Tribal anarchy in Yemen: the tragedy in al Jasheen, Ibb
The Yemeni government’s abdication of its responsibilities in rural Yemen is amply demonstrated by the ongoing saga in the village of al Jasheen, in Ibb province. In this drama, a group of poor villagers refuse to submit to a tyrannical Sheik who demands illegal taxes. The Sheik’s personal militia of state security forces attack, expell and imprison these citizens with impunity.
In al-Jasheen, 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 tasked with protecting citizens instead targeted them. The governor of Ibb and Parliament’s leadership rallied around the sheik.
Al Jasheen’s sheik, Mohammed Mansour is President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s poet and the father of a Member of Parliament. He expelled the villagers three times since 2007. They trekked to the capital and camped out in front of parliament in protest. Women and children slept in the courtyard of a local NGO for weeks at a time.
The villagers demanded an official police station and for the state to disarm the Sheik and bring him to justice, along with his militia. When Parliament issued a statement, they returned to the village and faced the same conditions, despite a presidential guarantee, leading to new protests.
”[Sheik Mansour] set fire in our houses and shot us with heavy weapons. A woman is a victim of shrapnel wounds. We are subject to a broad displacement campaign. The Sheik’s militia drove women and children out of their own houses. Meanwhile, they are burning the houses searching for the wanted one who is unable to pay the high taxes,” one villager, Mohammed Murshed, told HOOD, a prominent NGO, in January
.”Al-Jasheen’s trouble is that they intended to pay the tax to the state and not to the hands of the Sheik,” Mr. Murshed said. “People used to pay tax to the Sheik due to their ignorance but now they are aware to pay it to the state and that what irritates the Sheik,” Mr. Murshed added.
Operating the village as a state within a state, the sheik’s authority is paramount in al-Jasheen. In a letter to Mareb Press, residents reported in 2007 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.
Sheik Mansour has alleged the entire story was fabricated by the opposition. However, HOOD noted the sheik used government vehicles and troops to expel the citizens.
For their courage, the al Jasheen villagers won HOOD’s 2009 Human Rights Award. In presenting the award, HOOD’s director, Khalid al Ansi said that Al-Jasheen’s accomplishment is that they overcame “historical inherited fear” and challenged the Sheik’s regime.
After three years, the villagers continue to suffer . The most recent Parliamentary report was issued Wednesday. It said that while the nearly one hundred villagers are camped out in the capital, Mansour’s militia “looted their cows, ships, gold and all their home furnishings.”
“Mansour has unauthorized private prisons in which he punishes citizens, indicating a lack of the state sovereignty in the district,” Parliament found.The findings echo a 2007 Parliamentary report that concluded that Parliament must “compel the Government to impose the authority of the State in Al-Jasheen area as part of the territory of the Republic of Yemen.”
Tribal Paradigms Subverted by Corruption
Many rural villages in Yemen are equally isolated from governmental institutions, democratic structures and the judiciary. The ability of President Saleh to deliver the state to the villages is limited by the widespread subversion of public authority to private interests. 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 in the absence of a functional judicial system in Yemen.
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. A recent report from the Carnegie Institute found, “a state-sponsored patronage system has distorted the country’s traditional mechanisms of dispute resolution and resource distribution. Tribal sheikhs are pillars in both the traditional and the patronage systems, although in the latter the regime detaches them from their communities by offering wealth and status in exchange for political acquiescence. This has resulted in the rapid centralization of the political system, which was built on the state’s capacity to distribute oil wealth to those it deems politically relevant.”