SANAA (AFP) — Lawlessness, corruption and an inadequate judiciary combined with age-old customs fuel Yemen's "gun culture" despite government efforts to curb the use of firearms, politicians say.
Carrying weapons is so entrenched in the traditions of the Arabian peninsula republic that one resident of the eastern tribal province of Marib was ostracised by his kinsfolk when he decided to ditch his machine-gun.
"After graduating from university (in Iraq), I felt that my education, not the machine-gun flaunted by tribesmen, was my real weapon," said the 36-year-old doctor, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Ahmad.
But Ahmad's decision did not sit well with either his family or his tribe, and he had to relocate to the city of Taiz, south of the capital Sanaa, to live "free from the gun culture," he told AFP.
Yemen is estimated to have up to 60 million firearms in private hands, roughly three for every citizen.
Armed tribesmen in the impoverished country at times abduct foreign tourists for use as bargaining chips in disputes with the central government, and firefights are commonplace.
Such lawlessness only complicates the government's task as it battles suspected Al-Qaeda militants and a sectarian uprising in the mountainous northwest of the Yemen.
An interior ministry report says 24,623 crimes were committed with firearms between 2004 and 2006, constituting 87 percent of all crimes registered during that period and leading to the deaths of 23,577 people.
Interior Minister Rashad al-Alimi has singled out the proliferation of firearms as one of four "security challenges" facing Yemen, along with terrorist threats, border protection, and "weak loyalty to the state".
Last year, the government announced a new drive to curb the use of weapons, banning people from bringing privately-owned firearms into Sanaa and other major cities.
More than 90,000 firearms have since been confiscated, according to official sources.
And interior ministry undersecretary Mohammad al-Qawsi says criminal incidents dropped to 364 in the two months that followed the launch of the campaign in August, down from 628 during the two months that preceded it.
But the limits of the government's powers were evident when a young member of the Hashed tribal confederation, Hussein Abdullah al-Ahmar, triumphantly entered Sanaa late last year flanked by armed bodyguards.
That was less than a month after he was banned from entering with an armed escort. The government was seen to have caved in for fear of sparking a revolt by his powerful tribe.
Sheikh Hamid Abdullah al-Ahmar, son of late influential parliament speaker Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar and brother of Hussein, told AFP that carrying weapons was an integral part of the "identity" of Yemeni tribesmen and "not a luxury".
Hamid conceded the use of weapons had negative aspects.
But he said these had more to do with "the reasons that lead to carrying weapons, such as the absence of a competent judiciary and the lack of security capable of protecting, rather than repressing, citizens".
Ali al-Omrani, an MP with the ruling General People's Congress, said that less weapons had been seen on the streets of the capital since the campaign was launched.
There is no reason why Yemenis should hold on to their guns when their Gulf neighbours, "who are from the same tribal fabric", have given up theirs, the deputy said.
The proliferation of firearms "is a threat to investment, a threat to tourism, a threat to life", he told AFP.
But he agreed that the weakness of the judicial system and inadequacy of the security provided by the government, in addition to the longstanding practice of seeking vendetta killings, were among the main causes of the scourge.
Shawki al-Kadhi, an MP with the main opposition Islamist party Al-Islah (Reform), said the widespread use of firearms was also due to "the corruption of influential people that extends to plundering people's rights".
It is doubtful that the latest campaign to curb firearms will succeed any more than previous campaigns, when those in charge of implementing it are themselves tribesmen who do not feel they belong to an institution, he said.
"The state itself has yet to become an institution."
The interior ministry has since the mid-1990s been trying to push through an amendment to a 1992 law which was seen as effectively legalising the use of firearms by "regulating" the carrying and sale of weapons.
Parliament has repeatedly blocked any change to the legislation.
"I fear the campaign to combat firearms ... was decided either during a qat-chewing session or under international pressure to secure a (foreign) loan," Kadhi said, referring to the narcotic shrub widely chewed in Yemen.
"Once the loan is in hand, the enthusiasm to implement the campaign will fizzle out," he predicted.
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