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Yemeni President Hadi, a Reluctant Leader Who Became a Stubborn One

Yemeni president Hadi
Abd- Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Photo Hasan Jamali

On 21 February 2012 Yemenis went to the ballot boxes. It was a surrealistic scene: people proudly showing their inked thumb, happy to have voted. They were not happy for having voted for their candidate, just happy for having voted. There was only one candidate: Abd- Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

When asked what they knew about him, the answer usually was: nothing. Still, they believed that after 33 years of the reign of Ali Abdollah Saleh, culminating in violent crackdowns of peaceful demonstrators in 2011, anything or anyone would be better than him. So they went for Hadi, Saleh’s longstanding vice-president and fellow member of the ruling General People’s Congress party.

It did not matter much. If the Yemeni’s would not have voted at all on that day, Hadi would still have become president. Such was the power transfer deal that had been brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council. Some Yemenis indeed abstained from voting. They were suspicious about Hadi’s ability to rule their unruly country for only one reason: he did not have a moustache. To them, this was a sign of weakness, of lacking manhood. Others figured: if this guy does not deliver, at least I did not actively support him.

He did not deliver. In a 2013 meeting with US President Obama he summed up Yemen’s challenges accurately, but did not come across as the strong and inspired leader needed to face them. A year later, not one of the issues was solved, the National Dialogue which was also part of the transition deal, failed and an already bad situation had turned into a worse one, bringing the country to war.

Whether this is because he had an impossible job to start with, or whether he lacked the skills to deal with the international, regional and national snake pit of Yemeni politics is hard to say. Probably a bit of both. Even today, after more than four years in power, the man and his motives remain an enigma.

Born in 1945 in Abyan, in the south of Yemen, he was trained as a soldier in Yemen, the UK, Egypt and Russia. In 1986, after an internal power struggle within the socialist republic of South Yemen, he fled to North Yemen, which made him a traitor to many southerners. After the civil war of 1994 between North and South within the united Republic of Yemen – during which he fought on the Northern side – he was appointed vice-president of Yemen, and nestled quietly for almost twenty years in the shadow of Ali Abdollah Saleh.

Even less is known about his private life – something fairly normal in the region, where privacy is sacrosanct and respected, even for kings or presidents. He is married, and has children. Their whereabouts are unknown.

It seems unlikely that in 2012 Hadi actually had the ambition to leave Saleh’s shadow. It seems more likely that the GCC and United Nations dragged him out of there, not finding a better candidate at the time. It also seems likely that ousted president Saleh was happy enough with the solution, knowing he would not have to fear much from Hadi, who – being a southerner – lacks the tribal support he, Saleh, had (and still has).

And indeed, ever since Hadi took over the presidency, things went wrong. Despite some reshuffles in the leadership of the armed forces, he did not manage to get rid of the remains of the Saleh-clan. Instead, he started appointing his own family members and cronies to strategic positions. It made the Yemeni’s doubt his sincerity and leadership skills. Nevertheless, they gave him a chance, if only for lack of better alternatives.

The Zaydi (Shiite) Houthi rebels in the North of Yemen didn’t though. Angry about their marginalized role during the National Dialogue and smelling weakness, with the support of Saleh and his remaining forces they took over the capital Sanaa and its ministries. They forced Hadi out of office. He eventually resigned (only to be reinstalled later on), fled and sought refuge and support in Saudi Arabia.

To many, Hadi then was no longer just a disappointment, but a coward too. Especially the fact that he hooked up with Saudi Arabia – the neighbour with which Yemen always had a difficult relationship of dependency but not friendship – made them angry. And after the Saudi’s started their military intervention in March 2015 to defeat Houthi’s and restore Hadi’s government to power, he turned from coward into something even worse: the enemy.

This does not seem to bother the diplomats and other parties who have been discussing peace-deal after peace-deal. Hadi’s return to Yemen and to power has so far always been included in the proposals for a solution to the war which has been continuing since March 2015. They cannot or do not want to get rid of him. It is anyone’s guess why. Either they feel some obligation to – reluctantly – stick to the man they brought to power. After all, a UN Security Council resolution demands the return of his government in Sanaa. Or they really believe he is the man who can bring stability to Yemen.

Hadi himself seems to have changed from a reluctant leader to a stubborn one. End of October 2016 the UN – finally – suggested a plan which sidelined Hadi substantially, leaving him only a symbolic role. Only days later, Hadi rejected the plan as it would be too favourable for the Houthi rebels.

Why not give up? Why not step down and give peace a chance? Why this clinging to power he never really had in the first place? Perhaps Hadi’s biggest problem is not with giving the Houthi’s positions in the government – as the latest plan proposes. Perhaps the biggest problem is the feeling that such a deal would mean he would lose out to his former boss and Houthi-ally: Ali Abdollah Saleh.

Contrary to Hadi, Saleh is gaining popularity by the day and elections – ultimately part of the plan too – may very well end in victory for Saleh, or his son. That would not just mean back to the shadows for Hadi, it would mean exit, if not exile.

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