Polisario Prince

Western Sahara: 10 things to know about… Lahbib Mohamed Abdelaziz, Polisario rising star

By Nina Kozlowski

Premium badge Reserved for subscribers

Posted on May 25, 2023 11:07

On 10 May, the Polisario Front, the ruling party of the disputed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), celebrated its 50th anniversary. While Tindouf, a city in southern Algeria that hosts thousands of Sahrawi refugees was preparing for the festivities, the open succession of President Ghali was on everyone’s mind. What if Lahbib Mohamed Abdelaziz, the last of the Abdelaziz dynasty, was the most likely heir?

“This year, the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Polisario Front takes place in a particular context: the resumption of the armed struggle,” said Bouchraya Hamoudi Bayoune, prime minister of SADR and chairman of the national committee in charge of organising the festivities. In doing so, however, Bayoune neglected a key topic: the open succession of Brahim Ghali; and for good reason.

Even though he was reappointed for a third term in early January 2023, he remains a physically weakened and politically contested leader – in Tindouf and within the Polisario Front’s own leadership.

For several months, in the SADR territories and in Algiers, the question of his replacement has been raised. The candidates are numerous and one of them is Lahib Mohamed Abdelaziz, son of Mohamed Abdelaziz. He ruled the Polisario for 40 years, which makes him a key member of a Sahrawi quasi-dynasty.

Little known by the media and the general public, this 33-year-old man is experiencing a meteoric rise within the Polisario Front. Here are 10 key facts about his career.

1.  Son of a chief

Lahib Mohamed Abdelaziz was born in 1989 into one of the most powerful families in the SADR. His father is the late Abdelaziz (1948-2016), who was secretary general of the Polisario Front and historical president of the SADR from 1976 until his death.

His mother is Khadija Hamdi, a wealthy Algerian Saharawi, who notably held the post of minister of culture in SADR from 2008 to 2015. Her father, Hamdi Rguibi, who is reputed to be close to the Algerian authorities, was mayor of Oum el Assel (a commune located 210km north of Tindouf) before he became president of the Tindouf municipal council.

He built his fortune on retail trade in the Tindouf camps, among other things, before investing in real estate. Mohamed Abdelaziz and Khadija Hamdi are both members of the Reguibat tribe, one of the three largest Sahrawi tribes, which holds power in the Sahara.

2.  Worthy heir

The late Abdelaziz had a total of six children: three by his first wife, now living in Spain, and three by Hamdi. After his death, his latter-mentioned widow – who was very influential – was approached to take over the leadership of the SADR, but this never came to pass. It is possibly because of the interview she gave to a Spanish media outlet in 2007, in which she denounced the living conditions of young people in the Tindouf camps.

Lahib Mohamed Abdelaziz, on the other hand, has always been considered the closest son of his late father, and the one who most resembles him. It is said that he is “calm but taciturn”, just like Abdelaziz.

3.  Millennial

The youngest of the Abdelaziz family, born at the very end of the 1980s, Lahib Mohamed Abdelaziz is a millennial, who had a very different childhood from his older brothers and sisters.

Unlike them, he has hardly ever lived or experienced life in the Tindouf camps, instead being brought up in the house of his maternal grandfather. During his rather-privileged childhood, he benefited from all modern comforts.

4.  Socialist connection

As representatives of a pro-independence organisation supported by the Socialist Republic of Algeria, the Abdelaziz family, like the Polisario Front, has maintained close relations with several ‘friendly’ countries, including South Africa, Cuba, and Libya.

This is why Lahib Mohamed Abdelaziz’s older half-sister studied medicine in Cuba and South Africa, as did his two older brothers, Khalil and Wali, who pursued their higher education in Cuba and Libya, respectively.

5.  Moroccan father

Although he was one of the seven founding members of the Polisario Front, the late Abdelaziz was Moroccan. He was born in 1948 in Marrakech and therefore nicknamed the Marrakchi.

The majority of his family was pro-Moroccan, starting with his own father, Khalili Rguibi, who served in the Royal Moroccan Army. 10 of his 12 siblings were born in the Kingdom and thus favour the ‘Moroccan Sahara’. It is part of the family, but remains a country that Lahib Mohamed Abdelaziz does not know, as he has never set foot in Morocco.

6.  Purely Polisarian

In fact, Lahib Mohamed Abdelaziz does not seem to have travelled much, having only known the territories of the Polisario Front and Algeria. According to some sources, this makes him “a pure product” of the political party and a “child of war”. Several of the organisation’s ex-members, who have since defected to the Moroccan side, consider him to be a young man who has been recruited and radicalised.

7.  Student/activist

Lahib Mohamed Abdelaziz has lived in other places, having studied at the University of Algiers, where he served as president of the Sahrawi Students’ Union (Uesario) at least until 2012 or 2013.

Although few traces remain of these years, it is known that he obtained his university degree in 2012.

8.  Military training

After his university studies, Lahib Mohamed Abdelaziz returned to Tindouf, where his father appointed him to head a gendarmerie squadron in 2013. From then on, the young man was closely supervised while building a legitimate military, man-on-the-ground persona, ready to experience combat against the Forces armées royales marocaines (FAR).

He has therefore completed a series of military training courses in Algeria and recently underwent training at the Collège militaire de Cherchell in pursuit of being promoted to Major General.

In 2019, he appeared – for the first time – within the hierarchical chart of the Saharawi army, under the title of director of the general directorate of the ministry of national defence. This role is seemingly more reminiscent of an honorary or bureaucratic title than a field function.

9.  2021: start of the exhibition

Information about the private life and background of Lahib Mohamed Abdelaziz is filtered and carefully preserved. The young man was raised in the shadows and sheltered from the media.

However, the internet has preserved traces of a filmed interview dating from 2011. In the interview, which was conducted by the Sahrawi media outlet Atahrir, then-Uesario president, dressed in military fatigues, gave a bellicose speech against Morocco. The video dates from September 2021, when the race to succeed the weakened President Brahim Ghali began. Still wearing a military uniform, Lahib Mohamed Abdelaziz called for “unity” and for his supporters to “continue the war against the Moroccan occupier”.

10.  Protégé of Algiers

Since then, Lahib Mohamed Abdelaziz has continued to rise through the ranks within the Polisario Front leadership. In January 2023, he was elected in the first round among the 27 members of the national secretariat. On 5 February 2023, he was appointed member of the highly influential defence committee within the general secretariat of the Polisario Front, a small circle tasked with overseeing the war launched on 13 November 2020 against the FAR.

Lahib Mohamed Abdelaziz’s meteoric rise is evident, and could be considered as a possible future leader of the SADR and the successor of Brahim Ghali, whom he has always known and with whom he maintains cordial relations.

For many, it is the Algerian government that is eager to regain control in the face of anti-Algerian resentment and the clan wars raging in Tindouf, which is also betting on Lahib Mohamed Abdelaziz.

Indeed, seen from Algiers, this candidate ticks all the boxes: he embodies a new generation while being a member of a real dynasty, he holds Algerian nationality, and he is a member of the most influential tribe in the Sahara.

There's more to this story

Get unlimited access to our exclusive journalism and features today. Our award-winning team of correspondents and editors report from over 54 African countries, from Cape Town to Cairo, from Abidjan to Abuja to Addis Ababa. Africa. Unlocked.

Subscribe Now

cancel anytime