Exciting New Possibilities for Yemenis
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh has decided to step down from office after 27 years, and the election to choose a successor has been scheduled for next year. This holds hope for a peaceful transition of power. Saleh has stressed the need for “young blood” to lead the country into a new era, and a new political configuration may begin to disentangle ensconced vested interests and revive a moribund bureaucracy.
It is an unhappy designation to be among the poorest countries on earth, especially for a people as dignified as Yemenis. In the case of Yemen, corruption and abuse of power complicate the situation.
According to the World Bank, 46 percent of Yemen’s five-year-old children suffer from malnutrition. Half of them never attend primary school. About 90 percent of Yemenis lack the necessary water. In rural areas, 70 percent of residents have no access to a doctor. Yemen’s children are nearly invisible in the global media, and they appear only as statistics. So perhaps photographs would bring some color to the shadows of Yemeni childhood — a photo of a hungry four-year-old drinking dirty water, a photo of a nine-year-old who never attended school burning with fever. Multiply millions of times and the true scope of the tragedy may emerge.
Yemen is a country with natural resources of gas and oil. It is an astoundingly beautiful country of historical significance, and Yemeni people are often noted for their warmth and friendliness. In Yemen the desire for democracy, justice, and the rule of law runs deep, and a determined cadre of Yemeni intellectuals and reformers understand how to reform Yemen’s economy: Decentralization of power, anti-corruption measures, judicial reform, focus on education, and an overhaul of the security forces.
In 2001, an editorial in the Yemen Times noted “the pain that has been inflicted on the public after years of neglect and disrespect to the laws of the country.”
And now, as then, population statistics on one hand are related to economic statistics on the other. Over 2.5 billion Yemeni riyal was “lost” from the state treasury due to corruption, and the offending ministers may be reassigned or retire. It has been suggested that 20-30 percent of publicly funded diesel subsidies wind up in private pockets due to smuggling. An IMF report notes defense spending tripled from 1998 to 2003.
But now, as then, the culture of corruption is countered by a culture of courage. A justice minister implementing judicial reforms faced down a barrage of over 450 contacts from individuals, including high-ranking officials, attempting to influence his decisions. No group epitomizes the commitment to democratic institutions more than Yemen’s journalists.
But now, with Saleh’s decision to step down from office, an opportunity exists for Yemenis to determine their political destiny. The chances for a “free and fair” presidential election may seem remote but international attention and support will make it less so. Democracy is the expressed preference among Yemenis. Clearly its implementation in practice is in the strategic interest of the international community.
And economic development would likely follow a decentralization of power and the reallocation of resources, as the productivity of a talented nation is unleashed. Beginning with a fairly contested election, beautiful Yemen can emerge from shadows of poverty, vibrant and resplendent among nations.
— Jane Novak (email@example.com) is an American columnist and a contributing editor at WorldPress.org