By: Junaid Kamal Ahmad, Sector Director, Sustainable Development, The World Bank
“You are a Bangladeshi. Did your country benefit from seceding from Pakistan?” This question was asked of me in Yemen. I had been invited to meet with members of the National Dialogue who are debating and discussing the future of the Yemeni 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 about Bangladesh 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 allstakeholders 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.
Currently a Government of National Unity is managing the daily affairs of the state while the National Dialogue with its different working groups has been charged to produce a set of coreprinciples that will guide the writing of a new Constitution. Once drafted, it will be presented to the citizens for a referendum. What will happen if the Constitution is accepted by the people is still under discussion. It may immediately lead to the holding of elections for a new Government. Alternatively, Yemen may choose another interim government that will provide time for parties – new and old – to prepare for elections while the interim Government prepares the legislation and acts needed to anchor the new constitution. Regardless, Yemen has recognized that in addition to completing the Dialogue and drafting a constitution, agreeing on the roadmap for its implementation will be equally important.
While the National Dialogue is unique to Yemen, it has historical precedence 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. CODESA failed but laid the grounds for a Multi-party Negotiations Forum and the end of the apartheid system. The Good Friday Agreement, to take another example, brought together Northern Ireland, Ireland and the UK around a common set of principles of cooperation. The outline for the negotiation agenda took more than one year to complete and the negotiations lasted 700 days before an agreement was reached. Yemen is certainly in interesting company as it forges its own history through a process of dialogue.
There are several topics that are central to the National Dialogue. One key and sensitive topic is how to acknowledge the identities and heritage of the South and to correct historical injustices. It is assumed that these issues can be addressed by forming a state structure that gives the Southexplicit recognition as a region and autonomy in terms of governance. A federal structure is supposed to offer this flexibility: a national system of governance with regional autonomy in terms of electoral, legislative, taxation, and expenditure powers and a separate court system. There is even talk of a federal structure with two regions – or more likely a de factoconfederation of sorts. Some mention Belgium but are also quick to point out the challenges itcontinues to face in securing a common identity as a nation. Others highlight Sudan and its division. Following the question about Bangladesh, I reflected on the inability of East and West Pakistan to remain as one.
These and other examples raised an important point for the delegates: whether the goals ofreconciliation and the design of an effective state structure should be kept separate and achievedusing different mechanisms. Some countries have adopted a Truth and Reconciliation process. Others have introduced commissions with a time bound mandate to deal with issues such asexpropriated 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 the 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, a country of 160 million, is going through such a crisis today.
But in addressing issues of reconciliation, members of the National Dialogue may need to consider that ethnic identities and loyalties are not constants. They 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 therefore be equally important in setting the platform for national cohesion.
A second issue that is emerging in the Dialogue is the whether “federalism without localism” will lead to a sustainable state structure. The focus of the debate at the Dialogue has been primarily on Regions with limited discussion about the role of a local or third tier of government. Yet, the formation of a third tier, protected by the constitution, may be an equally importantfactor in forging a new Yemen. First, it brings government closer to the people. In particular, it enables the state to ensure that delivery of services such as water, sanitation, solid waste management, local roads, primary health and education is managed by a tier of government 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. China, a centralized political structure, empowers its mayors to ensure that cities are playing their economic role in nationalgrowth strategies but, also to ensure that the center is linked to the grassroots, an important element of nationhood.
But, for local governments to play such a role will require some key pre-conditions. These include the explicit recognition in the constitution of the third tier of government as an independent tier and not as a delegated tier of the Regions; the ability to receive fiscal resources directly from the center thus linking the local to the center; and to have local elections. In essence, a process that triggers building the state from below in which the third tier plays a pivotal role and citizens are front and center of the state building process.
Ultimately, members of the National Dialogue have the chance to set the future of Yemen in a manner that the writing of the constitution, reconciliation, and decentralization – three separate but inter-linked but processes – jointly form the glue that will hold Yemen together. As former Pakistanis, we Bengalis were never given such an opportunity.