International

Yemen to become six-region federation

Deal gives autonomy to restless south, not independence as many demand

Members of Yemen’s Independent Youth movement march during an anti-government demonstration on Feb. 10, 2014, in the capital, Sanaa.
Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Yemen's President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi on Monday formally approved transforming the country into a federal union of six regions, a move that gives the restive south more autonomy and reaches a milestone in a planned transition to democracy.

But the plan was immediately rejected by some southerners who insist on a separate, independent state, raising fears that the impoverished country – whose weak central government is dealing with various armed insurgent groups and a southern rebellion – may face further instability. Al-Qaeda fighters have set up operations in parts of the south, and neighboring countries and the United States have backed the democratic transition process in an effort to strengthen the central government.

Yemen has been trying to engineer a political transition following a 2011 mass uprising amid the regional Arab Spring. The revolt resulted in then-President Abdullah Saleh stepping down after more than 30 years in power and handing control to Hadi, his former army general.

The federal system Hadi approved Monday will divide the country into six regions that reflect longstanding historical identities, according to political analyst Abdel Ghani Aryani, who told Al Jazeera that each region “will be charged with delivery of services such as education, law enforcement and health.”

The move is part of the political transition process brokered by Gulf countries. The deal laid out a two-year framework that includes a new constitution to be approved by referendum, as well as national elections and the formation of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) – a 565-member body tasked with addressing challenges facing Yemen.

Last month, NDC delegates gave Hadi an extra year to oversee drafting a new constitution that will form the basis for elections slated for next year.

Yemen’s official state news agency, Saba, said the idea of a federal state comprised of six regions garnered the "highest level of agreement" among delegates, against another proposal to divide the country into two regions – one in the north and one in the south.

Lack of popular approval

But experts say that consensus is not widely reflected among the general Yemeni population. Some southern officials have outright rejected the move, fearing that it could dilute their authority and deprive them of control over important areas such as Hadramout, where some of Yemen's oil reserves are found.

The 1990 union between the tribal North Yemen and the Marxist South quickly went sour, and after four years the country fell into a civil war in which then-President Saleh crushed southern secessionists and maintained the union. Since then, the south has held periodic demonstrations demanding independence.

Yemen's larger uprising in 2011 only intensified the calls for separation, which have been met with brute state force and violent crackdowns, activists said. 

"What has been announced about the six regions is a coup against what had been agreed at the (NDC) dialogue," said Mohammed Ali Ahmed, a former South Yemen interior minister who returned from exile in March 2012. "That is why I pulled out of the dialogue," he told Reuters.

Ahmed withdrew from the talks in November, and in December three other Yemeni parties rejected the proposal to turn the country into a federation.

Danya Greenfield, an expert on regional politics and economics at the Atlantic Council, told Al Jazeera that there is a major confidence gap between the south and central government – primarily because the government is unwilling or unable to deal with outstanding southern grievances.

“The south seeks a unified southern region with an autonomous government in order to be able to defend against marginalization by the northern state,” Greenfield said.

Greenfield said that the government did not prioritize the implementation of a 20-point action plan included in the final NDC agreement. The plan addressed outstanding grievances held by the south, including systemic discrimination and land seizures by northern groups with connections to the government.

“These were measures put in place for confidence building in the south, but southerners haven’t really seen tangible benefits. Ultimately a constitutional referendum won’t succeed unless Hadi demonstrates a good faith effort to implement the 20 points,” she said. “They must convince southerners that it is in their best interest to remain part of a unified state, otherwise it’s going to be nearly impossible to implement a federal system within a unified state.”

Nasser al-Nawba, a founder of the southern separatist movement known as Hirak, rejected the deal, saying the only solution was for separate states in the north and south. "We will continue our peaceful struggle until we achieve independence,” he said.

Yemeni activist and sociologist Sarah Jamal told Al Jazeera that it is not just the south that questions the deal, and labeled the move a “postponing of armed civil conflict."

“The National Dialogue itself does not have much support among the general population because it was put into place by Gulf countries without any input from the Yemeni people,” she said.

Jamal, who participated in the youth-led uprising of 2011, said that the average Yemeni citizen feels betrayed. “We were not included in the transition process and little information since then has been communicated to us,” she said.

Jamal said that the problems faced by citizens have never been about “the shape of various states,” but about rights that were taken awat under the previous dictatorship. The six-region plan also fails to take into account the country’s security vacuum, she said.

“Hadi’s priority should be to fix the security situation. We’ve been facing armed conflict for the past two years now,” Jamal said. “The government and the international community is in serious denial and would rather focus on dividing wealth. But it’s just distracting from what’s happening on the ground. In the end, when you have a weak state and several armed conflicts going on, you end up siding with whatever militia can protect you.”

Anna Boyd, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Country Risk, said the government was unlikely to be able to re-establish control over most of Yemen's territory over the next year.

"Militant separatist factions will probably capitalize on the diminished capability of security forces in southern provinces, coordinate their efforts with other insurgent factions to acquire weapons and expertise, and increasingly resort to attacks targeting infrastructure, energy and security forces to further erode the government's authority over southern Yemeni territory," she said.

Al Jazeera and wire services. Amel Ahmed contributed to this report.

SOUTHERN FEARS

Some southerners fear that having several regions would dilute their authority and deprive them of control over important areas such as Hadramout, where some of Yemen's oil reserves are found.

Nasser al-Nawba, a founder of the southern Hirak separatist movement, also rejected the deal, saying the only solution was for the north and south to each have their own state, as was the case before 1990.

"We will continue our peaceful struggle until we achieve independence. We are against violence," he said.

The 1990 union between the tribal North Yemen and the Marxist South soon went sour and a civil war broke out four years later in which then-President Saleh crushed southern secessionists and maintained the union.

Anna Boyd, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Country Risk, said that while the deal "closes the door on southern separatist ambitions", the government was unlikely to be able to re-establish control over most of Yemen's territory over the next year.

"Militant separatist factions will probably capitalize on the diminished capability of security forces in southern provinces, coordinate their efforts with other insurgent factions to acquire weapons and expertise, and increasingly resort to attacks targeting infrastructure, energy and security forces to further erode the government's authority over southern Yemeni territory," she said.

Reuters 

SOUTHERN FEARS

Some southerners fear that having several regions would dilute their authority and deprive them of control over important areas such as Hadramout, where some of Yemen's oil reserves are found.

Nasser al-Nawba, a founder of the southern Hirak separatist movement, also rejected the deal, saying the only solution was for the north and south to each have their own state, as was the case before 1990.

"We will continue our peaceful struggle until we achieve independence. We are against violence," he said.

The 1990 union between the tribal North Yemen and the Marxist South soon went sour and a civil war broke out four years later in which then-President Saleh crushed southern secessionists and maintained the union.

Anna Boyd, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Country Risk, said that while the deal "closes the door on southern separatist ambitions", the government was unlikely to be able to re-establish control over most of Yemen's territory over the next year.

"Militant separatist factions will probably capitalize on the diminished capability of security forces in southern provinces, coordinate their efforts with other insurgent factions to acquire weapons and expertise, and increasingly resort to attacks targeting infrastructure, energy and security forces to further erode the government's authority over southern Yemeni territory," she said.

Reuters 

SOUTHERN FEARS

Some southerners fear that having several regions would dilute their authority and deprive them of control over important areas such as Hadramout, where some of Yemen's oil reserves are found.

Nasser al-Nawba, a founder of the southern Hirak separatist movement, also rejected the deal, saying the only solution was for the north and south to each have their own state, as was the case before 1990.

"We will continue our peaceful struggle until we achieve independence. We are against violence," he said.

The 1990 union between the tribal North Yemen and the Marxist South soon went sour and a civil war broke out four years later in which then-President Saleh crushed southern secessionists and maintained the union.

Anna Boyd, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Country Risk, said that while the deal "closes the door on southern separatist ambitions", the government was unlikely to be able to re-establish control over most of Yemen's territory over the next year.

"Militant separatist factions will probably capitalize on the diminished capability of security forces in southern provinces, coordinate their efforts with other insurgent factions to acquire weapons and expertise, and increasingly resort to attacks targeting infrastructure, energy and security forces to further erode the government's authority over southern Yemeni territory," she said.

Reuters 

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