By Haykal Bafana
January 29, 2015
When I moved here in 2010, not a single gunman could be seen on the streets. Anti-gun laws were strictly enforced by the police, and violence was almost unknown.
Nowadays, I escort my wife to the supermarket armed with an automatic assault rifle and a 9-millimeter pistol. The number of spare magazines I carry depends on the gravity of the ever-escalating insecurity that plagues my city.
Last week, the government collapsed. President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi resigned, as did his prime minister and the rest of the cabinet. The Houthis, a group of Shiite militants from the north who fought a bloody series of wars with the central government for over a decade, now effectively control the capital. Their flags fly on street corners, and armed militias operate checkpoints through the city.
While the takeover was shocking to foreign officials, for those of us here it was less surprising. After anti-government protests in 2011, Ali Abdullah Saleh, then the president came under pressure from the United Nations and agreed to step down. Elections were held and Mr. Saleh’s vice president, Mr. Hadi, the only candidate on the ballot, was elected president. Diplomats lauded this “Yemen model” of nonviolent political transition, and hailed it as an ideal process for other troubled Arab Spring states.
But in the eyes of its mother a monkey is a beautiful gazelle, a Yemeni proverb goes.
As the political transition meandered along, violence became dreadfully routine. The Yemeni state disintegrated in slow motion. The transition process, led by the United Nations envoy Jamal Benomar, was ill conceived, badly managed and, as the political vacuum in Sana attests, bound for failure.
Yemen’s oil industry has been almost shut down. Foreign investors, some of whom I have advised over the years, are pulling out. The Red Sea crude oil export pipeline has been blown up repeatedly by tribesmen from oil-rich Marib Province, irate that their demands for local development have been ignored by Mr. Hadi. Similar unresolved demands have provoked tribes in Hadhramaut to take control of oil fields. The kidnappings of foreigners and Yemenis for profit spiked tremendously. Symptomatic of the general lawlessness, over 100 officials have been assassinated, in what may be a result of conflicts between factions of the armed forces.
And worst of all, northern Yemen fell into a widespread state of war between the Houthis and the Yemeni military.
Throughout a six-month Houthi onslaught last year, Mr. Hadi refused to send army reinforcements to fight the Houthi militia in the north. Instead, he set up a series of mediation committees to try to arrange cease-fires as well as involve the Houthis in the political process.
This approach made sense to Mr. Hadi and the United Nations — they wanted to avoid outright civil war, and thought diplomacy would work.
But Yemen moves to a different rhythm. In our country’s culture of tribalism, a party to a conflict must engage in the ritual of violence, if only for the sake of saving face, and leave it to third parties to negotiate. Mr. Hadi’s repeated failure to punish Houthi aggression and his tepid calls for peace were read as weakness.
And so each cease-fire deal was broken by the Houthi militia with impunity: Within six months, the Yemeni state had lost control of huge amounts of their military hardware, as well as four Northern provinces, to the Houthis.
Army leadership resented Mr. Hadi for his refusal to punish the Houthis, despite the deaths of hundreds of soldiers. That’s why, in September, it was hardly a surprise when the Houthi militia entered Sana and established control. Military units refused to fight the Houthi advance, while others, perhaps sympathetic to the Houthi cause, were quietly supportive. The capital fell as Yemen’s army gave Mr. Hadi a taste of his own policy of appeasement.
Mr. Hadi’s government attempted a few more diplomatic contortions. Mr. Benomar arranged an agreement with the Houthis but this was unrealistic. Violent clashes in the city, including one devastating suicide bombing that left over 35 dead, have been widely attributed to Al Qaeda’s local branch, which has also been rallying against the Houthis.
Since Mr. Hadi and the government resigned last week, the Houthis have tightened their control, placing Mr. Hadi and other ministers under house arrest. Government officials in Hadhramaut, Shabwah, Marib, Aden and other provinces are no longer taking orders from Sana. It seems Mr. Hadi’s resignation has caught the Houthis by surprise; even they didn’t expect it to be this easy to seize power. We wait again as the United Nations envoy mounts frantic bids to arrange a new political agreement.
Meanwhile, no one is in charge in the capital. Supermarket parking lots are filled with heavily armed guards, and customers walk the aisles with guns slung over their shoulders. Most taxi drivers in Sana have a pistol tucked under their seat.
Ultimately, Mr. Hadi’s government collapsed through a series of grievous omissions: inaction in the face of powerful militias, unwillingness to impose law and security all over the country, and a failure to improve the lives of ordinary Yemenis. Mr. Hadi and the United Nations were not able to create the change that Yemenis took to the streets for in 2011.
The Yemen model has been replaced by the Houthi model, with its simple adage: Violence pays.
Haykal Bafana, a lawyer, is the managing director of Bafana Advisory, a firm that guides companies on investment in Yemen.