Debating Federalism in Yemen

The Southern Movement in Yemen, known as Southern Hirak, is closer than ever before to achieving a negotiated resolution that addresses at least some of its demands. Capitalizing on Southern grievances following the 1994 civil war in Yemen, Hirak established itself as a protest movement in 2007 demanding to address many rights-based issues in the South, but quickly turned into demanding secession when their original demands were ignored.  

As Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference (NDC) reconvenes after extended Eid al-Adha holidays, all eyes are on the “8+8” committee which is negotiating an agreement to address the grievances of the Hirak Movement. The committee, with eight representatives from the South and eight representatives from the North, was formed on September 10, 2013 and in one month of intensive discussions and negotiations made significant progress towards reaching a consensus. However, a final agreement remains elusive, causing the NDC to delay its closing ceremony which was initially scheduled for the September 18, 2013 marking six months since its launch. As negotiations resume this week, it is worth looking at what has been achieved so far and the different positions around the negotiations table.

Federalism: Reaching a Middle Ground

The negotiations started with two extreme positions: the traditional elite powers (particularly those from the ex-ruling party GPC and the Muslim Brotherhood party Islah) calling for maintaining the status quo of the simple centralized state in Yemen under the banner of maintaining Yemen’s unity, and the Hirak representatives calling for the independence of South Yemen based on pre-unification (pre-1990) borders. Through negotiations, committee members dropped these extreme positions and participants reached consensus on adopting a federal system in Yemen. The discussions focused on the form of the new federation in Yemen, particularly the number of regions and which governorates will form each region.

Designing a Federal System

Again, the negotiations proceeded with two initial positions. Hirak demanded a two-region federal system: Northern and Southern regions based on 1990 borders, while the majority of the representatives from the traditional parties wanted a four- or five-region federal system with each region including a mix of Northern and Southern governorates. The main concern of those taking the second position was that a two-region system would be a first step towards secession of the South. Hirak’s insistence on including in the agreement the right of self-determination for the South after five years of adopting the two-region federal system only served to support those fears. Hirak representatives, however, feared that the people of the South would reject anything less than autonomy over what was once South Yemen and the right of self-determination.

Representatives of the eastern Hadhramout, Shabwah, and al-Mahrah governorates (once part of South Yemen) added another layer of complexity to the negotiations by demanding a separate Eastern Region in the new Federal System and refusing to be part of any future Southern Region. Over fifty members of the NDC from these governorates signed a widely-publicized petition for the creation of the Eastern Region. This position added a third option to the negotiations table: a five-region federal system but still based on 1990 borders, with two regions in what used to be South Yemen (an Eastern Region and a Southern Region), and three regions in North Yemen.

With both sides resisting this third proposal, the facilitators, in an attempt to break the deadlock, suggested introducing a referendum after five years. The suggestion put forth two options for the negotiators:

  1. To start with five regions with a referendum in five years providing the option for regions to consolidate their territories (i.e. giving the chance for the two pre-1990 Southern regions to consolidate into one if the majority of the people in those two regions choose to do so); or
  2. To start with two regions (along the pre-1990 borders) with a referendum in five years providing the option to form new regions.

An implicit understanding in these options was for Hirak to surrender demands for a referendum on independence (right of self-determination), and for Northern representative to relinquish demands for mixed regions between Northern and Southern governorates.

Two final options were explored but not accepted by the committee members. One proposal put forward the option to form two regions in the pre-1990 South, two regions in the pre-1990 North, and a fifth region in the center containing a mix of Northern and Southern governorates; the other proposal suggested beginning with a fully decentralized authority at the level of the current twenty-one governorates for a transitional period of five years, and then a referendum for any governorates that want to unite to create regions (i.e. build the system from the bottom-up). These two options failed to address the reservations of the two negotiating sides, as they did not give the Hirak representatives autonomy over their region or the right of self-determination, and the two options did not provide assurances to the pro-unity negotiators that secession will not happen in the future.

The negotiators have returned from their Eid holidays with these options in mind to try and reach a final settlement in the next few weeks.

The current debate is focused on the first two levels of government: Central (Federal) government, and Regional governments, with little focus on the municipal or city-level government. Without empowering the third level of government with enough authority and responsibility—and explicitly protecting such powers under the new constitution—the NDC delegates will continue to overlook the demands of Yemeni citizens for a government that is more responsive to their local needs. Yemen will move from a centralized system with a single power center in Sana’a to yet another centralized system with two to five power centers that remain out of touch with the ordinary citizen.

An agreement that includes multiple regions or governorates, and a referendum in five years with the option to consolidate these regions, will likely result in maintaining the initial design of the agreement and a failure to consolidate. Once elite and popular interests are aligned at a more local level, there is little incentive to give up these interests and powers to a more consolidated, centralized authority. This is also true of any agreement with less number of regions and a referendum in the future to allow the creation of new regions. Once new elite interests are aligned and power is gained, there is little incentive for these elite to allow new regions to be created, and they will therefore do everything in their capacity to stop that from happening. Therefore, while the option of having a referendum in five years might seem like a good way of breaking the deadlock, in reality it is most likely to not have any effect once powers are entrenched in the initial design, and the negotiators are probably well-aware of this.

Existing power centers and elite players can more easily maintain their interests with a smaller number of regions than with a larger number of regions. With only two regions to manage, the political elite can easily maintain control over Sana’a using traditional networks and patronage systems and well-known Southern players will consolidate control over the second region. This arrangement would make it easier for the elites to deal and coordinate with each other in the future. The establishment of more regions, however, introduces an element of ambiguity as to what key players will emerge in these regions and might, therefore, be a less comfortable option for the traditional power centers in Sana’a.

A transition to a federal system seems to be the only solution that could preserve Yemen’s unity. However, the third-level of government needs to be empowered with substantial authority protected under the constitution. This system could reduce resistance to the division of territory as the regional governments would extert limited influence, and political authority would be drawn away from the traditional center of power in Sana’a. A five-region federal system with mixed governorates from South and North Yemen, and with substantial authority at the municipality-level, would ideally weaken the power of the current political elite in the North and South and create a more responsive and sustainable governance system. The next few weeks will be decisive in shaping the future of the “New Yemen.”

Rafat Al-Akhali is the chairman of Resonate! Yemen based in Sana’a, working to bring the voices and ideas of young Yemenis to the public policy discourse and supporting youth action on issues of national and international significance. 

Related Experts: Rafat Al-Akhali

Image: Map of administrative divisions in Yemen as of 2004. (Photo: Wikimedia)