Yemen on the Brink of Civil War?
Tensions simmering since the Yemeni civil war in 1994 have flared into violence that may engulf the nation.
“We want equal rights,” retired Brigadier General Ali Moqbel stated. The simple declaration expressed the sentiment of tens of thousands of Yemenis who have repeatedly clashed with security forces in Aden, Makallah, Dahlie and other towns in southern Yemen since the spring.
General Moqbel organized and leads the Yemeni Retired Military Consultive Association (MCRA), an association of “retired” former Southern military officers. “The goal of the MCRA,” Muqbel said, “is to return all southerners to their previous employment in the same positions, both civilians and soldiers, who were referred to retirement after the war in 1994,”
The northern Yemeni Arab Republic (YAR) and southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) unified in 1990 to form the Republic of Yemen. After southern forces were vanquished in Yemen’s civil war in 1994, the ruling northern elite treated the south as the spoils of war. The following decade perceived by many Southerners as occupation not unity, and characterized by institutionalized discrimination, engineered poverty, widespread looting and political exclusion.
A Decade of Inequality?
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s victorious northern regime discharged well over 100,000 southern military and civil workers after the civil war. The southern protesters charge it was an illegal and punitive measure. Regime officials termed it as bureaucratic streamlining. The pensioners allege their pensions are lower than their northern counterparts, below a sustenance level and contravene national law.
“All of our achievements in the South were lost upon unity which was announced May 22, 1990. We demand compensation for all persons without exception who sustained material losses at the hands of the state during these years,” Moqbel explained
The MCRA began peaceful demonstrations in Aden last May. The movement spread to Makallah, Dhalie and other cities. In August, security forces arrested several hundred protesters in Aden, prompting more demonstrations, which were countered with live fire. Three people were killed, scores were injured and rioting ensued. Protesters blockaded roads and sympathetic tribesmen seized governmental oil tankers.
Twenty of the protesters will be charged with treason, a death penalty offense, the Defense Ministry announced. Movement leader Brigadier General Naser al-Noba and the head of the Nasserite Unionist Party in Hadrmout have both been arrested. Protests are ongoing throughout the southern governorates.
Dr. Abdullah Al-faqih, Assistant Professor in the Political Science Department of Sana’a University traced the unrest to the south’s political and social exclusion after the civil war. He noted that because of the former PDRY’s Marxist economic system, “Southern Yemenis were totally dependent on the state. The situation continued up to 1995 when economic reforms in the unified Republic of Yemen began,” Dr.Al-faqih explained.
“While the northerners accustomed to the dynamics of a free market economy were able to survive to some extent, the southerners found themselves living on the margins of the national economy. In fact, the economic system became something resembling a colonial economy where the purchasing power and the economic benefits follow one direction—from the south to the north.”
The exploitation of the PDRY after the civil war was a “red line” for years in Yemen, a known but unspeakable truth. However, some of the protesters are openly calling for the succession. In response, the head of Saleh’s dominant General People’s Congress Party, Abdel Kader Bajammal, said, “I will arm the people to face them (secessionists). For the sake of the state and its unity we will re-introduce weapons to confront those corrupt people,” to the Emirati paper Al-Khaleej. Yemeni governmental media have described the 1994 war as an “apostate” war.
Responding to the protests, President Saleh formed a committee which returned hundreds of former soldiers to their posts; however tens of thousands were not. Instead the government announced it will reinstate the draft. Saleh recently called the protests, “a tempest in a teapot.”
Yemeni officials have blamed the opposition parties for exploiting the pensioners issue for partisan ends. Yemen’s next parliamentary election is scheduled for 2009. Regime official have also warmed that external forces are encouraging the unres,t a charge not without merit. The Yemeni Southern Democratic Conference (TAJ), an opposition group in the UK, declared “(TAJ) is determined to confront these bloody crimes with further escalation of struggle towards the full civil disobedience until we inflict the overwhelming defeat to the criminal dictator and assassin, the Yemeni president Saleh.”
Perched at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is one of the world’s oldest continuous civilizations. Mountains, beaches, historical sites and unique architecture make Yemen one of the most world’s beautiful nations. It is also one the world’s poorest, outside of sub-Saharan Africa. Unemployment is high. Medical and educational facilities, where available, are largely dilapidated. Only half the nation receives intermittent electricity. Half have access to clean water.
Yemen is one of the most water scarce nations in the world, another trigger for instability. The two million residents of Taiz city get public water every forty days. Other days, residents pay for their drinking water from private vendors. An August protest against high prices and governmental corruption in Taiz drew ten thousand who held aloft water bottles and bread.
Oil revenues account for 70% of governmental funds. However, Yemen’s oil is expected to deplete within a decade and production is down 42% in 2007 from 2006 levels. Much of the government budget is dedicated to military spending. A significant portion is lost to corruption.
The word “kleptocracy” was invented to describe Yemen and is aptly defined as “government by, for and of thieves”. Yemen is firmly in the grip of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. His relatives lead the military and security forces, another trigger for instability. Giant posters of Saleh adorn the streets and shops of Yemen’s cities. Also omnipresent is a network of regime informants and security thugs who are believed to regularly target regime critics, activists and journalists.
A Yemeni editor described the key to Saleh’s longevity. “To preserve the loyalty of tribal leaders and senior military commanders, Saleh kept on ignoring many of their ill practices. Saleh has been busy pleasing his cronies with the country’s wealth and senior positions just to remain in power for as long as possible.”
The future of Yemen
Yemen’s use of using the courts, the media and the security forces to repress its citizens may trigger a civil war as the public loses hope in gaining equality through peaceful means. One Southern columnist wrote in the Yemen Times, “The use of force against protestors in Aden was not for the sake of protecting the National Unity. Instead, the force was used to protect and harbor the acts of lootings that have been so far exercised by influential persons in the southern governorates since the 1994 Civil War… Searching (for) rule of the law, the protestors faced rule of the tank standing in their way to claim their legal rights.”
At one extreme, President Saleh may declare a state of emergency and largely suspend civil rights. At the other is reform. “Only profound reforms can save Yemen from descending into a total chaos similar to that experienced by Somalia and Lebanon before that,” Dr. Al-faqih remarked. And several cabinet ministers and their staffs have undertaken authentic measures to combat corruption and increase government efficiency. However the lack of intra-governmental cooperation and the counter-veiling weight of the powerful corrupt limit the ability of even the earnest patriot.
Moreover, reform in Yemen is often a show of style over substance. An electoral reform measure decreed that the electoral commission overseeing elections would henceforth be selected by President Saleh; previously commission members were nominated by the parties to the election. Like other measures, the “reform” further concentrates authority in the executive and ruling party.
President Saleh recently announced that governors, whom he currently appoints, will in the future be elected by the (GPC dominated) local councils. However direct gubernatorial elections, with strict two year term limits, could go a long way in reducing tensions in Yemen, by enhancing political pluralism and enfranchising a vast portion of the Yemeni public who currently have little way to impact their political system and hold government officials accountable for their actions and inactions.
A related concern is the decentralization of security forces. Likewise direct control of local budgets and increased fiscal transparency would likely bring tangible benefits to each governorate. The Yemeni public has participated in numerous Parliamentary, Presidential and local elections, garnering praise from international and local observers for their political maturity. There is little reason to withhold direct gubernatorial elections, beyond fear of the results they may bring.