Yemen National Dialog Coalition Seeks Reform, Broad Political Inclusion
Yemen’s National Dialog Committee published an English language summary of its National Salvation Plan yesterday. The document is available at http://yemenvision.wordpress.com/
The National Dialog Committee (NDC) is an important Yemeni civil society coalition dedicated to creating a forum and consensus on a peaceful route to popular empowerment. The NDC is comprised of members of the opposition party alliance, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP) along with independents, some of the ruling General People’s Congress party members and prominent social figures including political leaders, tribal sheiks, businessmen and intellectuals. It is headed by Mr. Mohammed Salem Basandwah, an adviser to President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The JMP’s Hamid Al-Ahmer is its Secretary General. The group is dedicated to building a national consensus on the issues facing Yemen and implementing solutions through peaceful means.
Yemen is a hyper-political state where benefit accrues from proximity to President Saleh, his family and his tribesmen who control much of the military and security forces, the economy and political system. The high degree of cronyism means that state bureaucracies are dysfunctional and corrupt. Basic services are nearly absent and the black market is thriving. Yemen’s water shortage gave rise to water barons who thwart implementation of water strategies. Land theft by officials is overt and further centralizes the economy. The rule of law is absent; the powerful flout the law and the weak are subject to retaliatory verdicts. Yemeni children are the second most malnourished globally and half of Yemenis are under 24 years old.
The JMP faces criticism on the street as “the other face of the regime,” interested in retaining power, corrupt, disconnected from the citizenry, and restricting itself to complaining without opposing due to the Saleh government’s brutality. The political party system is dominated by historical personalities, rebuffing the energy of Yemen’s youthful population. However some members of the JMP have made dedicated efforts to expand the horizons of hope in Yemen, often with tragic consequences.
Years of Reform Efforts Blocked
The opposition Joint Meeting Parties contains ideologically diverse political parties joined together in a pragmatic quest, the rescue of Yemen. The architect of the rapprochement between the Yemeni Socialist Party and the Islamic Reform Grouping, Jarallah Omar, was assassinated in 2002 by a fundamentalist who, authorities claim, was working alone.
In 2005, it became obvious that economic reform was vital to the survival of the nation. Depleting oil coupled with rampant corruption and abuse of power had distorted Yemen’s economy to the point where only a handful benefited from natural resources and foreign aid, unemployment was staggering and development stalled. But economic reform was contingent on political reform, the opposition parties found, as powerful interests continually blocked efforts to rationalize the economy. The JMP released a reform initiative calling for the establishment of a Parliamentary system of governance.
They were soon to learn that if economic reform is contingent on political reform, then political reform is contingent on electoral reform. In the 2006 elections, members of the ruling party had overwhelming advantage in local elections, and President Saleh won his re-election handily against his rival, the JMP’s Faisal bin Shamlan. The JMP agreed not to dispute the election’s results in exchange for an agreement with the GPC to overhaul the electoral system. Recommendations from the European Union’s Mission to Yemen were to be the starting point.
Following the election, Salah’s regime rounded up activists who campaigned for the opposition candidate, imprisoning some and firing others from civil service jobs. Electoral reform stalled when the JMP and GPC could not agree on the terms or scope of negotiations. The JMP also insisted on the release of political prisoners prior to discussions.
A Vision of the Future
Yemen has since seen two brutal wars in northern Sa’ada and an exploding anti-government sentiment in the south provinces that eventually morphed into an independence movement, largely due to the states brutal response to the peaceful protests.
With electoral reform stalled in Yemen, and civil unrest threatening to drive the state to failure, the National Dialog Committee formed a broad coalition among predominant social groups to devise a plan for “National Salvation.” The grouping finds the central issue is “the personalization of the state” that has devolved into a clan-based structure dedicated to retaining power and acquiring personal wealth. In the absence of a functional parliament the NDC’s strategy for Yemen relies on a conference representing the people of Yemen and their communities.
The NDC noted the “blocking horizons of any change through free and fair elections, obstructing the principle of the peaceful transfer of power, destruction of the plural political system, diminishing the democratic project and civic live pillars, seizure of public freedoms and rights, strangulation of free press, generation and fueling of violence, fanaticism, hatred and all forms of political conflicts, tribal feuds and battles and local violence.”
The committee found both the Saada War and Southern protest movement arose from the centralization of the state. The economic crisis ruthlessly crushing the vast majority of Yemenis is a product of the Saleh regime which dealt with natural resources and national wealth as “gain to be shared among the oligarchic group, their relatives and affiliates.”
The report continues, “The hand of corruption was unleashed and the mafia of illegal interests dominated. Hence, corruption, unfortunately, became a regular practice to manage the country and a tool to monopolize, own and secure power as well as inheriting it to the sons thereafter. The development process and plans became merely tools to seize national wealth and an element for political propaganda.” The deterioration of education, health services, private investment and the squandering of donor aid accompanied the downward spiral.
The coalition suggests treating the hotspots of instability as a first step toward reversing the collapse of the Yemeni state recommending the immediate cessation of state violence, campaigns of arrest and the release of political prisoners. The NDC invited the northern rebels, southern separatists and opposition abroad as well as the ruling authority to a national conference, much to the consternation of the GPC which has labeled all its opposition as unpatriotic apostates.
Not everyone accepts the Committee as a legitimate effort. General Nassar al Nuba, Head of the Military Retired Association which initiated the southern protests in 2007, said in an emailed statement that the JMP’s efforts to organize protests in solidarity with besieged southerners is a ploy cooked in the “kitchen of influential people who seized the fortunes and wealth of the south with a view to occupancy opinion external public about what is going in the land of the south and attempt to confuse the issue, the South, which imposed itself on the table of international conferences and has become a just cause and political distinction.”
Equal Opportunity for All
The NDC is reaching out to moderate southerners with the concept of a reformed, unified state. With regard to growing calls for southern independence the NDC sees the need to “remove the impacts of 1994 war through a comprehensive national settlement leading to resolving the southern cause with its righteous and political dimensions fairly and comprehensively putting the south in its natural position as party in the national equation and as a real partner in power and wealth in a national partnership state. This is a critical entry point for a comprehensive national solution for the aggravating situation under which the vast majority of people in all parts of the country live.” It’s easier said than done.
Among several strategies to accomplish the decentralization of the state power are the prohibition of family members of the president or prime minister to assume any of the nation’s top posts including in the judiciary, military and intelligence. Senior state officials should be banned from any commercial, financial or industrial activities, and from buying or selling state properties, and from bidding for state contracts.
The establishment of a Parliamentary system is one option for decentralization but the group does not exclude consideration of proposals by other parties to the dialog. Reform of the judiciary, the electoral system and civil service are other essential components. Free and fair elections are a fundamental requirement to entrench pluralism and the peaceful transfer of power.
Among the economic and social reforms included in the proposal is the empowerment of women, a topic that receives a one line treatment. Yemen is ranked in last place globally in terms of gender equality by the World Economic Forum. In the highly gender segregated society, women have social, physical and legal obstacles in efforts to support their children economically, gain an education or participate politically. About half of Yemeni women marry before age 15, usually to an older man, and 70% are illiterate, resulting in perpetual dependency.
Obstacles to Consensus
Obstacles to developing a national consensus are many; among the foremost is state domination of broadcast media. The NDC finds that implementation of the strategy includes both communicating the national crises to the citizenry, and creating mechanism for dialog and consensus building.
Furthermore over 70% of Yemenis live in rural communities, and half of those have no electricity, meaning they are out of touch with each other and the nation’s elite. Parliamentary representatives are often tribal Sheiks, reinforcing an unresponsive patriarchal system. Many MP’s do not have an office in their districts or make regular visits to assess the concerns of their constituencies. Local councils are another arm of the Saleh regime.
The NDC recognizes the need to develop mechanisms of “qualitative communications, intellectual and media interaction to expand the scope of support for the salvation, change and national development and reforms solutions reaching to a stage where a national community-based framework is formed with peoples’ support encompassing all elements of the Yemeni society to work as a guardian for the state from collapse.”