Western Sahara: Polisario destabilised by tribal conflicts?

By Nina Kozlowski, Rym Bousmid
Posted on Thursday, 17 March 2022 19:05

Sahrawi refugee camp, near Tindouf, southwestern Algeria. REUTERS/Dani Cardona

Recent celebrations of the 46th anniversary of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) have taken on a guerrilla feel, raising the veil on clashes between tribes within the Tindouf camps, as they fight for control of the smuggling ring.

An anniversary that turns into a drama. On 27 February, in the Tindouf camps, the 46th anniversary ceremony of the SADR was cut short after clashes broke out so violently that they forced the Polisario to exfiltrate the foreign guests.

The cause? A tribal conflict, which degenerated into a bloody shootout, involving different groups of the Reguibat tribe – one of the largest tribes in the Sahara, to which SADR President Brahim Ghali belongs (of the Ouled Taleb) – and the Polisario Front forces.

Sharp tensions have thus pitted members of the demographically dominant Ouled Moussa and Bouihat tribes, who both belong to the large Reguibat family, against each other. These two groups, already in conflict over land plots in 2019, clashed again in mid-February.

It all started with a brawl between the two clans, during which a member of the Bouihat had his vehicle stolen. It was later found at the home of a man from the Ouled Moussa tribe. A few days later, an SUV loaded with goods belonging to a Bouihat was set on fire at the Smara camp. The victims of the arson attack went in search of the culprit: a member of the Ouled Moussa tribe was arrested and handed over to the Polisario police in Smara.

However, the accused was quickly released by the authorities. The decision triggered a wave of anger among the Bouihat victims, several of whom attacked the police station in Smara and kidnapped three policemen they believed were involved. The latter were held for several hours, before their captors decided to take a police vehicle.

The different tribal groups clashed before the Polisario militias came into play. This intervention only made things worse and intensified the hostilities and clashes between tribal groups.

From the Bouihat side, there are claims that the police are acting in a biased manner, showing tribal favouritism, to their detriment. The Polisario Front’s police force is mainly composed of members of the Ouled Moussa tribe. The dispute between the Bouihat and the police dates back to the arrest of a young Bouihat in early February, who was allegedly tortured by the police.

The day after the attack on the police officers in the Smara camp, the Polisario forces’ response was severe: raids and targeted fire attacks on houses of those involved.

Drama under the Polisario tent

Clashes between the Bouihat and Polisario forces broke out again on the day of the ceremony. Demonstrations took place on the sidelines of the event, a protest against the repression of the authorities. The situation degenerated: the marquee reserved for the reception of foreign guests was set on fire, stones were thrown at security officials and vehicles belonging to the Polisario were destroyed.

Polisario forces attempted to disperse the crowd and opened fire. Though there are no official figures, Mohamed Salem Abdel Fattah, head of the Saharawi Media Observatory based in Morocco, says – without further details – that there were “many victims, both among those involved in the clashes and other unarmed civilians”. The circle of confrontation widened when another tribe, the Souad, decided to join forces with the Ouled Moussa – whom they are related to – against the Bouihat.

“The different tribal groups clashed before the Polisario militias came into play. This intervention only made things worse and intensified the hostilities and clashes between tribal groups,” says Mohamed Salem Abdel Fattah.

On 27 February, the intensity of the violence was such that the Polisario requested reinforcements from Algerian General Mustapha Ismaili, commander of the third region, in order to ensure the protection of foreigners and calm the crisis. However, the arrival of an Algerian military detachment on the outskirts of the camps only irritated the belligerents. The latter refused to negotiate before pushing them to leave.

According to several sources, the demonstrators went as far as burning down the police headquarters in the Smara camp and its annexes in Aousserd, information that is difficult to verify given the opacity of the data. The next day, the Polisario police launched a large-scale arrest campaign. Again, no figures were given.

Power and influence struggles

This outburst of violence comes in a context of weakening of the Polisario leadership and the return of tribal logics. Some tribes feel that they have been wronged in the distribution of political and economic power, particularly with regard to the control of the various traffics that take place in the area. The different groups use their influence to control the crossing points or have access to the tracks.

Regularly, these fragile balances trigger altercations between members of the different communities. Mohamed Salem Abdel Fattah links this situation to the events of 22 February. “What happened was the result of infighting between armed groups, which are involved in smuggling,” he says.

The deterioration of conditions in the camps encourages young people to turn to illegal activities, such as smuggling.

In a report published in October 2021, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres referred to the penetration of armed groups and smuggling gangs into the area where the Polisario is active, and the diversion of humanitarian aid. A source familiar with the power games within the organisation says: “The deterioration of conditions in the camps encourages young people to turn to illegal activities, such as smuggling.”

The three tribes involved in the 22 February clashes (the Bouihat, the Ouled Moussa and the Souad), are established in the disputed territories between the Polisario and Morocco. In these highly militarised areas, the movements of Saharawis on either side of the border are particularly restricted. These restrictions on freedom of movement fuel feelings of powerlessness and encirclement, which exacerbate tensions in the camps.

The Tindouf camps have a specificity: they are officially administered, not by the host country – Algeria – but by the SADR, considered as a Republic in exile. It is therefore the Polisario that is entitled to exercise administrative, judicial, police, military and political powers in the area.

Open-air prison

However, Algeria is called upon to directly supervise the camps in order to protect the refugees and prevent all forms of repression. “Given the methods adopted by the Polisario forces […], it is necessary to underline the responsibility of the host state to ensure that the refugees enjoy all their rights recognised by the refugees,” says Mohamed Salem Abdel Fattah.

After the events of the 46th anniversary of the SADR, the Polisario organised reconciliation meetings with the leaders of the conflicting tribes. Nevertheless, the authority of these leaders is gradually being diluted, especially among young people who have grown up in the camps and are less sensitive to their moral authority.

During attempts at conciliation, the members of the Bouihat tribe maintained their hostile position towards the Ouled Moussa, whom they consider to be favoured by the forces of order. On the other hand, the Ouled Moussa said they were ‘worried’ about the safety of their relatives and also urged them to stop collaborating with the Polisario security forces.

On 9 March, during the 49th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Saharawi activists denounced ‘the violations, forced disappearances and abuses perpetrated by the Polisario in the Tindouf camps in Algerian territory’.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options