Yemen is embroiled in a host of political, ideological, confessional and military conflicts.
Concealed behind the long struggle between the motley militias in Yemen lie the Shia Muslim and Sunni Muslim divide. Curiously, this was never a serious issue in days bygone. Why has the Shia Sunni rivalry escalated and come to the fore in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and other countries of the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East? In Yemen the political situation is extremely complex.
The Shia Houthi tribesmen attempted in recent weeks to round off their success in militarily taking over provinces, creeping closer to the Yemeni capital Sanaa. However, the wars in Yemen and the disputed provinces had taken on a totemic value unique to the rich cultural heritage of Yemen.
Yet, none of the Yemeni protagonists is capable of delivering a knock-out-blow to their adversaries. The political influence and clout of the ousted president Ali Abdallah Saleh is omnipresent in contemporary Yemen.
Saleh had handed over power to his deputy Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi. Yet Yemen had become an unfortunate playground for Saleh. The Houthi rebellion is only an aside in the game of Yemeni politics.
The Houthi belong to the Zayidi sect of Shia Islam. Salah is a Sunni Muslim. His personal participation in the arenas of contemporary Yemeni politics has become ever more apparent in the past weeks.
Saleh has survived the “Arab Spring” and come a long way from his trials and tribulations that were heightened on 3 June 2011 when he miraculously survived an assassination attempt after months of nationwide protests against his despotic rule. On 22 January 2012, Saleh flew to New York City for medical treatment and returned, supposedly to retire from politics, curiously it transpired that he had arrived in the United States six days later. Be that as it may, Saleh returned to Yemen a month later after intensive neurosurgery.
The perplexing aspect of the current political conflict in northern Yemen is the collaboration between Saleh and the Houthis. The Houthi Rebellion, sometimes called the Saadah Conflict, erupted in June 2004 when a dissident Shia Muslim cleric named Hussein Badr Al-Din Al-Houthi, head of the Zaidi Shia sect, instigated a rebellion first in Saadah Province, northern Yemen, that spread rapidly to several Yemeni provinces adjacent to Saudi Arabia and spilled over into Jizan Province in the southwestern backwaters of Saudi Arabia.
Houthi militiamen control the entire Amran Province, barely 50 kms from Sanaa. Amran, northwest of the Yemeni capital Sanaa, is among the country’s poorest and least developed provinces.
The Houthi Rebellion is not the only conflict ravaging Yemen. The Southern Movement, too, is fomenting trouble for the Yemeni government. The secessionist movements in southern Yemen that includes the oil-rich Hadramout Province is a source of tremendous trouble for Sanaa.
Overpopulated and resource-poor northern Yemen literally cannot do economically without the underpopulated southern Yemen that occupies two thirds of the land mass of Yemen.
It is against this backdrop that Legal Affairs Minister Mohamed Al-Mikhlafi, who recently proposed a so-called “transitional justice law” modelled on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation principle, stipulates the preservation of “national memory and immortalising the victims”.
Al-Mikhlafi, who insists that Yemen needs such a law because of the ramifications of the 1994 civil war between northern and southern Yemen, was besieged in his residence in Sanaa,but miraculously escaped. Al-Mikhlafi’s transitional justice law includes a clause that aims to bring those who committed atrocities under the regime of ex-president Saleh.
Al-Mikhlafi’s Yemeni Socialist Party is pitted ideologically against Salah’s General People’s Congress. And, it is suspected that members of Saleh’s entourage and militiamen orchestrated the siege of Al-Mikhlafi’s residence.
The Hashid, Yemen’s largest tribal federation, is also suspected of collaborating with other forces against the Houthi Movement. Tribal politics in Yemen have taken on a confessional hue.
The ultra-conservative Sunni Muslim Salafist groups are pitted against the Houthis whom they say are supported militarily and financially by Iran, the major Shia power in the Middle East. The extended discussions and debates between various disputing sects in Yemen have not only drawn regional powers such as Saudi Arabia and Iran into Yemeni domestic conflicts, but exacerbate the already tense situation in the war-torn country, home to one of the most organized Al-Qaeda militias.
Yemen is the most impoverished nation in the Arabian Peninsula. Ironically, it is the second most populous country in the peninsula after Saudi Arabia. These seem to be decisive moments not only for Yemen but also for Saudi Arabia.
Gamal Nkrumah is a Cairo-based African and international affairs expert.