The Republic of Yemen is a perfect storm of instability. Dwindling petroleum resources, resilient Al-Qaeda presence, endemic droughts, multiple insurgencies, swelling refugee populations, and the aftermath of a brief civil war in 1994 have all combined to make this country one of the most dangerous in the world. Arguably the first step to increased stability within the country is to instill a sense of unity, representation, and political inclusion among the excluded, Southern provinces.
A recent piece by Taieb Mahjoub for Arab News talks about the need for the Southern territories to be included in the restructuring of the Yemeni government in the wake of the Arab Spring protests of 2011. Many groups in the South still seek independence from the Republic of Yemen largely due to grievances relating to “compensation for land and property (and) jobs lost after unification.” New president Hadi ran unopposed, and subsequently received explicit support from the Obama administration, validating his perpetuation of the complicit Saleh regime. With the creation of a committee mandated to prepare a new national constitution by the beginning of 2014, it has been announced that half of the seats will be designated for southerners. Hope is that this will change the trend of blatant disregard for the disenfranchised Southern territories that are now the frontline in the global war on terror.
With the ouster of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh after 33 years in office on 23 November, 2011, the transfer of power to then-vice president (current president) Abed Mansour Hadi included “calls for the national dialogue to produce a new constitution and electoral law.” As Saleh came to office before the integration of the northern Yemen Arab Republic and the southern, communist People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1990; he presided over a short but brutal civil war in 1994. The South’s still strong resentment towards the North has led to a political and economic disenfranchisement prompting many groups to call for outright independence.
The lack of state power in the South has led to large swaths of land to be appropriated by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as well as their local partners Ansar al-Shari’a particularly in the coastal Abyan province. Although AQAP influence is far from desirable to the citizens in these lawless southern areas, the influence of the militant Islamists provided law and order, as well as utilities such as water and electricity. According to the Counter Terrorist Center at the US Military Academy at West Point: “nearly 70% of the Ansar al-Shari`a recruits currently fighting in Abyan Province come from central and northern regions,” indicating a diaspora of disenfranchised youth from their poor, ignored tribal homelands to the powerful Islamist groups.
This occupation of land is not typical nor particularly desirable of terrorist or insurgent groups. Yet the unrest in the capital, Sana’a created a power vacuum in the south as Saleh recalled the elite units originally deployed there to bolster security around the protests. Many critics of the Saleh regime claim that as calls for his resignation increased “[he]… actually handed over Zinjibar to these militants.. He ordered his police force to evacuate the city and turn it over to the militants because he wanted to send a signal to the world that, without me, Yemen will fall into the hands of the terrorists.” President Obama’s top Counterterrorism advisor John Brennan has openly admitted that the political crisis in the capital has changed the focus of US trained Yemeni counterterror troops “to be focused on their positioning for internal political purposes as opposed to doing all they can against AQAP.”
A resolute summer offensive by the Yemeni army, as well as record numbers of drone/airstrikes ordered by US president Barack Obama and the CIA has pushed back against the terrorist insurgency in the south. Despite the loss in territory, AQAP still maintains a large degree of operational capability demonstrated by a crippling suicide attack committed by an AQAP operative dressed in a military uniform on a parade celebrating Yemen’s National Unity Day last summer, killing over 90 soldiers and injuring 222 people. The attack was condemned worldwide and proved a fatal reminder that insurgencies as well as terrorist organizations do not need to occupy territory to be tremendously effective.
The disinterest in the inclusion of the south can be traced back to the country’s unity on 22 May 1991, the struggling PDRY’s parliament wholeheartedly voting for immunity, while to the north 25 MOP’s walked out of the session devoted to voting for unity, decrying a strong Islamist resentment for community between the two nations. At this time, over 2 million Yemenis were driven to work abroad, and the only profitable industry within its borders was the feeble oil resources controlled by the YAR A civil war in the PDRY had forced the government to migrate away from hardline Marxist ideals and “has sought private capital from abroad; legalized political parties and freed the press.” This combination of these two national entities that while sharing so much, still have so little in common, has made the situation even more difficult. Even Yemen’s neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia, has expressed concern with regards with uniting with the famously liberal south.
A 2005 Report on the development of democracy in Yemen by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance talks of these integrations. At the time of unity between the two countries, the PDRY only had a population of 3 million individuals, a failing economy, remnants of civil conflict and an exponentially greater want for unity. Along with another civil war in 1994, increases in piracy in the Gulf of Aden, as well as a steadily increasing Somali refugee population in the southern cities has made the socioeconomic situation in the south even more dismal.
Before the merger, both states were single party regimes: Ali Abdullah Saleh’s General People’s Congress (GPC) in the North and Haidar al Attas’s Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) in the South, yet sought to liberalize their democratic systems in the years leading up to unity. When the countries came together, one of the large problems was consolidating two formerly dominant, currently reforming regime types into a new shared political system, the options were to:
- Merge the GPC and the YSP,
- Maintain the independence of both organizations,
- Dissolution, and further liberty to reform into organic political organizations,
- Initiate a widespread national front, with respect given to independence between organizations,
The decision reached on 15 January 1990 decided that the two groups would retain autonomy, however the bargaining power with respects to the YAR’s economic well-being, greater population, ties to Saudi Arabia, and general security led to the GPC to once again become the dominant party in the newly formed nation, currently holding 238 of the 301 seats in the elected House of Representatives to YSP’s 6.
This move against “the one-party state… towards pluralist democracy and respecting human rights” was cosmetic in nature, when in reality power is concentrated in the GPC. The Supreme Council for Elections and Referendum (SCER), oversees the elections, and although it is legally independent from the state, it is not independent of the parties, allowing the dominant GPC to extend favorable election procedures.
The foothold that AQAP has achieved in Southern Yemen is surely because of the lack of state control present in the region. Following the civil war in 1994, the government’s presence in the South was primarily to maintain security while towns remained without basic access to water, electricity, medical care, and roads. In the absence of government troops during the protests in Sana’a, the only state presence in the region vanished to defend Saleh, allowing for AQAP and Ansar al-Shari’a to fill this void and provide public goods to the previously ignored areas.
The allocation of committee seats shows some prospects for political power to be increased throughout the south. However the one-party regime’s practices survive within the Hadi presidency. The only hope for progress is in the implementation of some power sharing in the decisions that will eventually lead to the new constitution, and hopefully a period of healing for this nation.
April Longley Alley, an expert on patronage politics in Yemen wrote as early as 2010 that “international efforts to stabilize Yemen should prioritize democratic reform, and be arranged so as to help rather than hinder Yemeni initiatives to achieve peaceful political change through dialogue and compromise.” Yet, the US has continually viewed its relationship with Yemen as one of a strategic national security nature. Would it be more helpful for the US to view the Yemeni government with a wider scope and perhaps pressure the regime to liberalize and govern with the consent of all of its citizens? It couldn’t hurt.