Four months into their six-month mandate, the 565 Yemenis taking part in the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) know they have their work cut out to agree the blueprint for a new Yemen.
While the drawing up of a new constitution ahead of presidential elections scheduled for early next year is the most immediate concern, many Yemenis look to the NDC not just to manage the political transition, but fundamentally to improve their lives in a country with deep humanitarian needs.
Nearly half the population do not have enough food, most (13.1 million) do not have access to safe water and sanitation, and nearly a million children are acutely malnourished, according to this year’s Humanitarian Response Plan.
“Our objective was to create a new country,” said NDC member Fuad Al-Hothefy from the Youth Revolution Council who took part in initial Arab-Spring protests against the then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in early 2011.
“Before 2011, wherever you meet anyone in the world they mention Yemen with poverty, terrorism, corruption - all bad things.” He sits on the NDC “development” sub-group, one of nine such sub-committees.
Much of the work takes place in a luxury hotel on the outskirts of the capital Sana’a, but regional meetings to “meet the people” have brought political and community leaders face to face.
“When our people went to Aden [southern city] the population said `Go back, what are you doing here? You don’t even care, you don’t know what we’re going through’,” Nadia al Sakkaf, editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times and a member of the NDC, told IRIN.
“The people from Sana’a admitted it, and they said `Oh my God, we didn’t know!’ They were really shocked at the miserable conditions in which the people there are living. They are reporting on it daily saying that people are lying in the streets, almost lifeless, but not because they are dead but because they have no sense of living. And there’s a massive resentment building up.”
In the last few days thousands in the once independent south have again protested in favour of secession, accusing the government of neglect.
Poverty threatens transition
Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, the humanitarian coordinator in Yemen, says that while the political process is moving forward, the security situation and humanitarian issues risk destabilizing the process.
“What does national dialogue mean when you cannot even find food for yourself, when you cannot put your children in school? Last year we had a major measles outbreak, so when you have these things, what does it mean for you to have a national dialogue, what does it mean for you [to have] a constitution?” he told IRIN.
“This is a country that has gone through 30 years of crisis, and 30 years of conflict, of mismanagement, of corruption… Let’s be frank, I mean the Yemenis themselves are very open about that today. So if these people don’t receive also assistance - on the health side, on early recovery, or in reconstruction of people’s lives - the whole process will collapse.”
The latest humanitarian bulletin published this week by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that “although the National Dialogue is key to ultimately resolving the crisis, it also runs a real risk of overshadowing the immediate need to maintain effective humanitarian assistance for the rest of 2013.”
While regional NDC fact-finding meetings seem to have been appreciated by Yemenis, including those displaced by fighting between government forces and Houthi rebels in the north, cynicism is rife regarding the ability of the NDC to find a solution to people’s basic needs.
|Slideshow: Struggling to eat in Yemen|
|May 2013 - Yemen has one of the world‘s highest rates of chronic malnutrition, second only to Afghanistan. Nearly half the country’s population - around 10.5 million - do not have enough to eat. Close to a million children under age five suffer from acute malnutrition, and a quarter of them have severe acute malnutrition.
“They come to the camp and sit with them. But the IDPs [internally displaced persons] say they know there’s a lot of hot air,” said Khalid Marah, assistant camp manager at al-Mazraq IDP camp, with Islamic Relief.
“We talk about the national dialogue, but people say `they are all liars.’ The IDPs say that they know it won’t be 100 percent successful. But they say they have to wait - they’re not losing anything. They’ve spent three years here and in another few months we’ll see what the situation is.”
But in other quarters, the NDC is sometimes seen as a magic bullet that can end the conflict, insecurity and lack of basic development.
NDC has brought together a wide range of actors, including some from the southern secessionist movement and representatives of the Houthi rebels who hold sway in the northern governorate of Sa’dah.
In the northern town of Haradh in Hajjah Governorate, home to just over 100,000 IDPs from the conflict in neighbouring Sa’dah, the head of the local council, Sheik Hamoud Haidar, told IRIN he was looking to the NDC to bring peace and ensure IDPs return home.
“Inshallah, the NDC will provide the solution. Inshallah the NDC will come up with the solution.”
Mohamed Saad Harmal, assistant head of the government’s Executive Unit for IDPs in Sana’a, also sees the NDC as the key to ending displacement: “We have to be optimistic - there is no other option - else we’ll get lost. I told the National Dialogue that we only have three options - negotiate, negotiate and negotiate.”
That puts considerable pressure on the NDC.
“Many people they are waiting for the output from the NDC,” said NDC delegate Al-Hothefy. “Either we lead Yemen to be a good country, or we will fail. Most members of the NDC, I think, are working hard to achieve good results from this, but most people they expect a solution for everything.”
- political parties
- civil society
- independent youth
- women (nearly 30 percent)
- Southern Movement
|Time-frame: 18 March – 18 September 2013|
Some are simply fearful that if the NDC does not succeed, the country risks falling back into civil war.
“I think there are too many hopes pinned on the National Dialogue, but that’s what the NDC was supposed to do - it was supposed to resolve national issues,” said Yemen Times’s al-Sakkaf. She says Yemen’s problems are not new.
“How can you suddenly have a deforestation problem or a khat problem? We’ve always had these problems. Recognizing there are problems is the first step to a solution. 2011 helped us realize that we need to do something about them urgently - and it’s because we took sort of the power from the lazy leaders who did not want to do much about it.”
For the next two months, NDC delegates will meet in their hotel, protected from the food shortages and power cuts that plague much of Yemen. One aid worker wondered if, like the Somali peace talks, the meetings will drag on for years as delegates enjoy the benefits.
“What we’re doing in that five-star hotel is in isolation from the rest of the country,” said al-Sakkaf. “It’s a major risk because whatever we come up with - even if it’s the best constitution - the rest of the country will just throw it out because they will say `This doesn’t represent us. Where were you when we were starving?’”
Whatever comes out of the NDC process, say delegates, will only be pieces of paper which, however thoughtful, will ultimately have to be implemented by a future government.