Under Moscow’s snow, a Yemeni flame of enlightenment was extinguished. There lies buried Abubakar Al-Saqqaf, Yemen’s most prominent theorist of liberties, human rights, and a civil state, who passed away on December 13, 2022, at the age of 88. Together with his Russian wife Lina, Al-Saqqaf left Yemen in April 2015 on board a Russian evacuation flight, leaving behind a career spanning 40 years as a Professor of Philosophy at Sana’a University. A staunch critic of government policies, Al-Saqqaf was targeted, kidnapped, and assaulted more than once under Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime.
Al-Saqqaf was born in Ethiopia in 1935 to a Yemeni father and an Ethiopian mother. At the age of 10, he returned to his father’s hometown of Al-Wahat in southern Lahj governorate, where he went to school, first at Al-Jafariyah school and then later Al-Muhsiniya. In 1954, he was nominated by Lahj’s Youth Club for a scholarship in Cairo, and in 1956 he was elected as First Secretary of the General Congress of Yemeni Students in Egypt, the first Yemeni entity publicly calling for the unification of Yemen. In 1959, he won a scholarship to Moscow where he continued his education, earning a Ph.D. from Moscow University before returning to Yemen in 1974 to teach at Sana’a University.
As a southerner residing and working in Sana’a, Al-Saqqaf was highly critical of Yemen’s May 1990 unification agreement, despite the fact that he had repeatedly called for it since 1956. He was insightful and believed that outcomes can only be achieved through deeds rather than words. The outbreak of the 1994 Yemen civil war proved his point and validated his fears about the fate of a unification he deemed superficial. In spite of this, following Saleh’s victory and defeat over Yemen’s southern forces, he remained in Sana’a, from where he declared war on Saleh’s regime and its policies in the South.
From the capital, Al-Saqqaf continued to write, contributing regularly to Yemeni newspapers such as Al-Ayyam, Al-Tajammu’ and Al-Shura, and spoke whenever he was given the opportunity, often describing the capital’s control over the South as an ‘internal occupation’. He was outspoken in his defense of the southern cause and the Yemeni Socialist Party, though he did not approve of the latter’s policy either, having rejected an offer to serve as Minister of Education in the breakaway government of Ali Salem al-Beidh in 1994..
Although he embraced leftist ideology, Al-Saqqaf was an independent figure, outside of Yemen’s political parties, exhibiting courage unmatched by opposition party leaders. With this courage, and equally unmatched vision, he observed, analyzed, and predicted growing authoritarian practices. For this, and his outspoken criticism, he paid a heavy price and was suspended from work under both Ibrahim al-Hamdi’s and Saleh’s regimes. But this would be the least of his troubles. Unassimilable and difficult to lure, he was cruelly oppressed by the authorities throughout his years in Sana’a.
As a well-known dissident, he was closely monitored by Saleh’s security services and in 1978 was arrested and brutally tortured. Two decades later, again in Sana’a, he was kidnapped and subjected to similar forms of torture. Friend and writer Qadri Ahmed Haidar, who visited him after he was kidnapped said, “I deliberately checked the torture marks on his back. We were appalled by what we saw. He didn’t like that we uncovered the marks of electric shock torture that covered all of his body, from his neck to his lower back, with bruises […] He carried on talking as if he hadn’t just been subjected to torture.”
Undeterred, he continued to write and criticize the regime, with unrelenting force in language and approach. As an advocate and devotee of the civil state, he was openly critical of what he saw as an attempt to impose a regime with a religious ideology. “As long as we recognize religion as a criterion of civic duty,” he once observed, “it seems impossible to achieve national unity and create a unified nation.” In an article published in 2007, he notes how “a military state is a lethal germ to civil politics, because authoritarianism is the antithesis of politics.”
Fully aware that people were wary of befriending someone on the radar of the regime, Al-Saqqaf went out of his way to attend events where he could engage with others. In seminars and events that advocated for people’s rights and liberties, he was always there, at the forefront, with an unwavering commitment to accumulate knowledge and monitor events. Blessed with an encyclopedic mind, he went beyond national narratives and drew on cases of injustices committed from across the world.
Despite being one of Yemen’s most prolific thinkers, having profoundly engaged in historical and philosophical critiques of oppression,the erosion of civil rights, and the state, his publications were surprisingly limited. Five drafts of his books are still missing since the mid-1990s when his home was raided by the authorities. Al-Saqqaf thus left us with two of his books, Literary and Intellectual Studies (1977) and Republic Between the Sultanate and the Tribe in North Yemen (1988). The latter, in which he criticized the regime with his characteristic boldness, was published under the pseudonym Mohammad Abdelsalam and reprinted under his real name in 2021. In 2011, Mansour Hayel, a Yemeni poet and journalist, compiled his writings in a book entitled Defending Freedom and Man, which offers an intimate portrait of Al-Saqqaf’s life. Presently, a group of his fans are compiling the rest of his writings in a book under preparation, based on the author’s conversations with Yemeni poet and journalist Mohammed Abdelwahab al-Shibani.
- Taha Al-Numan’s testimony to Muhammad Al-Ghabari can be found in his book, “Contrasting views of the years of conflict in Yemen [AR],” (Cairo: Arwiqa publishing, 2021)
- Qadri Ahmed Haider, “Abu Bakr Al-Saqqaf : Search for a complete man in incomplete details [AR],” Khuyut, December 31, 2022, https://www.khuyut.com/blog/a-alsaqaf
- Mohammed Abdulsalam, “Republic Between the Sultanate And the Tribe in North Yemen [AR],” (Cairo: Al-Amal Printing & Distribution, 1989), p. 19 (Mohammed Abdulsalam was the pseudonym of Abubakar Al-Saqqaf)
- Abubakr al-Saqqaf, “The Great Absent Cause: The Civil State [AR],” published in 2007 and reposted on Facebook on December 22, 2022: https://de-de.facebook.com/abubakerassakaf/