweed - the Arab militia who terrorised African tribes in Darfur. It was for the part he played in a series of massacred that he has been accused of war crimes by the International Criminal Court.
As Eric Reeves, who covers Sudan for years, put it:
It is likely that over the past decade, Hemeti has accumulated more Sudanese blood on his hands in conflict in Darfur and South Kordofan—as well as in Khartoum and elsewhere—than any other man in the country.
This is the man whom President Isaias warmly embraced.
Hemeti is currently in a fierce struggle with other Sudanese leaders. As Reuters reported on Sunday:
General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo commands tens of thousands of fighters in the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and has amassed considerable mineral wealth. He is also deputy leader of Sudan's ruling council, which took power in a coup more than a year ago.
Recently however, Dagalo, widely known as Hemedti, has pulled away from military colleagues and found common ground with a civilian political alliance, in moves that could establish him as a major figure even after the democratic transition.
Central to Hemedti's disagreement with the military is his reluctance to set a clear deadline to integrate the RSF into the army, two military sources said, referring to a stipulation within the outline deal signed in December that paves the way for a two year civilian-led transition to elections.
The sources said the standoff led Hemedti to bring additional RSF forces in recent weeks to bases in Khartoum from Darfur, the western region where the group emerged from the so-called Janjaweed militias accused of atrocities during the early 2000s.
Concerned about his intentions, the army under ruling council leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan stationed more soldiers in the capital on a state of alert, the sources said.
Speaking to RSF troops earlier this month, Hemedti said his forces would never fight the army, but "our problem is with these people who are clinging to power" - an apparent reference to Islamist-leaning elements of the former regime that retain influence in the army and civil service.
The reasons for the troop movements have not been previously reported. Spokespeople for the military and RSF did not respond to requests for comment.
While tensions have since cooled, Hemedti's underlying differences with the army have not been resolved, and the risk remains of a confrontation that could tip Sudan, which sits in a volatile region between the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, into deepening instability.
Hemedti and other military men are unlikely to be able to stand for election in the short term. But in a country where power has long been held by the Khartoum elite, Hemedti, from a nomadic camel-herding background, is trying to become "a force to be reckoned with in the national power structure," said Suliman Baldo, head of the Sudan Transparency and Policy Tracker, an independent think-tank.
In a BBC interview last year, Hemedti said he would not stand by and watch the country fall apart, but denied having leadership ambitions. His office did not respond to questions submitted by Reuters.
A handover of power to civilians under the outline deal could restore billions in Western aid and restart an economic and democratic opening that was halted when, in October 2021, army and RSF officers deposed the fledgling civilian government that had followed the overthrow of former president Omar al-Bashir.
The main signatories to the outline agreement are Burhan's military and Hemedti's RSF on one side and the civilian Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) coalition on the other. The two sides had shared power in the aborted transition between Bashir's overthrow and the coup.
Hemedti has increasingly aligned himself with the pro-democracy civilian movement in speeches. On the other hand, Burhan has delayed a final signing of the transition agreement by pushing to broaden it and bring in former rebel groups and pro-military civilian factions.
On March 11, the army said accusations it was reluctant to hand over power were "open attempts to gain political sympathy, and obstruct the process of transition". Later that day, Hemedti and Burhan met, according to a statement by the ruling council.
Under pressure from Western and Gulf powers, the process of finalising a framework for forming a new transitional government before elections has since shown renewed signs of momentum.
The sides are due to meet this month to thrash out details of military restructuring, but there has so far been no indication of when the RSF will be merged with the army, and what role Hemedti would play in the enlarged armed forces.
The army wants to see the RSF, which by some estimates has up to 100,000 fighters spread across one of Africa's largest countries, integrated under their control by the end of the new transitional period, the two military sources said.
The Isaias-Hemeti relationship
The two men have a good deal in common.
· Both have established strong relations with the Russians. Isaias recently welcomed Russia's powerful Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, to Eritrea earlier this year.
· According to the New York Times, Hemeti has linked up with another force: the Russian Wagner Group, run by a close ally of President Putin. The paper describes Hemeti has the Wagner Group’s “main military ally in Sudan.”
· The report continues: “Two senior Western officials said that Wagner organized General Hamdan’s February visit to Moscow, where he arrived on the eve of the war in Ukraine. Although the trip was ostensibly to discuss an economic aid package, they said, General Hamdan arrived with gold bullion on his plane, and asked Russian officials for help in acquiring armed drones.”
What might the Isaias - Hemeti alliance lead to?
According to the UN Refugee Agency there are some 128,000 Eritrean refugees living in camps in Eastern Sudan, between Kassala and Gadaref. Others live in Khartoum and towns and villages across Sudan.
They are frequently targeted by the authorities, mostly to extract money from them. But now they could face a far greater threat.
President Isaias long resented the presence of Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, some 100,000 of whom were housed in camps run by the United Nations. When the Tigray war erupted Eritrean forces attacked the camps.
Early in the conflict, Eritrean troops entered Ethiopia and destroyed Ethiopia’s northern Eritrean refugee camps of Hitsats and Shimelba. Tens of thousands of Eritrean refugees were forced to flee further into the Tigrayan warzone.THE CONVERSATION: NOWHERE TO RUN: THE PLIGHT OF ERITREAN REFUGEES IN ETHIOPIA
Some Eritreans were forced to join the Eritrean army, others kidnapped and returned to Eritrea, from which they had fled.
Might Isaias now be planning to link up with Hemeti to deal with the Eritreans living in Sudan? It has long been speculated that the relationship between the two men might threaten the refugees.
It is even possible that Eritrean youngsters, many of whom have had military training, might be enlisted by Hemeti who could use them for his own ends.
This could mean using Eritreans to fight on the streets of Sudan. Or it could result in Eritreans being taken into Chad or even Libya. As Al Jazeera pointed out:
A report by the UNSC Libya sanctions committee in November accused Sudan and the head of Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF), Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, widely known as Hemeti, of violating UN sanctions by deploying 1,000 troops to Libya.
The BBC once described Hemeti as "the warlord who may control Sudan’s future." It would be a tragedy if he became the warlord who controlled the destiny of Eritrean refugees as well.