Yemen: Divided we fall

Yemen: Divided we fall
Comment: The glaring fragility of the legitimate state lies exposed. This does not help the national project, writes Nadia al-Sakkaf.
6 min read
21 Feb, 2018
Yemen's warring factions in the south cannot build a united nation, writes al-Sakkaf [AFP]
Widespread corruption and networks of clientelism based on ethnic conflict and competition present some of the most significant obstacles to true democratisation and economic prosperity in Yemen today.

Contrary to the rising nationalist sentiment in many parts of the world, Yemenis continue to be lost in the search for a national identity.

Their struggle is further complicated by the geographic, demographic, sectarian and ethnic tensions between existing and emerging groups seeking to exploit the void of a national identity by creating local narrow ones, that serve their personal goals.

The interests of such groups clash with projects for democratisation. This tension is exasperated by the influx of arms and financial support to the various factions, and a lack of support for democracy-building projects.

This is not the story of Yemen alone; history tells us of many other examples - especially in African countries with a wider context of fragmentation similar to to Yemen's. Cycles of conflict and relative stability have hindered their efforts to emerge as a democracy with economic stability.

Democracy here is understood by its two main aspects: High levels both of equality and participation. If anything, the path Yemen is taking currently treads in the opposite direction, with more inequality and less participation across its various platforms and geographic regions.

Yemenis did not spend three years of transitional action including a 10-month National Dialogue Conference to throw it all away

Last month's events in Aden with the Southern Transitional Council (STC) attempting a coup against the legitimate yet fragile regime, provides clear insight as to the where the country is heading, and what should be done to save it.

The southern movement's demand of returning to the 1990 borders is not a realistic one today, by any measure. Yemenis did not spend three years of transitional action including a 10-month National Dialogue Conference to throw it all away, and follow the whims of delusional mid-level leaders stuck in the past.

If the southern movement - including the STC - were sure that the southern people desired to go back to the 1990 borders, then shouldn't all energies be dedicated towards regaining the state, and establishing a stable environment that allows a referendum?

Even within the southern borders, it is not a national project that the STC and other groups are calling for, but smaller ethnic projects that pit towns and tribes against each other, bringing to the minds of southern Yemenis memories of the horrific 1986 conflict between southern groups.

The southern factions have seen how the Houthi militia imposed their rule over the majority of the northern areas by force, and got away with it. This provides a precedent, and encourages any faction with enough arms to simply take control, disregarding issues of legitimacy or even the constitution and international laws.

But what the southern groups fail to recognise is that Houthi control over the northern territories is not stable, and not a situation that can last. Simply put, it is not democratic, and we know very well that authoritarian regimes eventually fall.

Fighters from the separatist Southern Transitional Council wave the movement's flag after they took control of a
pro-government checkpoint in Khormaksar, north of Aden, on January 30, 2018 [AFP]

Even if, for the time being, the Houthis can showcase their control over northern areas, this scenario cannot be replicated in the south, simply because there are many more players, each with their own network and connections to funding outside Yemen.

The clean sweep Saleh and the Houthis enjoyed in 2014 is unlikely to be repeated. The STC - thinking it can use the political tensions among Gulf countries and the replacement of the UN Secretary-General's special advisor on Yemen to advance its cause - miscalculated.

Moreover, the Houthis capitalised on the sentiments of the Yemeni people, fed up with corruption and the dysfunctional transitional government. The STC tried to use the same excuse to stir up people's sentiments, but failed.

For although there are real concerns around corruption, the STC did not present itself as an honest alternative, as the people were already living under its relative control and have seen how their lives have deteriorated, rather than improved.

And as some of the locals put it: "Weapons have become more readily accessible than food and medicine."

Saudi Arabia is placing weight on Tareq Saleh, who has taken Aden city as a base for his military operations to regain the north from the Houthis.

Not only is Tareq considered a remnant of Saleh's legacy - the man who in the southerners' mind invaded the south - but he is also getting more approval and support from the UAE, which has been the patron of many southern groups operating beyond Hadi's control.

The STC has set the country many steps back, away from achieving stability

Last month's events also exposed the glaring fragility of the legitimate state. This does not help the national project, or Hadi's mission to reclaim state and recreate a united, yet federal, Yemen.

The STC has set the country many steps back, away from achieving stability. Conflict obviously causes instability, but it has also further exposed the near impossibility of the national unified Yemen project, should things continue as they are.

But where does this leave Yemenis?

We can't go back to the 1990 borders, and we can't aim for a central government as it was during Saleh's regime.

The reality in Yemen today proves once again that the federal system within a united Yemen is the best option for the country, if it is to have any chance of coming out of this crisis.

And looking at developments in Marib and Hadramout provide hope for such an ambition. The local authorities there are working on infrastructure and basic services, while simultaneously working on imposing rule of law.

These positive examples, along with the realisation that multiple armed groups with conflicting political projects impede democracy, should provide the regional players controlling Yemen's fate with a clear roadmap to achieving stability; if indeed that was ever the goal.

There cannot and should not be any political projects in Yemen except for reclaiming the state and maintaining law and order under the legitimate leadership's umbrella. Having side projects only delays and complicates the situation and, by this, the southern council is no different from the Houthi rebellion.

It is very likely that similar armed groups will carry out military actions in Taiz, considering the fragmentation and militarisation projects there, mostly based on religious motivations.

But all side political projects need to be ended and disarmed. A national project needs to be created and supported to surpass any local ones, while simultaneously giving space and autonomy to local decentralised governance - as is happening in Marib, and gradually in Hadramout.

There is no other way, and any other efforts pulling in disparate directions will simply be a waste of time, money and unfortunately many lives.

Nadia al-Sakkaf is a researcher specialising in gender and politics. She was the first Yemeni woman appointed as Information Minister, and prior to that was Chief Editor of The Yemen Times.

Follow her on Twitter: @NadiaSakkaf

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab