Posted by on February 14, 2014 in Blog

By Firas Suqi
Spring Intern, 2014

Following the conversations held at the National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which concluded in late January, Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansoor Hadi signed off on a two-year framework that will split the nation into six federal regions, divided along traditional ethnic boundaries.

The move is facing opposition from separatists wishing to establish an independent state in southern Yemen, even though it’s intended to decentralize political control of the country and cede power to factions in the south. With talk of secession in the south, Houthi rebels in the north have also denounced Hadi’s intentions to create a federal state. 

Yemen's new federal regions. Source: Reuters 

Sanaa now finds itself geographically sandwiched in the middle of two rebel groups vying for greater influence, in addition to the growing Al Qaeda insurgency that poses yet another threat to a stable and democratic Yemen. After coming to power in the aftermath of the 2011 revolution that led to the ousting of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh from the office he held for 33 years, Hadi’s framework to establish a federal Yemeni state will be included in the country’s new constitution, which is set to be voted on by a national referendum.

While rebel leaders criticize the decision of the NDC to split Yemen into six federal regions, the move has been supported by the joint brokers of the talks – the U.N. and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The U.S. State Department has thus far only congratulated Yemen on concluding its national dialogue. 

Is a federal system the best move forward for Yemen?

The Yemeni state has been on edge of collapse for quite some time. Since reaching a unification agreement between North Yemen and South Yemen in 1990, which united the country for the first time in decades, stability has been more scarce in Yemen than rainfall. Following the unification agreement, Yemen has gone on to experience civil war and revolution, along with rising rates of poverty and food insecurity.

A once divided Yemen.

If tensions between rebel factions and the national government continue to rise, Yemen faces the risk of falling back into civil war. With a history of tribal divisions, a federal parliamentary system grants rebel groups the chance to participate in the national government. By taking a more inclusive approach to dealing with the rebels in the north and the separatists in the south, supporters of a federal framework hope to establish a lasting democracy, and seek to avoid the partition of the country’s delicate social fabric and national identity. 

The central government has acknowledged that it must hand over some power to rebel factions in any future Yemeni state. That being said, rebel groups aren’t budging with their continued calls for independence. President Hadi and his supporters can only extend their offering of power so far, and are now being forced to navigate a fine line between reconciling the nation and risking self-immolation.

Both Houthi rebels in the north and separatists in the south face a tough decision of whether or not to participate in the trial-run of federalism. On their own, both rebel groups lack the capacity to build the institutions and state capacity to deal with the growing number of insurgents in their would-be sovereign territories.

No, federalism may not be the only solution to Yemen’s woes. Considering that all players involved lack the strength and capacity to function on their own – while still demanding greater autonomy – the decision to split Yemen into federal regions is the most feasible option.

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