Inside Story

Yemen: Redrawing the political map?

We ask if a deal on southern autonomy would pave the way to increased stability or lead to more civil strife.

Last updated: 26 Dec 2013 07:18
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The political transition in Yemen is being tested as an agreement on state structure causes more debate - and more controversy.

We are assuming that there is a northern point of view about this, and a southern point of view about this, and both are sharp and agreed about what they want and what they do not want out of this. But the reality is it is very different .... [The government] jumped to the dialogue, it jumped to conclusions, jumped to discuss federalism and regions - which is the colour of the ink not the content of the ink. And it neglected a very important reason, that obviously this is not popular in the north, not popular in the south .... And even if they have full consensus about it, it does not respond, in my opinion, to the southern issue, nor will it make Yemen more stable.

Farea al-Muslimi, Yemeni youth activist

Federalism is now seen as the solution to the country's many woes, but can it really work, or will it be a prelude to more strife inside Yemen?

Political representatives in the country signed a deal on southern autonomy on Monday. But the new agreement, that could solve the intractable issue of autonomy in Yemen, has been rejected by three leading parties.

The document, that was signed by the government, 17 political parties and civil groups, could redraw the political map of Yemen. It aims to give power to federal states within the country, and it provides a blueprint for some level of self-rule in the restive south.

But it has hit a major stumbling block, because of a failure to agree how exactly autonomy would work.

The agreement paves the way for establishing a unified state, on the basis of federalism, which is similar to the political system in the US.

Southerners want to split Yemen into two federal states, saying that their own federal state would give them real autonomy. Meanwhile northerners fear two federal states could lead to south breaking away.

Northerners want to split the country into six federal regions.

The desire for autonomy in the south has been an issue for almost as long as Yemen has been one country.

Yemen's north and its once-socialist-south only agreed to unite in 1990. But war broke out four years later, when southerners revolted, saying they had been marginalised.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was the president at the time, crushed the revolt and the union was maintained.

But the southern movement for independence re-emerged in 2007 with a call for the south to be independent once again.

Between 2009 and 2010, the separatists led a combination of protests, strikes, shootings and bombings against the government.

In 2011, a popular uprising forced President Saleh out of office in a power transfer deal negotiated by Gulf countries.

But that deal could unravel if southern demands are not dealt with.

The new agreement comes ahead of general elections to be held in February, and it is already running into difficulties because some factions are not on board.

So, could this deal pave the way to a unified and more stable Yemen? Or will it lead to more civil strife?

To discuss this, Inside Story presenter Folly Bah Thibault is joined by guests: Saeed Yafai, the chairman of the executive bureau of the consultancy Forum of Southerners in Sanaa; Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni youth activist; and Peter Salisbury, a Yemen analyst and independent journalist based in Sanaa.

"[For southerners the deal] has not come up to their aspirations even halfway. It has not given them the right for self-determination, which is the mainstay of their claims. Obviously they are demanding the return of their own state. They were a sovereign state before 1990 and they would like to go back to being a sovereign state.

"However, there are different views on how to reach that point. Many people would agree to gradual steps to reach self-determination. And when we say self-determination, it does not necessarily mean that the majority of the people in the south would like to secede."

Saeed Yafai, Forum for Southerners in Sanaa


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