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The Yemeni State Against Its Own People: Hapless Ones Continue To Suffer

Writers Articles And Opinions

15 October 2010

By Subir Ghosh

Yemen is now a classic example of how and why a government hemmed in by all sides militarily and economically takes it out on its own people. It ought to be a cause for worry too, for there is more to it here than meets the eye. If you dont look for it, you wont see it.

Instability caused by internal conflict and religious terrorism, coupled with brazen corruption and merciless repression of freedom of expression make a heady and potent mix. See this in the light of the fact that nearly a third of the workforce is out of a job, and you know what you are reading about has only one word as a descriptor: trouble. More than 40 percent of Yemen's 23 million people live on less than $2 a day. Now, thats a lot of trouble. A geo-political perspective will make it look worse still: Yemen is contiguous with top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf of Aden at its southern tip is the gateway to the Suez Canal through the Red Sea.

Its the link that you might have missed in Americas War on Terror.

Secessionist movement in the South

North Yemen merged with the once-Soviet bloc South Yemen in 1990. It was this region that was oil-rich, and unified Yemen exploited the resources to the hilt. The result was a feeling of discrimination among the people, with euphoria fading away and development in the area remaining zilch. Alienation grew, and metamorphosed into a movement for secession.

It started out as a moderate movement, but turned mildly militant over the years after the Yemeni government, with tacit support of the West, repressed the voices of dissent. Another classic case of making people take up arms against the State when civil and civilised tact could have yielded less violent results at the onset itself. But then, the West needs oil. And the Yemeni government has only been too glad to oblige. Everywhere the battle is for natural resources.

A civil war in the South had briefly erupted in 1994. The rebellion, at that time, was ruthlessly crushed and its leaders were either silenced or thrown into prison. The government time and again offered talks, but these were usually interspersed with military forays. These in turn, instead of quelling the feeling of restlessness, only aggravated the situation.

As things stand, incidents of clashes between the separatists and the security forces have been on the rise. With a beleaguered Yemeni government trying to finish off the Southern Movement by hook or by crook, the collateral damage is more likely to make fence-sitters take up arms against the State. Poverty and unemployment already provide the fertile ground for that.

The government has been trying to discredit the Southern Movement by giving it a terrorist hue. Ironically, it was the Yemeni regime itself that had unabashedly used Yemeni fighters returning from Afghanistan to quell the 1994 rebellion. It was only natural that al-Qaeda soon began to establish a base in the area, which later became the largest in the Arab world.

The Southern province of Abyan has been the target of a series of brutal attacks over the last year. One of the bloodiest took place in December 2009 when the Yemeni army, with support from the US government, launched two air strikes on suspected al-Qaeda camps. Fortytwo civilians were killed in these raids, most of whom were women and children. One can vouchsafe say no kin of those killed have, since, become American fans.

Islamic militancy of the al-Qaeda kind

The one that has made the most of the all-pervading bitterness and chaos has been the Al-Qaeda. It has locked horns with the Yemeni government since the US launched its War on Terror. But the groups operations have paid more attention to Western targets than home-grown ones. Not that they have left the governments forces alone.

Only last week, a rocket attack in capital Sanaa targeted a vehicle carrying the deputy chief of the British mission. Elsewhere the same day, a gunman fired at an Austrian-owned oil and gas firm, killing a Frenchman. In April, a suicide bomber from attacked the British ambassador's convoy, killing himself and injuring three others. The envoy escaped unscathed.

It was the December attack plan that made the Yemeni government take on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the outfit is known in the region. The motivating factor was simple Western nations and Saudi Arabia saw the al-Qaeda preparing Yemen as a regional launchpad. So the idea was to nip al-Qaedas plans in the bud. Yemen declared war, and the US did what it usually does supplied military and intelligence aid. The al-Qaeda did suffer reverses, but many civilians too were killed in what the US loves to describe as collateral damage.

The security forces, ill-equipped as they are, make for an easier target than Western ones. Since June, more than a score have been killed in militant attacks on State targets, including one on an intelligence headquarters in the port city of Aden, where 11 people were killed.

Though the al-Qaeda has had a presence for a while, it started asserting itself only after Saudi Arabia last year launched a crackdown on the group in its territory. The Yemeni arm assimilated the fleeing ones, and in the bargain consolidated itself. The outfit is now powerful enough in the southern provinces of Abyan and Shabwa to make even the US wince.

The West, like in many countries in the region, is not liked. And when it plays a dominant military role, it perpetuates the acrimony that the al-Qaeda is known to make harvest of.

The internally-displaced people (IDP) scene is grim. Only last month, clashes between al-Qaeda operatives and Yemeni security forces in the Shabwa governorate forced 12,000 civilians to flee their homes in Al-Hawtah town, 400 km east of Aden. The displacement continues to grow.

Shiite conflict in the North

The North is relatively silent, but the truce with the Shiite rebels is tenuous at best. The civil war here has had its ups and downs since 2004. A ceasefire has been in place since February, but news of sporadic incidents of violence still trickles in. The calm is deceptive.

The rebels, who belong to the minority Zaydi sect of Shiite Islam and are known as Houthis after their leaders clan, feel discriminated against in religious and socio-economic terms. They made a tactical blunder last year when the seized some land in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government chased them out, into the hands of a waiting Yemeni army.

This conflict too has taken its toll on people. More than 300,000 people have been forced from their homes since 2004, 60 per cent of them children. Only a third have returned, but 150,000 were again displaced after intermittent fighting in August last year.

Qatar mediated a deal between the Shiite rebels and the government this August. While the official line was about negotiations to end the conflict, the move of the rebels is being seen in many quarters as a stalling tactic. So far, it had been a rebellion. Whether this escalates into a full-blown conflict as in the South depends on how the government handles the situation.

An economy in tatters

For an oil-rich country, Yemen has too complex an economic crisis to deal with. A good 40 per cent live under $2 a day. That would mean a lot of hunger. Jobs are hard to come by a third are without one. Corruption is rampant. The Yemeni rial has tumbled to a record low. And water and oil resources are fast drying up. In other words, Yemen is an economic quagmire.

Aid comes from the West and Saudi Arabia, but never makes it to the grassroots. There are also apprehensions that the government may soon find itself in a spot where it will not be able to even pay salaries to public sector employees. The recent cuts on fuel subsidies did not go down well with the public. The economic reforms, being dictated by the West, are simply unpopular.

A high fertility rate, with an average of 5.4 children born per woman means this is one of the worlds largest and fastest growing populations. About a quarter of the people are aged 10-19, suggesting that the unemployment crisis for youth could get even worse in the next few years, and with 46 per cent of the population under 16, it is an explosion waiting to happen. In ten years, Yemen needs 2 million jobs just to keep unemployment rates at controllable levels. With illiteracy as high as 50 per cent, the picture seems more dismal as one keeps looking at it.

Press freedom, allies and the man in charge

Extrajudicial abductions, intimidation, threats, and crude censorship have been the watchwords of the Yemeni regime. But in the last few years, this has reflected adversely on the media. The internecine war with Houthi rebels in the north, the repression of the Southern Movement, the failure to maintain a grip on the Al-Qaeda, and the flagrant corruption within the countrys top leadership are not allowed to be criticized in the media. Crossing the line means being detained illegally, newspapers and news equipment being confiscated, or threats being issued. Liquidation and enforced disappearances are not unheard of either.

The government desperately needs to control the news. And it does so ruthlessly.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh needs the West badly, as badly as the latter needs him. Salehs ruse is that poverty creates fertile ground for terrorism, and therefore he wants aid.

In January this year, a group of nations and organisations set up a Friends of Yemen group at a meeting in London. Those on board were the US, the United Kingdom, and 20 other countries, apart from the Gulf Cooperation Council, Arab League, World Bank and IMF. Last month, these friends agreed on an aid package encompassing political, economic and security aspects. But it had a catch too the IMF would spell out all the economic policies to be followed.

What this ostentatious act does in effect is tacitly endorse the status quo that of Saleh. The years of inept and rapacious rule of this man and his clique stands legitimised. What the West turns a blind eye to, is the fact that his man came to power through a coup i.e he was never democratically elected. It is the hypocrisy of the US-led West that is hated, more virulently now than ever, all over the world. On one hand it talks of democracy, and on the other it either props up or continues to support dictators. On one hand it criticises Cuba for not allowing any freedom, on the other it effectually propagates human rights abuses in countries like Yemen.

The West is happy as long it gets its oil and the oil routes are not clogged. Meanwhile, people, like those hapless ones in Yemen, continue to suffer.

 

Subir Ghosh (http://www.write2kill.in/) is a New Delhi-based journalist. He is the author of Frontier Travails: Northeast The politics of a mess (Macmillan, 2001), and writes on a variety of subjects from conflict and environment to films and human rights.

 

 

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