Events unfolding in Yemen demonstrate that the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which was concluded in January 2014, are a weak basis for the “new” and unified Yemeni state. Large parts of Hirak, the southern protest movement which has protested the political and economic marginalization of south Yemen since 2007, reject the NDC outcomes and continue to call for independence. Political elites in the northern capital are also reluctant to give up their grip on power. Although they say they committed to the transitional process and the establishment of a more participatory federalist system, the southern movement distrusts the decision makers in the capital.
Facing continued economic and political marginalization, for many members of the Hirak movement independence is becoming the only option. With no international support and a refusal among elites to a accept secession, an independent state in the south is not a realistic solution, however. To the northern elites, secession is a red line that jeopardizes their economic and political interests. Not only are the country’s largest oil reserves in the south, but northern elites also have vested business interests there and own land in southern governorates that people of the south want to reclaim.
Yemeni President Hadi must perform a delicate balancing act not to lose his allies among the northern elites, while at the same time addressing southern grievances. Only by better integrating the south into the transitional process and addressing the grievances driving the movement can Hadi calm the calls for independence.
On June 9, President Hadi met with a leader of the southern Hirak movement. In the meeting, the two discussed how best to address the grievances of the south. While this is an important step, it is unlikely to convince all factions of Hirak to accept the NDC’s outcomes if a shift in the northern elite’s attitude does not occur.
While the north refers to the grievances of the southern people as legitimate, political elites view Hirak as a threat to national security rather than a legitimate political movement. In a statement on May 22, the current Minister of Interior referred to Hirak, along with al-Qaeda and the northern Houthi movement, as rebel groups endangering Yemen. Government forces continue to violently repress protests in the south.
Northern dominance and elite attitudes toward the southern issue were clear from the NDC’s beginning in March 2013. In 2012, Hirak had been approached by the government and the international community to participate in the NDC. The conference was to serve as a forum to resolve the country’s conflicts, including the southern issue. Given the fragmented nature of Hirak, the movement had no unified position toward the NDC. Because of distrust toward the north, many Hirak leaders rejected the NDC and instead demanded a separate dialogue focusing only on the southern issue. Others were more willing to participate in the NDC.
When the NDC began, a group of moderate Hirakis agreed to participate after the Technical Committee for the Preparation of the NDC allocated fifty percent of seats to southerners. But, the delegates who represented Hirak, some of whom had affiliations with President Hadi, had very little legitimacy on the ground and did not represent all factions of Hirak.
The Technical Committee also submitted a list of 20 points, which the government was to implement as trust-building measures before the NDC started. Eleven of the points addressed southern grievances, including the resolution of land disputes, the release of political prisoners, and the issues of army officers and bureaucrats from the formerly independent People’s Republic of Southern Yemen (PDRY), who were forcibly retired in the course of unification with the north in 1990.
The government did not address any of these points until the southern cause became a central issues of disagreement at the NDC, dragging negotiations on for months. Addressing one of the eleven points in late August 2013, the central government issued a formal apology for the war against the south in 1994, referring to it as a “historic mistake.” Many southerners perceive the north’s victory in this war as the beginning of an occupation.
The government’s formal apology was insufficient to create support for the transitional process from the southern movement. Nor did it help build real consensus within the NDC.
While the NDC’s Hirak delegates agreed to a federal solution, there was disagreement with the NDC over the number of regions that would exist with a Yemeni federation. Representatives of the Hirak movement demanded a two-region solution, with the country divided along the former border between the formerly separated northern and southern states. In making this proposal, the Hirak delegates hope a popular referendum within five years would give southerners the option to secede. The solution would also empower the south, creating a united southern federal state with full access to Yemen’s largest oil reserves.
Political parties representing the northern elites, namely Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) and the Islah party, supported the country’s division into either five or six regions. The parties argued it would prevent the full secession of the southern governorates. With a divided south and the capital remaining in the north, northern elites hoped to retain their political and economic power.
With the NDC ultimately unable to decide on the number of regions, President Hadi took the initiative to circumvent the breakdown of the transitional process. In January 2014, a committee formed by Hadi promptly decided on the six-region solution favored by northern elites. Even though this contradicted Hirak’s demands, the southern representatives in the NDC agreed to the solution. But, the individuals who signed the agreement in Hirak’s name were not the movement’s original NDC delegates. Many of Hirak’s representatives had previously withdrawn from the dialogue. In order to conclude the NDC, Hadi persuaded other Hirakis who were more likely to compromise to join the NDC and take their place. None of these delegates were embraced by all Hirak factions as official representatives, however. For that reason, wide swaths of the movement have rejected the NDC outcomes and continue to demand independence and organize protests.
Northern elites now hope that a new constitution, which is currently being drafted on the basis of the NDC’s outcomes, will build the southern population’s support for a “new,” unified Yemen and curb demands for independence.
Even though, since the NDC’s conclusion, the government has made some progress addressing southern grievances, steps taken so far have had mostly symbolic value. This includes the re-opening of the southern newspaper al-Ayyam, which was forced to close under President Saleh in 2009 and the establishment of a land disputes committee. Southern distrust toward the transitional process and the central government will increase, however, unless effective trust-building measures are taken, which lead to tangible changes in southern people’s lives.