Sana’a: Yemen’s politicians, youth, women and intellectuals opened a landmark national dialogue on Monday on the future of the transition to democracy, and high on the agenda is debate over a dramatic redrawing of the country’s political map to address nearly 20 years of failed unity.
One proposal backed by Yemen’s president in the dialogue is to decentralise rule in the country by dividing it into six new regions, each with considerable autonomy, under a federal system, high-ranking government official say.
In his opening remarks, Hadi told the 500 participants that after the uprising, the new Yemen must no longer be ruled by “one family, tribe, region, or sect”. Instead, he said, “justice and equality must prevail.”
“Over the past decades, we have failed because of our inability to reach a wise political governing system ... the tribe and the family were in control,” he said. During Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule, his family dominated most positions of power and wealth, and he appointed his sons, relatives and clan members to key government, military and security positions. The question of unity poses the most pressing questions in Yemen today. For decades the country has been torn by wars, particularly with the south, which was once independent and still has a powerful secessionist movement.
“The centralised state and unity have both failed,” Yassin Noaman, an adviser to the president, told the Associated Press. “Through dialogue, we have to reach a consensus on the new political system which gets Yemenis together, not tear them apart.” “The title of this new system is: sharing wealth and power, social justice, citizenship rights, and equality,” he said. “Separation is not the solution and insisting on centralisation is not a solution.”
Under a proposal backed by Hadi, Yemen would be divided into six regions, each with its own parliament, court and police forces, under a central government with separate powers. The south’s main city, Aden, one of the world’s most strategically important ports, in the Gulf of Aden near the mouth of the Red Sea, will be a region in its own, officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the press.
The proposal aims to address complaints that centralisation concentrated wealth in the capital, Sana’a, and marginalised other regions, particularly the south, fuelling its separatist movement. Southerners are divided over the dialogue. Some of boycotted the gathering, saying they won’t negotiate with the government until it recognises the right of the south to declare independence. Others joined but gave no indication that they are willing to give up their dream of independence.
“Our demand is to return to the State of the South,” said Mohammad Ali Ahmad, one of the key southern leaders who joined the meeting. “The north will be always ruling through the tribe, the military and religion and it is impossible to co-exist with it.”
A second leader of the south is former vice-president Ali Salim Al Beidh who leads a more militant wing in the south and who lives in exile, who is boycotting the meeting. Al Beidh fled Yemen after a 1994 attempt to regain independence in the south was crushed in a civil war. The UN Security Council last month warned Al Beidh of sanctions if he continued to interfere in Yemen’s democratic transition. The warning came after Al Beidh was accused of receiving funds from Iran and integrating former Al Qaida members into his movement.
Also refusing to join the dialogue are some hardline and ultraconservative Islamic leaders, including Shaikh Abdul Majid Al Zindani. He had demanded that the conference not touch on the issue of Sharia, which he and other hardliners see as required and not up for debate. Yemen’s outgoing constitution states that Islamic law is the sole source of legislation. Secular sentiment, however, is stronger in the south.
Failure to reach a consensus, participants say, would risk plunging Yemen into more lawlessness and chaos.
“The worst-case scenario is that we fail to reach a consensus on a federated state and each camp returns to their cave,” said Omar Abdul Aziz, a political writer said. “Then troubles would brew not only in the south but elsewhere.”