Conversations with a Bakîl Shaykh

Yemen Update 36 (1995):6,11

The following appeared in the Yemen Times, November, 1994.

Tribal leaders (shaykhs) play an important role in decision-making in Yemen. Some of these tribal leaders have crossed over into officialdom as military commanders and officers, as well as senior government officials. As a result, they have served as a bridge between the tribal power structure and the state. Some of these tribal leaders have become disillusioned with politicians and politics.

One of these individuals is Brigadier Abdullah Naji Daris, a notable leader from the Dhû Muhammed tribe, Bakîl, some 100 kilometers north of Sanaa. Brigadier Daris comes from an illustrious family which played a powerful role in resisting Ottoman rule, followed by confrontation with the Imams. That is why his father, grandfather, and great grandfather have all died for political reasons as martyrs. He himself was very instrumental in the September 26th Revolution and in defending Sanaa during the 70-day Siege. In Republican Yemen, he served as Commander of the Northern Flank, then Commander of the Popular Forces (tribal force), and governor of many governorates including Al-Bayda', Al-Mahwît, Ma'rib, Dhamâr, and Sa'da. He continues till this day as a central figure in Yemeni politics. Al-Izzy Asselwi of Yemen Times interviewed him and filed the following report:

Q: With what are you busy these days?

A: As all Yemenis, I am trying to extend my help in steering the country towards safety and development. I am very happy with the consolidation of the unity of the country, which was one of the key objectives of the Yemeni Revolution. All patriotic Yemenis should join hands in protecting the country from the many problems created by outsiders as well as by our own inconsistiences and shortcomings. We should not let Yemen go to war with itself.

Q: What specifically do you mean?

A: I am a leading member of the Union of National Forces (UNF), an umbrella organization which brings together very well-known personalities from all political streams in order to join hands and help guide Yemen towards what we see as the proper course. In other words, the UNF is sort of a lobby group which is not affiliated to any political party or tribe. It even includes people in government. I am also involved in the Bakîl Council, which unfortunately is not active these days because its leadership was involved in other activities which have taken away from the Council. The Bakîl Council had hoped to water down the tribal domination of certain parts of the country over the state machinery. I am directly involved in other gatherings and forums as well. Let me add here that I also talk regularly with people in power and continue to offer my views and advice. The final goal of all this is to ensure that we are on the right course.

Q: What kind of theoretical or legal framework are you working with?

A: I think that the Document of Pledge and Accord is still a useful mechanism for resolving our problems. The President, to my knowledge, is still committed to it. The Speaker of the House is still committed to it. After all, they signed it. There is regional and international backing for it. The sixteen points on which the UNF is based are actually drawn from the Document of Pledge and Accord. Of course I can understand a couple of things here and there which require adjustments because of the recent developments, but the framework is still useful.

Q: Relations between the tribal system and the state go through many ups and downs. How do you see this relationship developing?

A: The tribes of Yemen are its citizens. The fact that some tribes are armed means they are an army of the nation. Of course, there are problems, especially when the system is not seen as just or fair. In my opinion, the state must come to terms with the tribes, and must create the environment for the tribes to play a constructive role. There is no other way. The state cannot by-pass the tribal system, and cannot ignore it or wait for it to wither away. It will not happen, at least in the forseeable future. I also want to stress something to our officials. The officials in power think, simply because they are in power, they are the only ones in charge of Yemen. I want to insist that all Yemenis are in charge of Yemen. That is why we cannot allow those in charge to commit the whole nation to decisions which then affect the lives of all of us. We are in it together, and we should consult each other regarding the future course of the country. We are willing and eager to help those in charge pursue the right course.

Q: What is the most pressing problem facing Yemen today?

A: I think the most pressing problem facing Yemen today is the lack of clarity of vision. Some people think that the events over the last months have determined the course of action and relation permanently. This is wrong. We need clarity of vision in the interaction among the various factions and parties. We need a clarity of vision in relations with our neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia. We need to make every Yemeni feel he/she has a room among us and a role to play. Unless everyone feels he/she has a stake in the system, they will work to undermine it.

Q: Any message you want to offer the occasion of the 30th of November?

A: I want everybody to remember history and read its facts. We have to learn from the past in order to understand the present and chart the course for the future. I want to wish all the best.

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