Land disputes threaten south Yemen stability

Anger over unresolved land confiscations feed calls for seccession as national talks continue.

    Land disputes threaten south Yemen stability
    New settlements on land once owned by Adenese people have been springing up [Joe Sheffer/Al Jazeera]

    Aden, Yemen - As the National Dialogue debates Yemen's future in Sanaa, state security gunfire crackles here in the decrepit port city of Aden, where protesters block downtown streets with flags of the former southern state.

    Many Aden residents complain the south has been marginalised in Yemen. Among the principal grievances are widespread land grabs and the dismissal of the military and civil service workforce by the administration of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh after the 1990 unification of north and south Yemen.

    Contentious issues such as these are what the National Dialogue - brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states with US support during Yemen's 2011 revolution - seeks to redress.  

    But Hassan al-Aidrous - whose family, like many others, is fighting to reclaim its land - is pessimistic the system will change.

    Prosperous under British colonial rule, the Aidrous family was lucky to hold onto their real estate, after independence in 1967 ushered in a socialist regime. Private properties at this time were frequently re-distributed among residents in a mark of the government's sweeping nationalisation agenda.

    During the 1994 civil war, after victorious forces allied with Saleh's government plundered Aden, Hassan said a powerful sheikh confiscated their land.

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    Nearly two decades later, the family is embroiled in a court battle to halt construction of the tall, half-built residential blocks that dominate the otherwise empty beach.

    "They used front men to take the land and sell it," explained Hassan. "We've been going to court against front men. The government is corrupt, and we are fighting people who pay bribes. It takes a lot of time - some judges are okay, and some want money."

    When his family finally obtained a warrant for the developer's arrest, Hassan says the police did nothing. "They said there were a lot of people with guns, and that they needed back up."

    Increasing discontent

    Unresolved land disputes are contributing to increasing discontent in the south.

    This month, UN special envoy Jamal Benomar warned the Security Council: "A civil disobedience movement is now attracting large numbers to the streets. The calls for secession have grown.

    "After nearly two decades of discrimination, repression, and unaddressed legitimate grievances, the people in the south are weary and skeptical of promises of reform."

    But resolving land disputes in the region is highly complicated, explains April Alley, a researcher with the International Crisis Group (ICG).

    "Patterns of land ownership have dramatically changed several times over the past 50 years," she told Al Jazeera. "There are usually multiple claims on the same property."

    Land seizures after the demise of the south's socialist rule are the most controversial.

    "Following unification in 1990, state properties were sold, often at undervalued rates, to individuals - both northern and southern - many of whom had connections with the Saleh regime," Alley said. "Military commanders in particular were notorious for corrupt land grabs."

    The popularity of those seeking a separate state has swelled since initial calls in 2007 to address injustices were ignored by Saleh's government.

    In the National Dialogue, groups under the popular southern movement umbrella, al-Hirak al-Janoubi, are allotted 85 seats of a 565 seat chamber. Saleh's ruling General People's Congress (GPC) claims the most slots with 112.

    But pro-secessionist leaders such as Hassan Baoum and exiled former South Yemeni president Ali Salem Al-Beid are boycotting National Dialogue talks, demanding discussions between the north and south instead.

    Khalid Wahed Noman, an independent participant from Aden, disagreed. He said he believes in an autonomous greater Aden within a Yemeni federation.

    "Why is Hirak here?" he asked rhetorically. "Because the regime destroyed southern establishments. They destroyed everything."

    Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour said that power in the country must be decentralised. "Now is the time to raise our issues, address them and settle this," he said. "There are two real solutions: federalism or secession. High centralisation is not accepted now."

    In the months leading up to the National Dialogue, tens of thousands of secessionists held rallies across the south, rallies which were marred by arrests and civilians killed by the security forces.

    Aden's governor, Waheed Ali Rasheed, a member of the Islamic Islah party, remains unsympathetic. He blames the street violence on protesters who shut down services.

    "Aden's parties and people complain about the situation but they won't find a solution here," he said. "The National Dialogue is the only way."

    Boosting public confidence

    In an Aden suburb on a sleepy afternoon, men gripping land deeds jostle each other around a ramshackle bungalow. For the past three months, this house has been home to a new presidential committee to resolve southern land disputes.

    Part of a 20-point plan presented to President Abdu Rabu Mansur Hadi, it is a gesture intended to boost public confidence in the post-revolutionary national government.

    Ali Atbosh Awad is one of five appointed judges responsible for determining land ownership. Surrounded by hundreds of files stacked in closets, on top of tables and on the floor, he said they have received more than 10,000 complaints so far - and they keep coming.

    "This will take time," he cautioned. "Every day people die over land. But they are bringing files because they still want to go for the law."

    Lawyer Saleh Daiban fights on the frontline of the controversial land disputes.

    He drives his car slowly along Aden's main waterfront and points to the empty beach he says the former regime stole. Abandoned construction trailers lie on the sand.

    "This belongs to the people of Aden. It is for pedestrians. It is not for someone to take over," he told Al Jazeera.

    Daiban successfully won a court order to stave off private developers from the land last year. He says the judge is now waiting for a decision "from up top" before the beachfront is returned to the public.

    He hopes the new land committee will help Aden's citizens. "But it is a slow process," Daiban cautions. "It will be a big problem if they make the same mistakes as before. That's why the judges need to take it slow."

    But writer and activist Huda Al Attas doubts this will work.

    Attas said her father won a legal case to get his spice shop in Crater back from a former tenant. But the tenant bribed the police, she said, and his eviction was never carried out.

    "The problem is the lack of law," she said. "There can be committees and judges to solve problems, but the outcomes are not implemented on the ground. This is the gap."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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