Land disputes symbolize poor governance [Archives:2006/956/Opinion]

June 19 2006

By: Mohammed Al-Qadhi
Last week the area where I live turned into an arena for tribal clashes. It was reported that at least six people were killed and others were injured. The main street was blocked forcing cars and pedestrians to use a different road to avoid the crossfire. People living in nearby houses were trapped in their houses for hours while bullets flew outside their windows.

This chaos was a result of a land ownership dispute between tribesmen, one from Sana'a and the other from Thamar. I was told that one of the tribesmen)supported by a notable) wanted seize land that he had no rights to. The outcome was that each side deployed armed tribesmen to the scene of the dispute. Fighting starting that night despite being in the proximity of a military compound. Yet, soldiers only arrived after the shooting was over.

For three days, the street remained blocked while gunshots rang during the night. This was a terrifying experience. This was not the boondocks but the street that the prime minister drives home on in Sana'a. All the government did was to block the street ignoring the threat to public safety that the armed clash presented.

Land ownership disputes are crucial social issues, and often major headaches. Every now and then we see the sky light-up with gun flashes. The cause of such flashes comes readily to mind: a land dispute. I wrote about this problem in 1998 and no action as been taken to address the problem since then.

“Why is that?,” you might ask. The answer is simple: military and security officers, tribal sheikhs, and other influential people are at the heart of the problem. In the absence of law and order, an officer under the escort of 'his' soldiers can easily to trespass on any piece of land. The same is true of any tribal chief who employs his 'murafigeen' to the same effect.

The plundering mentality has no limits. If you visit the Indian Ocean island of Socotra, you would find big chunks of land fenced off by such notables. Similarly, a casual observer cannot fail to notice the same practice in the Hadhramaut, in Aden, and in Taiz.

Given the lawlessness that prevails in the country today, landowners often sell their land to two or three different people creating ample room for rows over land ownership to develop into armed clashes. Such disputes have grown in volume as landowners who illegally sell their land to more than one party incur little penalty in the process.

If the parties to a land conflict are strong, the consequence is repeated shootouts. Thick homicide reports usually result. If a victim of a fraudulent deal is weak, overly civilianized, or too civilized, he will quickly lose all hope of favorably resolving the conflict through the labyrinthine legal system. Such people sell off their wife's jewelry in the hope of regaining their land.

The Department of Real Estate Registry is one of the parties at fault. Chaos and disorder mar their work that often fuels the problem they aim to resolve. This department lacks verification procedures to establish the validity of land deeds. Either they can't tell if the deeds are true; or, more simply, they are corrupt.

Some might not see the gravity of the problem. In my mind, it is undoubtedly a major concern. 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. If people feel that the government is not able to protect their rights and ensure their safety, taking the law into their own hands is their only resort. Such a situation leads to the law of the jungle being the highest law of the land. 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 trying to entice local and foreign entrepreneurs to invest in Yemen. Creating an attractive investment climate means that law and order must prevail. If we cannot guarantee that, then all our efforts to draw investors have been for naught.

It is up to the government to restore order to the acquisition of land. Yet, perhaps this is a wasted thought as the people who run the country are the predators.

Mohammed Al-Qadhi is a Yemeni journalist and columnist.

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