How Federalism Can Make a More Stable, Pluralistic Yemen


Policymakers argue that weak states can only develop inclusive political institutions by centralizing political power. Yet Yemenis have resisted their government because it has increasingly concentrated authority. Despite forecasts of Yemen’s implosion, Yemenis remain hopeful that the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) may help restructure the state. Since March 2013, the conference has become the primary engine through which Yemenis pursue national reconciliation and multi-region federalism for a durable political settlement. This plan addresses the grievances of both the southern secessionists and the Houthis, stabilizing and pluralizing the country.

The centralist policies of Yemen’s previous regimes are at the root of the country’s history of internecine conflict. Acemoglu and Robinson argue incorrectly that only highly centralized governments can avoid anarchy. Ethiopia, across the Gulf of Aden, devolved into a multi-ethnic federation in 1990, preventing the country from sliding into a protracted civil war. This case strengthens the argument that a decentralized structure in Yemen can help balance power and cool internal divisions. For Yemen to remain intact, a federal design that recognizes distinct tribal and religious identities should divide political and economic resources at the grassroots level. Regional governments would thus be more responsive to local needs, which would increase how much faith Yemenis have in the government structure. Consequently, this would improve the central government’s tarnished reputation, and enable it to establish a sole monopoly on legitimate violence and to ensure law and order. Weak institutions, with which Yemen is replete, do endanger the stability of a federalist model; nonetheless, this political system provides the best opportunity to motivate Yemen’s heterogeneous population to work together rather than fight amongst one another.

Although demands for southern secession have existed since Yemen was unified in 1990, federalism can manage this political conflict by empowering south Yemenis to wield a greater degree of autonomous power on both a regional and central level. The hardline group Hirak advocates for the southern region to breakaway because of their marginalization under the central government. In the northern capital of Sana’a, exclusive political institutions established extractive economic institutions, a move that accounts for the country’s stark regional economic inequality. Since a possible multi-region structure was announced, Hirak returned to the NDC, elucidating the potential federalism has to prevent a contested state break-up.

As well as addressing the demands of the southern secessionists, the NDC must mediate the civil war waged by the Houthis, who, like Hirak, claim to be isolated from the real power center. Houthi grievances stem, however, from religion, not geography. They represent the Zaidiyaa branch of the country’s Shia minority embedded in the northern province of Saada. Since 2004 the central government has fought Houthi rebels in the mountainous region where little real authority exists. Although the protracted conflict further exacerbates the fragile state’s finite resources, the Houthis believe to have risen up against a corrupt, dysfunctional government. Federal restructuring could mitigate the crisis by providing greater political control and resources to the Saada province. Further, the pluralistic system would recognize religious diversity, which would both incentivize the Houthi rebels to lay down their weapons and strengthen the central government’s ability to enforce law and order.

The NDC discussion on a federal system brought both Hirak and the Houthis into the dialogue—a major achievement. The NDC must build on this initiative and guide the fractured country into supporting a federal Yemen. If Yemen’s transition proves sustainable, federalism could also be applied to other countries trying to find institutional remedies to better manage multi-ethnic societies and reduce internal strife.

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