Yemen: Is there a way out for the two kidnapped South Africans?

By Khadija Patel 30 May 2013

Yemen has been embroiled in a morass of political instability, humanitarian crises and lawlessness since protests against former leader Ali Abdullah Saleh began in early 2011. And while Saleh was successfully relegated to a bit role in Yemeni politics, Yemen’s woes seem to grow worse. This week, the abduction of a South African couple from the town of Taiz has again forced scrutiny on the impoverished country. And negotiating the tangles of Yemeni politics may prove crucial to securing their release. By KHADIJA PATEL.

A South African couple, whose identities have been withheld from the public at the request of their families, was abducted from Taiz, one of the country’s largest cities, on Monday. According to reports, local police have blamed a lawmaker, Abdel-Hamid El-Batra, for the kidnapping outside the Taiz Plaza hotel – the abducted couple is said to be a bargaining chip in negotiations with government to hand over a disputed piece of land.

El-Batra, who belongs to the country’s ruling party and has been a member of parliament for 10 years, has reportedly pledged to hand over the South Africans in exchange for the land. According to the Associated Press, the police spoke anonymously because they were not authorised to speak to reporters.

According to the Department of International Relations and Co-Operation, the couple was believed to have been involved in the development of the Taiz Plaza hotel, from which they were kidnapped. According to one agency report this week, the kidnappers had apparently mistaken the South African pair for Europeans or Americans.

The abduction of foreigners in Yemen is not uncommon. Kidnappings are often carried out by disgruntled tribesmen seeking to press the government to free jailed relatives or to improve public services (a kind of service delivery protest if we want to put a South African spin on it), or by militants linked to al-Qaeda.

Hundreds of people have been abducted in Yemen in the past 15 years. Crucially, nearly all of those kidnapped have been freed unharmed.

For example, earlier this month, tribesmen briefly kidnapped three employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross – a Swiss, a Kenyan and a Yemeni ­– in the southern province of Abyan, but freed them three days later.

While Taiz has been relatively free of the type of violence other areas of the country have seen, the city has not been altogether aloof towards this particular brand of lawlessness. In March 2012, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for killing an American teacher in the city, saying in a post on militant websites that he was a Christian missionary.

And according to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, al-Qaeda in Yemen is rapidly expanding and challenge the authority of the state through assassinations and abductions of foreigners. Hadi is not alone in his assessment of the scourge of terror in Yemen. The United States considers the Yemen branch to be al-Qaeda’s most active and dangerous (hence the drones, or so they say).

It is this quagmire that South Africa’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sadiq Jaffer, has been working through in the last day to secure the release of the abducted South Africans. And while considerations of the threats of terrorism are significant to South Africa’s diplomatic efforts in Yemen, it is the relevance of who exactly South Africa negotiates with that may be the greatest impediment to the release of the abducted couple.

Analysts, activists and armchair critics of the revolution are all united in acknowledging that the greatest problem facing Yemen is its seemingly insurmountable divisions. The country is highly fragmented and the national leadership has been entirely unable to win the confidence of the majority of the population towards a plan for the future.

The year-long “Arab Spring” styled protests against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Saleh’s eventual ousting, however, did not wreak the havoc alone.

The country has long been beset by dire economic challenges, a southern secessionist movement, restive Houthi rebels in the north, powerful tribal rivalries, the growth of the terrorist franchise al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and an ever-growing influx of refugees from the Horn of Africa.

And while power was eventually prized out of Saleh’s hands, the number of people displaced in Yemen during the year-long uprising has added another burden to the beleaguered Yemeni state.

The destruction of so much of the region’s physical and social infrastructure, and the continuing sectarian and tribal violence, mean many of those displaced by the unrest in 2011 have not yet returned home.

And it’s not just the internally displaced people who are still adjusting to life under a new president.

Last month, after more than two years of being a fixture in the capital, Sanaa and indeed Taiz, Yemen’s “revolutionaries” dismantled protest camps around the country. It signalled the end of the revolution. Tawakkol Karman, the activist and journalist who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in the uprising against Saleh, told crowds at Sanaa’s Change Square, “We are starting a new phase… We declare that we toppled the rule of the family forever…”

The crucial reforms needed in the public service and military to actually render Saleh’s family null and void are still under way.  The Yemeni government formalised a large shake-up in the military leadership earlier this month – Hadi stripped Saleh’s son, Ahmad, and his nephews of their enclaves in the military and appointed them to diplomatic posts abroad. Saleh himself has left Yemen for Saudi Arabia. Another pillar of the Saleh regime, General Ali Muhsin Al-Ahmar, the former commander of the 1st Armored Division, has also been stripped of his power – officially at least.

The reform process has only just begun, and even if it succeeds, there are other political forces in Yemen that have yet to be tackled.

As Bernard Haykel recently wrote in Asharq Al Awsat, “The recent shakeup in Yemen has effectively ended former president Saleh’s influence in the country and is a welcome development, but it is far from sufficient to end his legacy of 33 years of misrule, mismanagement and corruption.”

As she called for an end to the revolution that toppled the president, Nobel laureate Karman proposed a new campaign for Yemeni activists. “We have a new revolution,” she told the remaining protesters in the square, “to cleanse the state from corruption.”

So while South African diplomacy is certainly being tested in Yemen, the fate of the abducted South Africans may actually not be decided by South African diplomacy at all. It is the intricate power plays in Yemeni politics that may be the only way out for them. DM

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Photo: Protesters loyal to the Shi’ite al-Houthi rebel group shout slogans during a demonstration to protest against what they say is U.S. interference in Yemen, in Sanaa May 24, 2013. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah


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