Yemen: where is the transition heading?

The humanitarian situation remains grave. Why doesn’t it receive the attention given to similar situations elsewhere?  With over 10 million people hungry, 13 million without access to water and sanitation, 1 million children malnourished, and about 700,000 IDPs and refugees, there is no doubt that there is a need for urgent humanitarian action.

Helen Lackner
12 March 2013

With yet another meeting of the so-called Friends of Yemen (FOY) and the National Dialogue finally due to start on 18 March, it is time to update on the situation in Yemen which presents a unique and interesting case among the Arab ‘revolutions’ of this decade. 

The first phase of the transition lasted 90 days and included the formation of a national Unity Government, and the election of the Vice President to replace the President of 33 years.  This was successfully completed last February.  As there was only one candidate, the high voter participation was a surprise and transformed the election from the widely expected rubber stamp into a strong and clear popular demand for serious change.

The second phase has two years in which to implement the following: reform and restructuring of the security/military institutions, enactment of a transitional justice law, and holding a comprehensive National Dialogue to redefine the country’s political system and decide on the basic principles which will underlie a new constitution.  An ambitious agenda. 

The National Dialogue 

International pressure has ensured that Dialogue participants include 30% women, and also calls for adequate representation of the revolutionary youth who were the main actors of the 2011 events, as well as all groups who have specific grievances, in particular the Southern and Huthi movements.  According to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Agreement, it is due to last 6 months and be immediately followed by a Constitutional Commission.  This Commission has three months to prepare a draft new constitution which needs to be put to a referendum; no time scale is specified between the finalisation of the draft constitution and the referendum, but it states that parliament then has three months from the adoption of the new constitution to enact a law convening the elections which bring the transition period to an end.  As basic arithmetic shows, with six months of national dialogue, three months to prepare the constitution, time for a referendum, three months for Parliament to adopt the new constitution and an undefined period to prepare and hold elections, this process will take over a year. 

As the National Dialogue is now due to start on 18 March, after four months delay, there is no way the whole process will be completed by February 2014.  Hence it is somewhat surprising to note that the Friends of Yemen meeting held on 7 March welcomes a Government plan to “deliver full presidential and parliamentary elections in February 2014”. This can only be achieved by cutting down some of the planned steps, which is likely to reduce the depth of participation, narrow popular involvement and restrict the scope of discussions.  Rushing the process will seriously reduce its ability to address and reach conclusions and decisions representing a real consensus of the myriad different and often conflicting views on the major important issues which need addressing.  These include the form of rule [presidential or parliamentary], whether to introduce a different form of decentralization either with a number of regions or a more federal structure.  This alone will take considerable time as it means agreeing the number and delimitation of the different regions, which means addressing demographic, social as well as agro-ecological and water basin/aquifer  issues all of which are determining factors for the future viability of the regions and the country as a whole.  In addition, of course, the level of financial and administrative autonomy of the regions/governorates needs to be agreed and included in the constitution.

Yemenis have, to date, avoided civil war and massive death toll.  This is a major achievement which can largely be attributed to the youth of the Change Squares remaining determinedly peaceful in 2011 despite provocation and the attacks they endured.  However, developments in recent months are cause for concern:  current trends in the preparation of the Dialogue suggest that the outcome will not bring about the fundamental political and economic changes which millions hoped for and thousands died for in the last two years.

Among the issues which have delayed the dialogue to date, the Southern question has taken most time and energy.  Faced with a group of stubborn and aged leaders of the former PDRY all clamouring for independence/separatism, the dialogue preparatory committee has made significant concessions: the main one  - to give the South up to 57% of the seats in the Dialogue meetings and institutions despite the fact that they represent at best 30% of the country’s population - has been described as a ‘confidence building measure’.  It remains to be seen whether or not this succeeds in bringing them to the discussion table with the intention of discussing anything other than separation.  Yet another meeting in Dubai on 9 March with the UN’s Special Envoy Jamal Benomar has only achieved agreement to hold another meeting.  One also wonders how much the voice on non-separatist southerners will be heard.  What is certain is that such concessions on the share of seats to the Southern separatist have the side-effect of reducing representation of other groups such as the independent youth and the rural poor, whose grievances and hopes may be equal or greater and whose agenda is more focused on the emergence of a better future for Yemen and its people.

Analysis of the known participants to the National Dialogue indicates that, in addition to that of Southern Separatists, the main voice which will be heard is that of the Islah party.  Islah is now the strongest element in national politics.  It also dominated the Change Squares movement in its later months and thus displaced the ‘independent’ youth, who now are only marginally involved in the Dialogue.  Women, while represented, mostly are part of their political factions’ groups and will hopefully bring more realism to the discussions.  Minorities have been included in the Dialogue, including some such as the Jews who only represent a minuscule proportion of the national population [there are currently about 500 Jews in the country] and others, such as the Akhdam whose numbers are more meaningful.  Efforts to include the widest range of special interest groups have neither prevented the domination of the major elite supporters [whether GPC or Islah] from having the majority of places, nor have they ensured any kind of demographic balance on the basis of either regional or socio-economic criteria.  Giving voice to the South and to Huthis has encouraged the emergence of other regional interests, in particular from the Tihama.  This may help the dialogue to develop truly regional decentralization. 

Military and security developments 

The second major responsibility of the transition period is the restructuring of the military/security apparatus.  Although not finalised, it currently appears to be the most successful element.  Within a year of taking power, President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi first removed the closest associates and relatives of Ali Abdullah Saleh from their leadership positions in the most powerful, well equipped and well trained (by the US among others) military/security institutions.  Having done this through the usual (but effective) slicing mechanism, he then established new structures for the armed forces and the police.  They are based on the Jordanian model and eliminate the multiplicity of power centres by abolishing some of the institutions and replacing them with fewer organisations whose role is better defined.  There is still much to be done, including the appointment of leaders of the new units. 

It would be foolhardy to state that this battle is finally won, though there are signs of progress.  While the second half of 2012 was marked by a succession of assassinations targeting newly appointed or potential military leaders and others who had been successful in displacing the insurgents from many of their strongholds, such assassinations and other attempts are fewer in 2013.  Another positive sign has been the arrest and confiscation of large weapons consignments arriving by sea; although the destination of the weapons remains uncertain, the fact that both small and medium weapons are now in the hands of state forces must be greeted with relief.  What is notable here is not so much that weapons are shipped to Yemen, but more the fact that they have been confiscated. 

Despite this, insecurity is still a major problem in the daily life of Yemenis and the remaining foreigners.  Fighting between insurgents and Government forces has shifted mostly to al Baidha governorate in recent weeks, and the signs are that, although still active, the rebels have definitely been weakened. 

Transitional justice 

The transitional justice law is sitting in the Parliament and getting nowhere as there is considerable disagreement as to whether it should deal with events of 2011, or go back to 1994 or even earlier.  Some even argue it should go back to the events in the South in 1986.  This could go on for a long time. Meanwhile the wounded of 2011 are continuing to suffer and the families of the dead await some kind of closure.

Economic and humanitarian aspects

As mentioned in earlier articles, the GCC agreement completely ignores economic issues which are certainly at the forefront of concerns for the vast majority of Yemen’s 25 million people.  The ‘Friends of Yemen’ are expected to address financial and economic issues.  At the end of February 2013 pledges amount to USD 7.6 billion, of which only USD 1.6 billion has been spent, though the bulk of this (USD 1 Billion) is a deposit by Saudi Arabia in the Central Bank of Yemen, to bolster the currency.  Some of the remaining has gone to humanitarian aid. 

Meanwhile,  USD 5.4 billion has been ‘allocated’ which may mean that it might materialise, while USD 2.7 billion has been approved, which means it is slightly more likely to actually happen.  According to the financiers, the main constraint to disbursement is lack of transparency and corruption in government.  This is always said with absolute seriousness and ignores similar issues among the elites of some funding states. 

The next excuse is ‘low absorptive capacity’ in the country, which implies the absence of qualified cadres or of people willing to learn.  While this is arguable given the many Yemenis with high levels of qualifications and experience, one could also wonder why the experts sent over the decades have so abysmally failed to transmit their knowledge and skills to young Yemeni civil servants or others.  Instead they have promoted the establishment of parallel institutions with well paid qualified staff such as the Social Fund for Development; such staff could well have strengthened the absorptive capacity of the civil service if offered the same working conditions.  In the context of the pledges, foreign financiers have insisted on the establishment of a ‘Mutual Accountability Framework’ to control corruption and this is to be implemented by yet another newly created Executive Bureau to manage the funds.

The humanitarian situation remains grave.  One wonders why it does not receive the attention given to similar situations elsewhere.  With over 10 million people hungry or officially ‘food insecure’ and 13 million without access to water and sanitation, 1 million children malnourished and about 700 000 IDPs and refugees, there is no doubt that there is a need for urgent humanitarian action.  In 2012, 45% of households had to borrow money to buy food.  The UN’s annual Humanitarian Response Plan [including UN and NGO humanitarian projects] primarily focuses on refugees and IDPs: in 2012 it ended up only being financed at 56%, despite the above mentioned large pledges of the FOY.  The amount requested for 2013 has been increased to USD 716 million and with two full months of the year gone has only been funded at 2%.

In conclusion, the positive points are: there is no civil war, the national dialogue might yet come up with a more democratic system, and reform of the military/security institutions could improve their performance. But massive difficulties remain: the dominance of Islamists in the transition is discouraging, the absence of any challenge to the neo-liberal economic recipes does not bode well for improvements in living conditions of the poor, many of the country’s fundamental basic problems (primarily water) are currently not addressed, the former leadership is still active and ‘obstructing’ the transition as are some of the southern separatists, the National Dialogue may fail to solve the major political dilemma and the reform of the military/security apparatus may not be completed successfully. 

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