Wandering in Yemen

A Tragic 2013 – Yemen’s Year in Review

It’s not been a vintage year.

Yemen’s 2013 was one dominated by images of death, war, bombs, assassinations, kidnappings and poverty. It was a year lived under the spectre of the potential collapse of the unified Republic of Yemen. A year where 2011’s dreams of change seem little more than that, dreams. Two years on, people are disheartened, myself included.

Since moving out to Yemen six months ago, I’ve been able to visit areas far removed from the (relative) comfort of Sana’a. I heard the same things in al-Jawf, Ibb, Hodeida and al-Bayda: Where’s the state? Why have our lives not improved? What happened to the promises?

The irony is that the year that many people became disillusioned with the revolution was also the year that it became a ‘revolution’ in official discourse. President Hadi increasingly referred to it as such, and it looks increasingly likely that February 11th will be added to Yemen’s pantheon of ‘revolutions’, joining the other dates, May 22nd, September 26th, October 14th, November 30th, that promised much but seemingly delivered little.

In a recent meeting with Hadi, several youth representing the revolution hit the nail on the head with their comments on the official status of the revolution; “If February 11th is a day of pride then why is it not declared a national holiday, and if it is a day to vilify, then why do its representatives meet Hadi, and why is it praised in the official media? If the Change Revolution truly deserved respect, then why are several of its youth still in prison, having disappeared and been tortured psychologically and physically for months? If their actions deserved punishment, then why does the President receive the revolution’s youth in his palace?”

And therein lies the contradiction of the current state of play in Yemen. This contradiction has arisen because no one, not Hadi, not Saleh, not anyone else, is fully in charge and in power. By that, I mean no one is in fully in control of the state’s institutions, the military, or anything else. With that, the rest of the tragedy that was 2013 may be easier to understand.

This was supposed to be the year of reconciliation, the year where all of Yemen’s factions would gather at the Movenpick Hotel and solve the myriad of problems plaguing this country. The National Dialogue was the Messiah.

Ask the Yemeni street what they think about the National Dialogue.

While I am not overwhelmingly negative about the National Dialogue, and do think that it achieved some positives, only the blind optimist would now say that come the beginning of 2014 the NDC has led us to a situation where Yemen’s political factions are ready to work together for the benefit of the country and its people.

It looks like what the UN & Hadi want will now be pushed through the NDC, to the anger of groups such as the Herak, the Houthis, and the GPC. Will that simply mean that the conclusions of the NDC will be worthless pieces of paper, overruled by the facts on the ground that the gun-toting factions are now seeking to establish?

Federalism. Depending on your point of view it’s either two provinces, five provinces, or a sinister anti-Islamic plot to split Yemen. Whatever it is, it looks like 2014 will be the year that Yemen becomes a federal state. I see the benefits, centralisation is in a way anathema to the way that Yemen has been ruled over thousands of years. It has led to unprecedented levels of corruption, and anger from those, in Tihama, in Aden, in Hadhramaut, in Marib, who feel that their regions have been robbed by the gang in Sana’a. Yet, with the state of some of the areas that may now rule themselves, it’s hard to see the same corruption that typified the centralised state not simply transferring to the new provinces. Instead of one gang of corrupt bloodsuckers we may have numerous leeches.

Federalism is an attempt to placate the South. So far, the separatists remain unconvinced. To be honest, many are beyond being convinced of anything, and will bang on about “reclaiming our state” until they collapse. Where does the blame lie for that? Well, partly in governments that have taken far too long to correct the injustices of the past. And make no mistake about it, there are many. Is it too late? Maybe. But I still believe that the root of the Southern Issue is inherently economic – it’s about people losing their jobs, resources perceived as stolen, land confiscation and a lack of opportunities. Only a small minority peddle the nonsensical ‘we’re not Yemeni’ argument.

So, the moves in the second half of 2013 to establish funds to compensate Southerners is a step in the right direction. People want to put food on the table, and this will go a long way to make that happen. The question now is, will the funds reach the right people? And will Northerners begin to feel that maybe the South is getting a better deal – the ‘Northern Herak’, whilst without much popular support, has made some noises in 2013.

What won’t help moves to move Southerners away from supporting separatism? Killing unarmed people at a funeral tent in Dhalea. Killing important tribal sheikhs in Hadhramaut. That sort of stuff. The images that came out of what can only be described as a massacre in Dhalea were horrible, and can be compared to some of the worst killings in 2011. In Hadhramaut the killing of Said Bin Habriche at an army checkpoint led to the tribes of the region uniting and releasing a set of demands that would largely remove whatever presence the state has left in Hadhramaut. Demonstrations followed where protesters overran government and security buildings across Hadhramaut, and if anything, the government looks like it’s going to give in.

The state retreating is great news for one group, al-Qaeda. Or should we say al-Qaedas. What even is this group anymore? Separating fact from fiction when it comes to Yemen’s premier terror group is a tough job, but one thing is certain, they have come down from the mountains and are now striking at the heart of the Yemeni state. Spectacular attacks occurred throughout the year, with the trademark becoming the use of a suicide car bomb followed by militants piling in to finish off the job. There were the attacks on military facilities and outposts in Shabwa, Mukalla, Abyan, Aden and Rada’. But the blockbuster was the attack on the hospital at the Ministry of Defence. 56 people died, including doctors, nurses, and patients, in one of the most sickening attacks that Yemen has ever witnessed. The initial explosion and gunfight caught the attention of Yemenis, but a week later footage was released from inside the hospital, showing some of the most harrowing scenes seen on Yemeni television, with unarmed nurses shot in cold blood, and grenades thrown into groups of denfenceless people. The reaction was immediate, and one of disgust. Al-Qaeda responded by releasing an unprecedented video apology, saying that one of their men had not listened to orders. Never mind that the footage clearly shows more than one gunman involved. But then what do we expect from self-righteous, murderous animals.

The majority of Yemenis agree that al-Qaeda needs to be fought. But that’s where it gets difficult. There is clearly some sort of support from shadier elements of the security establishment, who are exploiting the weak state to further their own goals. Some use ‘al-Qaeda’ as a useful scapegoat for their own fights, or to label tribesmen who have no truck with al-Qaeda, but are fighting for other reasons.

The Americans believe that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is now the biggest threat out of the al-Qaeda franchises, and that the best way to deal with them is through drone attacks. Hadi has no choice but to agree, his power base is in Washington DC. And so he has to make ludicrous assertions such as drones always being accurate, because they’re computers. Meanwhile, the families of innocent victims have to make do with the “collateral damage” explanation. Or even better, “what were they doing there anyway?” Anger at drone strikes isn’t huge in major cities such as Sana’a, but it’s growing. The appearance of drones over Sana’a in August following the ‘terror scare’ that shut several embassies (remember that?) certainly brought it home, and, very steadily, the drone war is becoming more problematic for Hadi. The fact that every single MP voted to support a ban on drones following the December attack on a wedding convoy that killed 12 innocent people says a lot. In a brief piece of good news, the journalist Abelelah al-Shayie, famous for covering the deaths of civilians in a US air strike in al-Ma’jalah, was finally released from prison, after serving three years on trumped up charges, and kept in prison on the orders of President Obama.

Alongside the spectacular bomb attacks we’ve also seen smaller car bombs used in assassinations, as well as the traditional drive by shooting. Victims have largely been from the military apparatus, found bloodied in front of their homes, or slumped in their cars. The horror show targeted foreigners too, with a German bodyguard killed in the Jandool Supermarket car park in upmarket Haddah, and a Belorussian military adviser killed outside the hotel he was living in. But perhaps the 2013 assassination with the most ramifications was that of the Houthi MP, and NDC member, Abdulkareem Jadban. Shot as he was leaving a mosque, he has become a martyr of the Houthi cause, and his death was publicly mourned by all the political factions in Yemen. Who was behind the killing? There are too many theories. What we do know is that the killing occurred as fighting intensified in Dammaj.

Dammaj had seen fighting between Salafis and Houthis before 2013, but the most recent bout has been the most intense, and the one which has attracted the most international attention. Mediation committees have come and gone, but there seems to be no sign of a let up in the pointless fighting. Dammaj has contributed to a sharp increase in sectarianism across the country, and fighters from the South have gone to fight for the Salafis, slightly awkward for the Houthis because of their new alliance with the Herak.

The Hadi-Saleh power struggle really came into its own this year, and in his anti-Hadi, anti-Ben Omar campaign, Saleh has really come into his own. It increasingly looks like the international community will bend the wording of the GCC declaration to allow Hadi and the transitional period to carry on past 2014. Saleh does not like that one bit. The tiff has come out into the open every once in a while, but it is mostly behind closed doors that the most vitriolic attacks take place, with Hadi blaming Saleh for most things going wrong in the country, including the constant sabotage directed against the power infrastructure.

So, 2014 – more of the same? Please God, no.

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One comment

  1. Betengan

    “This contradiction has arisen because no one, not Hadi, not Saleh, not anyone else, is fully in charge and in power” – when was the last time (or ever) that anyone was fully in charge in Yemen?

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