ADEN // Yemen’s president on Monday formally approved turning the country into a federal state, giving the south more autonomy and completing a milestone in his planned transition to democracy.
But the move was immediately rejected by some southerners who insist on a separate state, raising fears the impoverished country may face further instability on top of the challenges it already has from Islamist militants and a northern rebellion.
Demands by southern separatists to restore the state that merged with North Yemen in 1990 had delayed an agreement on broad reforms ahead of general elections.
Under the new system approved by president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, Yemen will be split into six regions that include four in the north, comprising Azal, Saba, Janad and Tahama, and two in the south, Aden and Hadramawt.
Azal includes the capital Sanaa, in addition to the provinces of Dhamar, Amran and Saada, a stronghold of Shiite rebels.
Aden would comprise the capital of the former south, as well as Abyan, Lahej and Daleh, Saba reported.
The southeastern Hadramawt province would include Al-Mahra, Shebwa and the island of Socotra, while Saba comprises Bayda, Marib, Al-Jawf and Dhamar.
Janad would include Taez and Ibb, and Tahama also takes in Hudaydah, Rima, Mahwit and Hajja.
The city of Sanaa, however, will be a “federal city not subject to any regional authority,” the panel decided, agreeing that special clauses will be put in the constitution draft “to guarantee its neutrality.”
Aden will also have special “independent legislative and executive powers” to be stipulated in the constitution.
The decentralisation of power aims to meet the southerners’ demands for autonomy.
Under a US-backed power transfer deal that forced former president Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down in 2012, Mr Hadi is overseeing reforms for an interim period.
Political factions last month gave Mr Hadi an extra year to finalise Yemen’s status as a federal state and oversee drafting a new constitution that will form the basis for elections slated for next year. Work the constitution could not progress without an agreement on the shape of the Yemeni state.
Saba said a federal state comprises six regions garnered the “highest level of agreement” against another proposal to divide the country into two regions, one in the north and one in the south.
Southern Yemeni leaders rejected the accord.
“What has been announced about the six regions is a coup against what had been agreed at the dialogue,” said Mohammed Ali Ahmed, a former South Yemen interior minister who returned from exile in March 2012. “That is why I pulled out of the dialogue,” he said.
Mr Ahmed withdrew from the talks in November, and in December three other Yemeni parties rejected the proposal to turn the country into a federation.
Some southerners fear that having several regions would dilute their authority and deprive them of control over important areas such as Hadramout, where some of Yemen’s oil reserves are found.
Nasser Al Nawba, a founder of the southern Hirak separatist movement, also rejected the deal, saying the only solution was for the north and south to each have their own state, as was the case before 1990.
“We will continue our peaceful struggle until we achieve independence. We are against violence,” he said.
The 1990 union between the tribal North Yemen and the Marxist South soon went sour and a civil war broke out four years later in which then-president Saleh crushed southern secessionists and maintained the union.
But as in other countries rocked by the Arab Spring, Yemen’s leaders have struggled to agree on a way forward, while living conditions in the impoverished Arabian peninsula state have further deteriorated.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, meanwhile, has stepped up attacks on security forces, despite Yemeni military operations and a covert US drone campaign.
And fighting between Shiite rebels and Sunni militants has escalated in the north, while sabotage of electricity and oil infrastructure is rife in tribal areas.
Anna Boyd, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Country Risk, said that while the deal “closes the door on southern separatist ambitions”, the government was unlikely to be able to re-establish control over most of Yemen’s territory over the next year.
“Militant separatist factions will probably capitalise on the diminished capability of security forces in southern provinces, coordinate their efforts with other insurgent factions to acquire weapons and expertise, and increasingly resort to attacks targeting infrastructure, energy and security forces to further erode the government’s authority over southern Yemeni territory,” she said.
* Reuters and Agence France-Presse