“You are a Bangladeshi. Did your country benefit from seceding from Pakistan?” I was recently invited to meet with members of the Yemeni National Dialogue who are debating the future of the state. The wounds of the past are deep in Yemen’s history – war between the South and the North and conflict within Regions – and not surprisingly the talk of regional secession is present in the discussions. The question drew a murmur in a room full of policy makers and activists from different parts of Yemen. It had clearly touched a raw nerve.
The National Dialogue is an important moment in Yemen’s rich history. It has brought together political parties, social groups, women, youth, and regional representation around a dialogue to craft the future of Yemen. Some argue that the process is incomplete and imperfect – not all stakeholders are present; there is a fear of elite capture; and in some parts of the country there is armed conflict. But, despite these challenges it is to Yemen’s credit that it is hoping to forge a state through dialogue – not the typical image of Yemen portrayed in the international press.
While the National Dialogue is unique to Yemen, it has precedents worldwide. The Declaration of Independence and the formation of the federal United States emerged from a dialogue of representatives of different colonies. It was not an inclusive process – membership was exclusively limited to white males who were property owners – but it created principles of governance that have stood the test of time. CODESA in South Africa was the first phase of a dialogue to end apartheid; the process was also not fully inclusive and took place in the middle of an on-going low-grade civil war, but it laid the grounds for a Multi-party Negotiations Forum and the end of the apartheid. The Good Friday Agreement brought Northern Ireland, Ireland, and the UK around a common set of principles of cooperation.
A truly inclusive process of state building after political trauma requires that difference is acknowledged and identities are respected. A new World Bank report, Inclusion Matters: The Foundation for Shared Prosperity, brings ideas of identity and respect center-stage in the development discourse. It points out that social inclusion is often a long-term and non-linear process. Yet, rebuilding states and societies while complex, is achievable. Some countries have adopted a Truth and Reconciliation process. Others have introduced commissions with mandates to deal with issues such as expropriated land and rehabilitation of the population displaced by conflict. A few have a body with the powers to ensure that legislation do not harm the interest of ethnic, tribal, or other groups. These mechanisms allow a country to address issues of reconciliation and transitional justice directly while focusing the design of the state more on the delivery of public services and its accountability to citizens. On the other hand, countries that have focused solely on the design of state structure and have ignored issues of national reconciliation have been forced to address historical injustices several decades later. Bangladesh is going through such a crisis today.
The success of state-building in Yemen will depend in large measure on the extent to which the identity and heritage of the South is acknowledged and historical injustices corrected. A federal structure can offer flexibility: a national system of governance with regional autonomy in terms of electoral, legislative, taxation, and expenditure powers and a separate court system. But in addressing issues of reconciliation, members of the National Dialogue may need to consider that ethnic identities and loyalties are subject to changes and shifts, often triggered by state policies and decisions. The tone, openness, and approach adopted by the members of the National Dialogue may be equally important in setting the platform for national cohesion. The delegates may also consider whether the goals of reconciliation and the design of an effective state structure should be kept separate.
As yet, the focus of the Dialogue has been primarily on Regions with limited discussion about the role of a local or third tier of government. But, a third tier, protected by the constitution, may be an equally important factor in forging a new Yemen. First, a third tier brings government closer to the people. In particular, it enables the state to ensure that delivery of services such as water, sanitation, roads, primary health and education are managed by a tier that can be directly responsive to citizens. Second, the third tier of government, if effective, is the fastest way to bring a sense of citizenship. Local governments allow for the establishment of mechanisms that link citizens to elected officials and administrators in a more direct way than possible with central or regional government. Third, local governments, unlike regional governments – and especially those with access to natural resources – have greater willingness to remain linked to a nation: local governments need a nation state for their identity and hence may be more state-preserving by nature. At a very critical point in their political history, both Indonesia and South Africa empowered their local governments to engage citizens directly and in the process may have preserved the integrity of their nations. The chances are that “federalism without localism” will not lead to a sustainable state structure.
Yemen is at a critical historical moment. Members of the National Dialogue have the chance to set the future of Yemen in a manner that constitution-writing, reconciliation, and decentralization – three separate but inter-linked processes – jointly form the glue that will hold Yemen together.