Political Tribalism in al-Ja’ashen, Yemen
The winds of change may be sweeping across Yemen. President Ali Abdullah Saleh recently appointed Dr. Ali Mohammed Mujawar as Prime Minister. Formerly the Minister of Electricity, Mujawar comes to the post with a strong reputation as an academic and a technocrat. This change in leadership was followed by a cabinet shuffle in April that brought eleven new ministers on board. The enthusiasm of the new government is palpable. However, the Cabinet’s ability to act decisively is limited by countervailing authority seated outside governmental institutions.
The elite among President Saleh’s northern tribesmen have supplanted the jurisdiction of the state. Since Yemen’s 1994 civil war, power has become consolidated in a network of influential individuals who largely operate above the law. Weak central government is counterbalanced by strong tribal authority, resulting in a nearly feudal substructure. The glue that stabilizes this political system is entrenched governmental corruption and patronage.
Many tribal elite are also government leaders, reinforcing patriarchal norms and discriminatory practices. Tribal figures including the president’s relatives dominate Yemen’s key military and security positions. Governmental employment is widely politicized. Some economic enterprises are monopolies. Favoritism in governmental procurements allows the ruling party to undermine the political system through patronage. Land theft by influential persons is systematic, endemic and destabilizing, especially in the former south.
Yemeni citizens are often subject to a tribal sheik whose authority outweighs state institutions. Tribal leadership varies from village to village, and some sheiks are quite altruistic. Generally sheiks provide residents with security and mechanisms of conflict resolution. An influential sheik can procure governmental funding for development and infrastructure projects including roads, schools and electricity. However, these benefits come with a price tag that can include arbitrary punishment. In one case, a sheik involved in a land dispute brutally tortured a worker who built a wall. Another dramatic example is found in Ibb governorate, in the village of Al-Ja’ashen.
Operating the village as a state within a state, the sheik’s authority is paramount in al-Ja’ashen. In a letter to Mareb Press, residents reported that they were required to “follow his orders without discussion or debate.” Citizens who had dared to challenge the sheik’s authority or criticize his practices were summarily jailed in the sheik’s private prison. The sheik charged a 10% harvest tax in excess of the state taxes, the villagers said. In lieu of payment, he sometimes collected farm animals and gas cylinders.
In January, residents unable to pay the tax were expelled from the village. About 400 Yemeni citizens including women and children were forced from their homes into a field and makeshift tents. The Sheik alleged the entire story was fabricated by the opposition. However, HOOD (a prominent Yemeni NGO) noted the sheikh used government vehicles and troops to expel the citizens.
At a February press conference, residents said, “If the president can not protect us, then he has to open the borders for us in order to demand political asylum to any country which respects others.” The refugees from al-Ja’ashen also protested in front of Parliament which began an investigation of their case. The governor of Ibb discouraged the Parliamentary committee from visiting the village. Late in March, the Parliament’s presidency refused to discuss completed report and to their credit, most MPs withdrew from the session in protest. The Parliamentary report confirmed the villagers’ grievances were authentic and laid blame on both executive and local officials for failing to discharge their duties.
After nearly three months of living outdoors, the residents were allowed to return to their homes. However, they continue to face retribution despite a presidential guarantee. The villagers complained to a local paper that the sheik intentionally blocked their water pipe. The residents also reported that his security forces menaced them with military vehicles, threatened them, fired over their heads, and set up check points on the roads around the village.
In al-Ja’ashen, Yemeni citizens were denied access to their own homes. In response, the Yemeni state reinforced the tribal system at the expense of the civil system. Residents received no redress from the courts, local council, parliament, the ruling party (of which they were members), or the opposition parties. State security forces which should have protected the villagers instead targeted them. The governor of Ibb and Parliament’s leadership rallied around the sheik.
The Parliamentary report on al-Ja’ashen concluded that Parliament must “compel the Government to impose the authority of the State in Al-Ja’ashen area as part of the territory of the Republic of Yemen.” Many rural villages in Yemen are equally isolated from governmental institutions, democratic structures and the judiciary. The ability of Prime Minister Mujawar to deliver the state to the villages is limited by the widespread subversion of public authority to private interests.
Many within Yemen’s Cabinet, Parliament and other government agencies have the courage and political will to challenge this status quo. However, efforts toward governmental efficiency and neutrality, and economic growth and development, are regularly thwarted by the substructure of political tribalism.
While shuffling Cabinet members may well have a positive impact in Yemen, that impact will be limited without strong presidential support. President Saleh, who presided over the tribalization of Yemen, is the only one who can fully empower the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, the Parliament, the judiciary and other state institutions. The institutional development of the Yemeni government must necessarily come at the expense of President Saleh’s tribal allies. After 28 years in power, it remains to be seen if Saleh has the capacity to choose the nation over his cohorts.