Yemen’s federal deal a positive step forward

Agreeing to a federal basis for the divided country is a positive step, but important questions still remain

Almost 20 years on from the 1994 civil war between the north and the south of Yemen, southerners are celebrating an agreement pledging a “just solution” to the still-burning question of southern autonomy.

Some southerners, that is. For while the agreement, signed on Monday as part of the GCC-brokered transition, was agreed by most of the political parties in the National Dialogue, there are still factions that feel it does not go far enough.

The proposal is the beginning of a deal to resolve the “southern question” that has become the most important political question in the country since the removal last year of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. The southern part of the country, which was separate until the 1990 union, has chafed under the rule of the more populous and tribal north. Since the removal of Mr Saleh, southerners have pushed for autonomy and even secession.

This agreement, then, is welcome, as a way to resolve the thorniest issue of the National Dialogue. Devolving power to the south makes political and economic sense. Southerners claim to have been neglected over the last two decades and hope that, with more autonomy, they would be freer to utilise the (dwindling) oil resources, most of which are in the south, as well as develop the once-thriving port in Aden.

Yet, there are many unresolved questions. Precisely what kind of federal system has not yet been agreed. Southerners would prefer two states, north and south, similar to the historic divisions between the regions. Northerners have suggested there should be more states, perhaps as many as six. Each have problems: with two states, there is a chance that the South may eventually seek to break away completely. But with more states, the restive far north, where Houthi rebels have staged a long-running insurgency, may seek to break away.

It is also unclear what might happen to the military, which is needed in the south to combat the incursions of Al Qaeda.

But as a step forward, this agreement paves the way for a better settlement of a long-running issue. If done sensibly, and with appropriate political structures and true power sharing, it could put Yemen back on track. That is something the entire country badly needs and a development its neighbours would loudly applaud.