Gauging ‘success’ in Yemen’s National Dialogue: mission impossible?

An agreement in 2011 averted dissent developing into violent conflict. The National Dialogue Conference has made progress against a backdrop of drone attacks and terrorist strikes, but as the process draws to a close there is all to play for.

In November 2011 an agreement brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) brought an end to Yemen’s ten most tumultuous months since its 1994 civil war. It arguably also prevented its repetition. While tragic events like the ‘Friday of Dignity’ of 18 March 2013 – in which about 45 demonstrators were shot at point blank range by snipers – remain unresolved, Yemen could have looked much more like Libya or Lebanon today. Instead, Yemenis have switched to talking – against a background of terror attacks, drone counter-attacks, kidnappings and assassinations that occur with disturbing frequency. This is no mean feat, irrespective of all the caveats that can be brought to bear.

If the GCC agreement prevented broader conflict by providing former president Saleh with a credible face, health and wealth saving path out of power, the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) it established opened a window of opportunity for change. It brings Yemen’s main political forces together with groups that were politically marginalized under the previous government in a process of high-level dialogue to establish agreement on a new political order for Yemen that is more equitable and representative. Or so the international rhetoric goes. What seems really at stake is whether Yemen in its current form can be salvaged and, if not, whether its future will look more like Kosovo or South Sudan.

Looking across processes of political dialogue shows that they are as frequent as they are difficult. The leaders of Togo, Benin, Niger, the Central African Republic and Iraq are amongst those who can testify to the veracity thereof. Common stumbling blocksare the absence of the political commitment that is required to give the process a chance of getting to meaningful results, the lack of inclusion and the absence of a sufficient number of effective and able leaders who can see and reach beyond their immediate self-interests. For example, the Iraqi National Conference (2004) failed because the Iraqi Governing Council and the Coalition Provisional Authority exercised such strong influence over the process that it made meaningful and inclusive dialogue impossible.  

It will be no surprise that Yemen’s NDC is having its share of problems as well. For a start, it took ages to get started. The GCC agreement was signed in November 2011, but the NDC only kicked off on 18 March 2013. Much of this time was reportedly spent haggling about the number of seats that were to be made available to its different constituent political groupings. UN sources suggest that youth, women and civil society could have been better represented but that the result when the NDC commenced was much better than at the starting point of these negotiations. The NDC has also been a lively affair with, for example, the southern Al-Hirak delegation (which in itself only represents part of the movement with the same name) walking out of the conference for about 3 weeks, only to be mollified by an official apology for past misdeeds against southern separatists, reinstatement of c. 900 of the thousands of civil servants dismissed in 1994 and the creation of a USD 1,2 billion fund for compensation (note that donors are expected to foot the bill).

More recently, the NDC was postponed until about mid-October although it was scheduled to have already ended on 17 September. This suggests that it is in no one’s interest yet to let the NDC fail and that negotiations have shifted up a gear. It has also heightened speculation about the results it will achieve (it goes without saying that the NDC has already been declared both asuccess and a failure before it is even over). Yet, the entire idea that ‘final results’ may emerge that can be neatly packaged and processed in a swift constitution rewriting process followed by elections – as the current plan seems to be – unfortunately has no basis in comparative experiences with such processes. It is therefore more interesting to wonder what would represent progress if the NDC is seen as a way station in a longer process.

The central question for this inquiry is whether the NDC can agree seeds of change in how Yemen will be governed in a way that allows them to mature fast enough to deal with three ongoing conflicts, 25-40% unemployment and half the population going hungry – but not so fast that the rush to results kills their acceptance and implementation. Maybe it’s a mission impossible, but, using the common stumbling blocks of processes of political dialogue mentioned, three gauges that can help to assess the NDC’s progress suggest themselves:

1.  The extent to which it recognizes that a form of federalism requires further discussion on critical financial enablers.

It is probable that the NDC will propose some sort of federal structure to govern Yemen. Neglect by the central government of key regions has simply lasted too long and generated too much resentment to render another outcome likely (it is ironic that of all people former president Saleh recently called this push for federalism ‘treason’). Leaving the question aside whether a federal structure can still save the day (the ICG offers a good discussion here), it will only be meaningful if the NDC also creates space to talk about rapid decentralization of government revenue. This cannot, in the main, come from taxation as that requires largely non-existent capacity, and must therefore include both how Yemen’s oil revenues of c. USD 4,5 billion a year are distributed and how its corrupt scheme of diesel subsidies can be abolished. Only this will free up revenue to tackle Yemen’s slow fuses – unemployment and the availability of food and water – quickly.

2. The extent to which it agrees extraordinary measures to safeguard inclusive political participation post-dialogue and post-elections. 

Yemen has a long habit of political life being dominated by a limited circle of elite players. They will defend their privileges and interests tooth and nail and, as it happens, also command most resources. Hence, it is likely that older, elite dominated parties such as Islah and the General People’s Congress will win the elections. Youth and women’s groups, as well as the Al-Houthi and Al-Hirak movements will likely lose out in an electoral mobilization and numbers game. While this may be democratically legitimate in a narrow sense, it will deepen disenfranchisement as it will not tackle the structural disparities of the electoral process.

3. The extent to which it invites further meaningful international involvement

If one regards the past 30 years as the track record of how part of Yemen’s elites have performed in running the country, there is definite room for improvement. It would seem that there is a use for the combination of strong pressure, tough mediation and helpful support that the international community can offer. Yet, this needs to go beyond the fund-pledging nature of the Friends of Yemen and should, for example, include transforming UN Special Advisor Jamal Benomar’s good offices into a fully fledged UN political mission, as well as support for Yemeni efforts to recover stolen assets.

None of this will be easy, but these three gauges arguably offer an indication of the potential for real change. Experience suggests that even small openings can lead to unexpected results. Let’s just hope they will be reached fast enough.