Sa’ada governorate between ideological wars, a new government and lack of state control
In a time when fuel, electricity, and basic food products are lacking in Yemen, life in Sa’ada seems to be normal and the locals joke that the capital Sana’a is finally getting a taste of its own medicine, the same medicine it served to the northern region for years.
The Houthi Rebellion, based in Sa’ada, are not the enemies of the state of yesteryear and are today respected political players.
In the beginning of the uprising, locals in Sa’ada replaced the state-appointed governor with a prominent rich local figure, Fares Manna, who played an important role during the Houthi wars and the several peace processes that came with the violence.
Manna is a Yemeni businessman who is known for being one of the most prominent arms dealers in the Middle East. In April 2010, the US Treasury Department froze his assets as per Security Council resolution 9904 on grounds of him selling weapons to armed factions in Somalia. In January 2010 he was arrested by the state – despite being a high ranking member of the ruling party – on grounds of spying for Libya but was released after more than four months, ending his strong relationship with the regime.
He was eventually the man who helped orchestrate the peace deal in Sa’ada in 2009 as he was respected by both conflicting parties; the state and the Houthi insurgents.
Today he is also playing the peacemaker role in Sa’ada between the Houthis and the Salafi extremists who have been engaged in an ideological armed conflict several times throughout the years.
In March 2011 after a battle between the Houthis and loyalist tribes, and the fleeing of Sa’ada governor Taha Hajer to Sana’a, the Houthis appointed Manna as their governor. Manna had just resigned from the ruling party and announced his support of the Houthis, hence his new role.
Ahmed Al-Makhtafi interviewed governor Fares Manna for the Yemen Times to discuss the recent developments in the governorate as well as his views on Yemen’s political future.
Your sudden position as governor of Sa’ada is rather controversial and somewhat unofficial – how did it happen?
I came to power in the governorate after getting a unanimous vote from members of the local authority, in addition to the whole community, the army, and security forces. This unanimity came after the popular youth revolution was successful at overthrowing the state appointed governor, making Sa’ada the first liberated state in the current uprising.
As governor I assert that we are a part of the whole country of Yemen, serving the great free and proud Yemeni people and I swear to Allah, trusting in his support to make the Yemeni people’s revolution successful soon.
You may say that my position is unofficial but it is a democratically elected position and it can’t be more official that that. Local and Arab media have been following our news in Sa’ada governorate. But some of the local media are trying to disparage us and ignore the popular revolution.
How does the relative autonomy in Sa’ada affect the rest of Yemen in your view? Would it seek independence from Yemen or support a federal system later?
The people of the Sa’ada governorate will play their role in leading the rest of Yemen to liberation from this regime. They will prove themselves in the political arena even if they are faced with ignorance. You can say that we consider ourselves as a role model for other governorates to follow.
However, there is no direction towards splitting the country or federalization. You can describe Sa’ada as a governorate ruled by a local authority and in a way this is what the decentralized system in Yemen has officially chosen when it established the Local Administration Ministry in 2001. This means that our local authorities are part of a larger system under one country.
In running the governorate, I abide by the Yemeni constitution in what I feel is reasonable. Otherwise I consider what I believe is in the best interest of the people while maintaining unity under one Yemeni nation.
Another example is the Sa’ada Reconstruction Fund which was organized by the central state through donor aid to rebuild the governorate after six wars and hundreds of thousands of displaced people and destroyed homes.
I can assure you that this fund was used totally for the sake of rebuilding the governorate and not used in any political conflict or otherwise.
But don’t you think that the situation in Sa’ada is different considering its proximity to Saudi Arabia?
Our relations with the Saudis are excellent, both politically and in terms of security. Sa’ada’s location on the border with Saudi Arabia does have its implications regarding human trafficking or rather Yemenis and Somalis for that matter finding their way to the Saudi border seeking a better life.
However, the news of smuggling fuel and other merchandise across the border is not accurate. We have an understanding with the Saudi border authorities and we try to maintain order in this issue as much as we can.
When you say there is security cooperation, does this include the investigation of the kidnapped and killed Germans in 2009?
In a way, yes. The two girls that were found in May last year were rescued by Saudi Special Forces in cooperation with Yemeni authorities. The bodies of their parents, baby brother, and the British citizen have not been found yet. We are not optimistic that they will be. The Houthis denied responsibility for the kidnapping of nine foreigners in June 2009 as well as the tribes and Al-Qaeda. We don’t know who really did it.
The investigation and legal procedure is said to be ongoing locally although all of this mess is one that was created by the old regime of Saleh.
Unfortunately we don’t have any news on this issue and it seems to be a cold case.
Although you say that the governorate is doing well compared to other regions in the country, there are regular armed conflicts with the Salafis. What can you tell us about this?
The conflict is mostly in the neighboring Al-Jawf governorate and it is mostly over control of the area. The Houthis there are fighting against the Salafis in a sort of ideological war as the two groups do not acknowledge the existence of the other or rather wish to eliminate it.
Each group wants to gain control and hence dominate the governorate in order to play a stronger role politically.
The conflict was based on ideological differences and desires to dominate a certain religious sect in the area.
We had similar problems in Sa’ada with the Zaidi sect in Dammaj Schools who had been suffering from some minor troubles with the other sects but now the education there is regular and I make sure there is religious freedom in the governorate. As long as the operations are legal then the different factions have nothing to fear.
The disagreement between the Salafis and Houthis in Sa’ada was solved and now they are in agreement and matters are progressing well between them.
This freedom of religion or belief is one of the principles our revolution is based on and is a principle we respect and strongly defend.
What is the aim of the branch of the general revolutionary meeting established recently in Sa’ada governorate?
This meeting aims at promoting freedom by creating popular forums for the expression of opinions and the political activities for the revolution in the Sa’ada governorate. This meeting will make all people hold full responsibility in serving the governorate and the homeland.
The movement of the commercial goods through the borders to and from our neighboring fraternal country is increasing and I consider this as part of the revolution’s success.