Obstacles to a Federalist System in Yemen

6 MINS READFeb 5, 2014 | 16:47 GMT
Obstacles to a Federalist System in Yemen
Southern Yemenis protest in Lahj in 2010.
(-/AFP/Getty Images)

In Yemen, where tribal politics are king and the central government is struggling to consolidate power and exert control, the option of federalism is back on the table. Yemeni government sources reported Feb. 2 that President Abd Rabboh Mansour Hadi approved the formation of a federal republic organized into six regions.

However, there are a number of issues with the notion of provincial autonomy in Yemen, where each tribe, sect and region is vying for rights and revenue from the country's resources. Because of disagreements over the terms of federalism as well as structural problems associated with the system of government, it is unlikely to be implemented. If it is implemented, it probably will not function as intended.

Yemen has historically had difficulty operating as a unified nation-state due to fierce tribal divisions and rugged and vast terrain. The north is ruled primarily by tribal politics and contains regions where competing sects live in proximity, such as the al-Houthi rebels and Salafists in the northern province of Saada. Unlike the north, the south tends to be more religiously liberal and more socialist, and much of the country's energy resources are located within its territory. This is due to the south's history first as a British protectorate, from the early 1800s until 1967, and later as an independent Marxist state (the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen) until 1990, when the north and south merged. Northern Yemen, the Yemen Arab Republic, was far more tribal and Islamic. 

The unification of the two very different regions was problematic, and in 1994 the south attempted to break away again to become independent, resulting in a civil war. The north won the war in part by using jihadist fighters, who had returned to Yemen from Afghanistan, against the southern socialists. Southerners' disdain for the north grew after the war when northern tribes seized much of the land and jobs belonging to those in the south. In addition, jihadism has been spreading its roots within the country since the 1990s, and in 2009 one of al Qaeda's most active and prominent jihadist franchises, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was formed.

Difficulties of Central Control

Because of the vast spectrum of rival tribes, sects, militants and separatist movements, Yemen can truly be governed only under the control of a leader with a somewhat reliable military apparatus and the ability to pit potentially threatening groups against one another. During Yemen's modern history this was achieved under the rule of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. After the civil war, Saleh made it a point to co-opt sheikhs in political and military arenas and solidified his power through the promotion of clansmen and his own relatives in Yemen's state institutions. It was through these connections and the use of a complex system of bribes, patronage and threats that Saleh was able to hold the country together without having complete control over all of Yemen. 

Saleh's tenuous control over the state weakened in 2011 as Yemenis emboldened by the Arab Spring protested against his rule. When Saleh used the military to fire on protesters, an important tribal ally (the al-Ahmar tribe, which controlled a significant portion of the military) sided with the protesters and demanded that Saleh step down. Saleh was nearly killed in a June 2011 assassination attempt that left him badly injured and disfigured. He relinquished the presidency in 2012 due to the Saudi-backed Gulf Cooperation Council initiative that required Saleh to step down and Hadi to assume power. Since that time, Yemen has been in a state of transition, experiencing heightened instability. Although Hadi is the current president, he is not the overwhelmingly powerful leader Saleh was; he has struggled to overcome some significant constraints such as the fragmented military he inherited after the 2011-12 unrest. Hadi has tried for two years to consolidate control and has even restructured the military to ensure loyalty to him, but Saleh and his devoted factions remain within the government and have prevented Hadi from fully grabbing power. Hadi has also been unable to effectively use threatening groups and sects against one another as Saleh once did.

It is clear now that Hadi will not be the one to re-establish a stable central government, and federalism is being considered as a result. It is thought that a federalist system may appease the al-Houthis in the north who have been expanding their control south toward Sanaa, seizing land from local tribes. Moreover, southerners who are part of the Southern Separatist Movement, also known as Hirak, have been calling for greater autonomy and a federalist state.

Obstacles to Federalism

There are a number of obstacles in the way of implementing a federalist system. In fact, an attempt toward federalism in the early 1990s failed due to the fact that the political systems in place in both the north and south were so different that a central political system of government could not be agreed upon. In this case, one of the first problems is deciding how many regions to establish. Nearly all sects and factions participating in the national dialogue and talks with Hadi would like to see a six-region divide — four in the north and two in the south. However, Hirak is vehemently opposed and is instead demanding a return to the two-state divide between north and south. It is unlikely that Sanaa would implement such a system because the creation of an autonomous and united south could lay the foundation for the south to secede.

Even if the participating parties and sects agreed on the issue of regions, there are other pressing matters that would be difficult to resolve. For example, the bulk of the oil fields and energy infrastructure is in the south and east, with export infrastructure located on the coasts along the west and south. There are already disputes over how the revenue and wealth from the energy infrastructure is split among the provinces. Should each region of a federalist Yemen be responsible for its own local government and policies, the issue of funding and oil revenue would be a point of major disagreement.

Each of these problems will likely prevent Yemen from installing a federalist system. Even if it does implement such a system, the radical elements of Hirak and rebel al-Houthi fighters have distanced themselves from the mainstream members of their groups who are participating in talks with Hadi. As a result, it is unlikely that it would stop them from pursuing their ultimate goals through violence. Moreover, with or without federalism, al Qaeda has vowed to establish an Islamic emirate in the Arabian Peninsula and will continue to use violence in an attempt to bring down whichever government is in control and whatever group stands in its way.

Still, despite disagreements among Yemeni groups, many do not wish to see a completely failed central government, since it would only further exacerbate problems across the board. These groups will thus attempt to rein in their more violent counterparts and continue with talks to mitigate an escalation of violence. Saudi Arabia, and some Western countries to a certain extent, do not want to see a lawless Yemen either, and as a result will attempt to keep the security environment somewhat under control. The Saudis will continue to work through tribal connections to ease tensions, and the United States, with the help of the Saudis, will continue its unmanned aerial vehicle strikes against al Qaeda targets and send military help when necessary. In the meantime, Yemen will continue to be unstable until another capable leader can strike and maintain a balance by consolidating power and fully asserting his control.

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