Disputes Over Land Ownership [Archives:1998/50/Focus]

December 14 1998

By: Mohammed Hatem Al-Qadhi. 
Yemen Times, Taiz Office. 
Land ownership disputes are crucial social issues and a principal factor in the development process. Here in Yemen, they represent a major headache. 
Problems over real estate ownership are found in almost all major cities of the country. Seldom do such problems come to an end peacefully. Rather, such conflicts are are responsible for the fat homicide reports. 
Disputes which turn violent are responsible for numerous deaths and injuries on a daily basis. Every now and then we see the sky flashing with flames. You ask, “What is the matter?” The answer comes fast, and almost in a casual manner. “Some people are fighting over a piece of land.” The days of using kalashnikovs to settle such disputes are now over. Antagonists now use bazookas defeaning the neihgborhood. 
This has really become a major problem, at least in terms of safety and security on the one hand, and in terms of blocking any serious investments, on the other hand. That makes it an issue which the authorities and the public must promptly address. 
Military/security officers, tribal sheikhs and other influential people are the heart of the problem. In the absence of law and order, it has now become very easy for a military officer under the escort of ‘his’ soldiers and other armed relatives to trespass on any piece of land. The same is true of any tribal chief who uses his ‘murafigeen’ to take possession of real estate. 
Well located pieces of lands make such people drool over them, particularly if the owner has muscle to back him up, except the law and legal title to the land. It is actually possible for a person to find himself penniless, after having been dirven off his own property. Some people fight back, going through the labyrinth of the legal system. These people sell off the wife’s jewellery or other assets in the hope of regaining the land. That is, of course, a mirage. Adding insult to injury, they end up spending the proceeds from the sle of the jewellery or whatever other asset they have sold. 
One cannot over-emphasize the corruption of the judicial system. But, even if a person gets a court verdict, who can enforce it. That is because the violators are highly influential people, often associated with the rulers. 
Let me give a glaring example. In 1985, a group of Sanaa University professors and staff put together some money and bought land from none other than Sheikh Mohammed Bin Yahia Al-Rowaishan. He pocketed the money, which was paid through BCCI, at the time, and today the Yemen Commercial Bank, which he partly owns. The professors pleaded many times and in many ways with Sheikh Al-Rowaishan, but to no avail. They went to court, and got a court sentence. Still no dice. 
What kind of moral values do people who control this country have, when they treat university professors in this way. The plundering mentality has no limits. And of course, the violators represent the law and the system. 
That explains why frustrated citizens take up arms and end up breaking the ‘law’. Thus giving the influential people a legal justification to persecute them even further. If these citizens are strong, you end up with repeated shoot-outs, with each side grouping and re-grouping in a real battle. 
But if the victim is weak or too civilianized or too civilized, he or she loses all hope and surrender. 
Another party to blame is the real estate registry department. Their job is marked with chaos and disorder which often fuels the problem. This department has no way of verifying whether a deed is true or a forgery. Thus, I have seen an example of 16 competing deeds to the same piece of land authenticated by the Sanaa Real Estate Registry. It is either they can’t tell if the deeds are true; or, simply, they are corrupt. 
Given the lawlessness that prevails in the country today, the owner of the land sometimes sells it twice or three times to different people, making the multi-owned piece of land a battle-field. The reason for this illegal behavior is that the multiple seller can get away with minimum damage. 
Some people might not see the gravity of the problem. In my mind, it is undoubtedly a major concern. This is because it is a clear indication of the fragile authority of the state that makes people take the law into their own hands. The most important task of any government must be to uphold the law. That is because if and when people feel the government is not able to protect their rights and ensure their safety, taking the law into their own hands will be the only way out. This will lead to chaos and the law of the jungle. As some people succinctly put it, instead of the power of the law, the nation will have the law of power. 
But there are additional costs. We are a nation that is tryig to entice local and foreign entrepreneurs to bring their money and invest in Yemen. One of the first factors in creating an appropriate investment climate is for law and order to prevail. If we cannot guarantee that, then all our efforts to invite investors are meaningless. 
Even if investors do bring their money, they will incur extra costs in protecting the assets of the projects, including the real estate. In our marvellous capital city, even diplomatic missions have not been immune to the predator mentality that prevails nowadays. We have seen many embassies run around literally trying to protect their turf 
It is up to the government to bring control the situation. But that may be a stupid demand since it is the people who run this country who are the predators.