By Andrew England, FT.com
As Ahmed bin Ahmed al-Misri discusses the myriad challenges he faces as governor of Abyan province in southern Yemen, soldiers and police mill outside his villa.
When he travels the short distance to Zinjibar, the regional capital, he straps a 9mm automatic pistol around his waist. Camouflaged pick-up trucks loaded with troops follow behind, forming an armed convoy that weaves a path through scruffy streets.
For two years, Mr Misri, 42, has been in charge of an impoverished province highlighting the vast problems that have led western powers to warn that Yemen is becoming a failed state and incubator for al-Qaeda. Abyan, with desert running along its southern coastline and rugged mountains to the north, is considered an al-Qaeda haven. Last month it was the scene of a controversial Yemeni air strike, supported by the US, that ostensibly targeted an al-Qaeda camp but ended up killing dozens of civilians.
Mr Misri must also grapple with a southern secessionist movement that has picked up momentum in the past year, exacerbated by huge social problems, dismal education, health and other basic services and unemployment estimated at about 50 per cent.
After the failed Christmas day attack on a passenger jet in the US, blamed on a Yemen-based al-Qaeda group, the US and UK have pledged to do more to help Yemen. But in Abyan, the hurdles for any international assistance are worryingly conspicuous.
Mr Misri says al-Qaeda’s presence in Abyan has grown over the past six to eight months, with operatives using religion as “the gate of their influence”. Al-Qaeda has forged links with tribes in the province’s remote corners. If a tribe receives $50 from the government, it might get $100 from al-Qaeda, he says.
Yet the government has sent no additional forces to Abyan to tackle the problem, Mr Misri says.
So does the government have control? “Truly and honestly, it’s not so strong,” he says. “I cannot explain that, but that is the situation: there are not enough weapons and not enough soldiers.”
The solution to the region’s problems will not come in the form of air strikes or military campaigns, he says, but rather social and economic development, encouraging the tribes to “kick them [al-Qaeda] out”. But he concedes the government “doesn’t have the resources to do it”.
Analysts say Yemen’s collapsing economy and years of poor governance are at the heart of the country’s problems, and that the regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president for 31 years, bears much of the responsibility.
In the south, which united with the north only in 1990 and has most of the nation’s declining oil res-erves, the sense of marginalisation is particularly strong. Today, members of the southern secessionist movement speak of “colonisation”, “occupation” and “slavery.”
The secessionists say they want peaceful separation, but violent confrontations with the security forces have increased over the past year. In Abyan, separatists armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades have mounted roadblocks, attacked government offices and stolen state vehicles, says Mr Misri. The security forces, meanwhile, are accused of using excessive force against peaceful demonstrators.
Added to the volatile mix are suggestions that elements within the southern movement have links to Islamists, even though many of its members are secular former socialists.
In the centre of Zinjibar, Tareq al-Fadhli, a leader of the southern movement and a veteran of the Afghan war against Soviet occupation, lives in a bullet-scarred building. Having helped Mr Saleh during a civil war in 1994, when the south made an abortive effort to secede, he won a senior position in the ruling party. But Mr Fadhli fell out with the regime and joined the secessionists last year.
All this shows how alliances in Yemen can be blurred and fluid as the president’s game of patronage is played out.
Asked why the security forces have not arrested Mr Fadhli, who is described as a wanted man, Mr Misri says they were about to do so in August but halted the operation on orders from Sana’a, the capital.
If the government is planning further air strikes against suspected militants, the December attack in Abyan’s Majalah region showed how that can alienate the population.
Mr Misri says 14 al-Qaeda suspects were killed, including Mohammed al-Kazimi, a prominent militant. But 33 women and children also died as bombs struck what was described as a nomads’ camp. That caused widespread anger – some secessionists saw it as anot-her sign of northern aggression – and Mr Misri laments that the central government has not apologised for the civilian casualties.
Asked whether al-Qaeda or the southern movement was his biggest concern, the governor says: “Both.”
He warns that if the south does slide back into war, it “will not be like 1994 – it will be worse”. But without sufficient central government support, he struggles with limited means to ward off crises.
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