Since the end of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) in Yemen last month, events in the country have been unfolding quickly. On February 15, 2014, President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi announced the six-region agreement, drawing the borders of the country’s future federal states. At the same time, the Houthis a zaydi political movement, which has been at war with the government since 2004 advanced to the capital, Sana’a, clashing with tribal forces in the Arhab area. All the while, a violent attack on Sana’a’s central prison enabled 29 prisoners to escape on the night of Thursday, February 13.
Hearing the drums of war, citizens in the capital are fearful of a further escalation in violence and conflict. In southern Yemen, the secessionist Hirak movement continues to put pressure on the central government, demanding an independent state.
Is federalism the answer to these challenges? Even before the 2011 uprising, the federalist concept was debated in Yemen as a possible solution to the country’s various regional challenges.
The advantage of federalism is that it better enables local solutions to local problems.
But, political and economic marginalization will continue for the majority of Yemeni citizens as long as there are no functioning governing bodies on the local level. Redrawing Yemen’s internal borders will only solve the country’s problems if genuine decentralization occurs. Only then will the country’s division into six regions be more meaningful than its current framework of 21 governorates.
But, lets not forget: the federalism will not solve the underlying causes of the country’s ongoing conflicts. Looking to southern Yemen, desires for an independent state first emerged as a reaction to the central governments’ inability or unwillingness to adequately respond to southerners’ political and economic grievances. These included the return of land, which had been taken by northern elites, the release of political prisoners, and increased political participation and economic opportunities.
The Houthi conflict escalated from a local uprising in defense of a local religious tradition – the Shiite Zaydiyya – to a large-scale civil war involving a complicated network of tribes, militias, and military troops, driven by economic discontent, political marginalization, and overly harsh responses from the regime of now-deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, which led to widespread anti-government sentiment.
Particularly since 2011, other regions of Yemen have been increasingly affected by the presence of Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups, such as Ansar Al-Sharia. These regions include Al-Jawf, Marib, Shabwa, Hadhramout, and Al-Baydha. Here, there have been confrontations between government forces and radical groups, as well as secret operations by the U.S. government in the form of drone strikes.
In many of these areas, the central government has a weak presence and state law enforcement is virtually absent. Organized into tribes or popular committees, locals have taken it upon themselves to provide security for their communities. Likewise, in central Yemen, people have been politically and economically disenfranchised with government services and infrastructure being limited.
Since the aftermath of the 2011 uprising, conflicts with the Houthis and other groups have increasingly been driven by ideology, and have often been framed in sectarian terms. While this narrative has certainly been used to mobilize support for these groups, it is also closely related to the transfer of political power in Sana’a.
With the implementation of the Gulf Cooperation Council Initiative, which began Yemen’s political transition, the Islamic Islah party has grown increasingly influential at the national level. Together with its allies – the Al-Ahmar family and General Ali Mohsen – the party has made the greatest gains since the 2011 upheaval. During the transitional period, Islah has often received criticism for continuing former President Saleh’s patronage politics and staffing ministries and the country’s bureaucracy with its own members.
Other political groups are afraid Islah is growing too strong. From an ideological perspective, Islah opposes both the Houthi movement and the southern Hirak movement. While all parties are participating in the NDC, on the local level, violent clashes between individual factions have not ceased since beginning in 2011. Given the political divisions between these groups, ideology has inevitably played a more important role in these conflicts.
It is true that it was a great achievement for these groups to sit together at the NDC and discuss complicated issues in an attempt to find solutions to the country’s challenges. Nevertheless, core problems remain unresolved, as reflected by continuing violence on the local level. In fact, the more it seemed the NDC was unable to deliver tangible results, the more these local conflicts have escalated. This is the result of distrust among political groups, parties, and government, lacking genuine consensus between the groups in discussions at the NDC on the “southern” and “Sa’ada” issues.
However imperfect, the political transition in Yemen must continue and receive support from the international community. To maintain his legitimacy as transitional president, Hadi must now actively implement the NDC’s recommendations and establish institutions, which reflect the federal system on the local level.
It is about time the Yemeni population began to see tangible improvements in their lives.
For this to be possible, Hadi must work toward achieving more security. This can only be realized if the government compromises on its own positions and addresses the legitimate grievances of political groups. While there were certainly measures in this regard, which the government should have taken before the NDC began, the president was also performing a delicate balancing act inherent to Yemeni politics. The infamous dance on snakes’ heads, Hadi could not compromise with one group, without losing the confidence of other groups.
Further aggravating the transition’s many challenges, there are questions as to whether Yemen’s bureaucracy will be able to implement the NDC’s prescriptions and whether new local institutions will add another layer of corruption to the already bloated central government. Reforming the country’s bureaucracy will be painful and require the dismissal of thousands of state employees, who have been receiving salaries for doing very little if any work. Eliminating these positions will certainly create another source of instability, especially since the private sector is unable to absorb the shock and provide jobs without its own set of economic reforms and investment.
In Yemen, the transition will continue to be difficult, even after the NDC. And so it must be, if true political change in the country is to be realized.