The Birth of Modern Yemen - Chapter 11

An e-book by Brian Whitaker exploring the unification of north and south Yemen in 1990, and its aftermath

11. From crisis to conflict

Download chapter as Word document

THE MONTHS following the election of Yemen’s Presidential Council brought a further hardening of attitudes. Although the Socialist party was not publicly committed to reversing unification, the withdrawal of its representatives from Sana’a had taken the party well on the road to secession by stealth. Central administration had become paralysed and legislation virtually impossible. Government departments functioned independently in north and south, rarely communicating. Further, the YSP’s efforts to elicit support from abroad meant that, to all intents and purposes, it was now pursuing its own, separate, foreign policy. At the same time, there were ominous reports that both sides were arming in readiness for war.

Concern about this deteriorating situation led, in November 1993, to one of the most remarkable initiatives in Yemen’s political history: the formation of the Political Forces Dialogue Committee which brought together all factions in an effort to salvage unity and resolve the crisis. The original impetus came from a group of minor opposition parties which had earlier met to challenge what they saw as “the hegemony” of the large parties. The group had latterly found favour with the YSP which, after its setback in the parliamentary elections, had been looking for political allies. However, much of the committee’s driving force came from two prominent northerners, Mujahid abu Shawarib and Sinan abu Luhum. Abu Shawarib, the Ba’athist leader with Hashid connections (he was distantly related to both President Salih and Shaykh Abdullah al-Ahmar), was a highly respected figure who – despite his party’s relatively small following – had been made a deputy prime minister after the elections. Abu Luhum was a leading shaykh of the Bakil tribe and, like abu Shawarib, had been involved in the struggle to establish a republic during the 1960s. Because of their broad acceptability, the two were able to assemble a balanced committee representing all significant factions and regions. 

Half of the 30 members came from the three government parties (five delegates each), with the remainder drawn from the smaller parties and “independent social personalities”, including retired politicians and prominent nationalists. Where appropriate, they also drew on recommendations from lawyers, academics and numerous civic meetings held throughout the country. Between November 23, 1993 and January 18, 1994, the dialogue committee held almost continuous sessions in both Sana’a and Aden, in what it described as “a national and sincere effort to contain the crisis” and “to promote the process of consolidation of unity, democracy, stability and construction of a state based on law and order and institutions” [1]. The resulting 7,000-word document, known as the Document of Pledge and Accord, consisted of two distinct parts.

Document of Pledge and Accord: Part One

PART ONE contained three sets of proposals for preventing terrorism, controlling the military and security apparatus, and limiting the powers of the Presidential Council. These were essentially lists of short-term measures regarding perceived grievances. Because of its implied criticism of the government (or at least the GPC/Islah part of it), Part One in particular aroused heated discussion at the committee’s meetings.

The document began by addressing issues raised in the first two of the YSP’s Eighteen Points. In doing so, it not only vindicated the party’s complaints but amplified its proposals. Under the heading “Regarding the persons accused of disturbing the security of the nation”, the document recommended:

1. Firm measures to arrest fugitives suspected of assassinations, assassination attempts, highway robberies, and other security violations; immediate public trial of those arrested; swift punishment.

2. Persons accused of terrorism to be refused shelter, refuge, employment or entry into Yemen.

3. Interpol or diplomatic channels to be used to arrest Yemeni or non-Yemeni fugitives abroad.

4. Any person giving refuge to a suspect or fugitive will be considered to have broken the law.

5. Restrictions on the carrying and distribution of firearms.

6. Steps to establish whether [terrorist] training camps exist in Yemen, and appropriate measures against them.

7. Ministers of Interior and Justice to issue fortnightly progress report to the cabinet.

Turning to the second of the Eighteen Points, the document made 16 recommendations under the heading “Regarding security and the military”, including:

1. Removal of all checkpoints inside and outside the cities, whether these are affiliated with the Interior Ministry, Defence Ministry, or both. Interior Ministry to define places where a security presence is needed, but must co-operate with Defence Ministry.

2. Comprehensive tribal reconciliation to end blood feuds among tribes to stop Yemeni bloodshed. State compensation where necessary to settle outstanding disputes.

3. Military units in the former border provinces (Ta’izz, Lahij, Abyan, Shabwa, Bayda and Ma’rib) to be redeployed to areas agreed by a technical committee from the armed forces.

4. No military patrols in cities, or along the roads. Police to be solely responsible for security in these areas.

5. New intelligence organisation to be established.

6. All security forces, including Central Security to be controlled by Ministry of Interior.

7. Military not to interfere in the affairs of citizens, local authorities or judicial and executive bodies.

8. Recruitment and arming of new militias, popular guards, etc., to cease. Those units recently formed to be disbanded.

9. All illegal promotions since 1993 to be rescinded.

The final set of recommendations in Part One dealt briefly with the sensitive questions of presidential power and autocratic use of state funds – issues which the Eighteen Points had touched only obliquely. The proposals included: 

1. Need to spell out the tasks and powers that the Presidential Council, its chairman and its vice-chairman will have when carrying out their constitutional duties, and to reconsider the duties and prerogatives of the Presidential Council Office accordingly.

2. No spending of public funds outside the purposes defined in the general budget, with its two parts.

3. Spending powers of senior officials to be defined.

Document of Pledge and Accord: Part Two

PART TWO, entitled “Foundations for building a modern state”, was a more wide-ranging blueprint for the future, embracing proposals for the reform of central government, the creation of a democratic system of local government, reorganisation of the armed forces and economic and financial reform. Although in many ways Part Two was more radical than Part One, most of the ideas it contained had been circulating for several years and had largely been incorporated into the political consensus. Thus, in the discussions of the dialogue committee, Part Two aroused less controversy. 

The committee’s proposals for reforming the Presidential Council sought a general restriction on the powers of the council and its chairman, coupled with a subtle but significant transfer of executive power from the council to the cabinet. To the concept of a collective presidency already embodied in the council it also added the idea of a politically neutral and rotating presidency:

The chairman, his deputy and members of the Presidential Council may not engage in any partisan activity while holding membership of the council. (This rule does not apply to members of the current Presidential Council in the current term.)

Based on one of the YSP’s Eighteen Points, this was consistent with the notion of a Presidential Council stripped of real power which acted as titular head of state in much the same way as a constitutional monarch. One difficulty was that members of the council, unlike royalty, were politicians who would inevitably have well-known political sympathies; furthermore, it was unclear how “partisan activity” could be defined, or the rule applied.

Another proposal was that members of the Presidential Council should not serve more than two terms. Although the document was unspecific, it appeared that this time limit would not operate retrospectively – in other words, members of the existing Presidential Council could look forward to up to 10 more years in office. This proposal, therefore, posed no immediate threat to President Salih but signalled an intention not to allow future presidents to become entrenched in power. Possibly it also reflected a widespread feeling that there had been too few changes over the years in the political leadership of the north.

There followed a series of proposed constitutional amendments which meant that decisions made in the past by the Presidential Council would in future be made by the cabinet and submitted to the Presidential Council for rubber-stamping. Comparison of the existing constitution with the corresponding sections of the accord document illustrates the change of emphasis (see table).

In the proposals, the phrases “after approval by the cabinet” and “to ratify cabinet decisions” were each inserted four times. The council’s duty, established by the constitution, “to lay down, in participation with the government, the general policy of the state and to oversee its implementation …” became “to participate with the government in discussing its draft programme before presenting this to the House of Representatives for the vote of confidence.” Similarly, “to name the members of the National Defence Council according to the law” became “to consult with the prime minister in naming the members of the Defence Council who are nominated by the cabinet, according to the law.” Furthermore, the powers to be retained by the council without amendment were largely routine (granting political asylum) or ceremonial (granting accreditation to foreign diplomats).

This transfer of executive power from the Presidential Council to the government was to be given additional force by removing the power of the council (and the president in particular) to select members of the cabinet other than the prime minister. The constitutional power “to nominate a person to form the government, and to issue a republican decree naming the cabinet members” was modified by the additional phrase “according to the choice of the prime minister designate” [2].

The functions and powers of the president/chairman of the council were also to be modified but not extensively since, regardless of actual practice, the powers bestowed on him by the existing constitution were already relatively few. However, the document also proposed to formalise the post of deputy chairman (i.e. the vice-president) and to assign a specific, constitutional role: 

1. To assist the chairman in his duties, in particular the following:

2. To perform the functions of the chairman if he is absent from the republic or if illness prevents him from carrying out his duties.

3. To call for reports from the prime minister on questions relating to local government, in order to present them to the Presidential Council.

4. To serve as deputy chairman of the National Defence Council in the event of war.

Local government: 
The proposals for local government were potentially the most far-reaching of all. Yemen would be divided into regions known as makhalif, based on the principles of “administrative and financial decentralisation in a unified state, and on the broad-based popular participation in government and on the principle of democracy”. Each makhlaf would be granted “full financial and administrative powers” in managing the affairs of its area – especially in relation to economic and social affairs, employment, education, health and culture – but within the broad framework of overall national planning and state policy. It would also be responsible for road building and urban planning, but not inter-regional highways or strategic projects such as oil, gas and mineral projects. Water, because of its scarcity, was considered a national resource where the division of responsibility between central and local government would have to be carefully defined.

The document proposed a nationally-unified educational system with the local authorities responsible for its implementation. They would be directly responsible for Quranic schools, technical and vocational institutes, training centres and teacher training. Similarly with health services, national medical policies and large-scale epidemics would be handled in a unified way, all other medical issues, including management of hospitals, appointment of doctors, licensing clinics, laboratories, pharmacies, X-ray centres, etc., would fall within the jurisdiction of local authorities. General security would also be the responsibility of local authorities “within the overall security of the state”. The document explained: “The local authorities shall exercise their duties within the guidelines put together by the Ministry of Interior. All local security apparatus will be under the order and command of the local authorities and they are armed in a uniformly throughout the country. The size of the security apparatus will depend on local needs. The Ministry of Interior shall supervise and keep track of implementation schedules.”

The system of local government would be based on elected councils which in turn would elect members of an executive office, either from among the council members or from outside. The makhalif would have extensive fund-raising powers, as the proposed division of taxation between central and local government showed:

Central government revenues

a) Customs duty.

b) Taxes on the profits of companies operating at national level.

c) The state’s share in profits of public corporations operating at national level.

d) Revenues from oil, gas, minerals and fisheries.

e) Any other revenues of a national nature stipulated by the law.

Local government revenues

a) Payroll taxes, taxes on professional services, and on various commercial activities in the area.

b) Taxes and duties on companies registered and operating in the area.

c) The return on economic activities in the area.

d) Zakat.

e) Taxes and duties on qat.

f) Taxes on property.

g) Duties on vehicles, transportation and land.

h) Taxes on environment protection.

i) Support from the central budget.

The document cited several arguments in favour of this arrangement:

1. The regional units would compete to create their economic base in production, distribution, employment and investment opportunities, and to improve services for the citizens. This competition would lead to a steady improvement in government performance.

2. There would be a reduced tendency to blame central government for any shortcomings.

3. The general objectives of each makhlaf would be determined according to local needs; supervision of implementation would be local, and the public who elected the local officials will be close enough to watch them.

4. Financial decentralisation should lead to more efficient use of resources. 

The crucial question was the likely political impact. In principle, the proposals had all-party support and there were hopes that they would help to preserve unity by allowing sufficient local autonomy to prevent regional issues from turning into national crises. The danger was that this might go too far, either allowing the YSP to establish a southern state by stealth or leading to a more generalised disintegration of Yemen. The dividing line between success and failure was a fine one, and it was difficult to predict what might be the result. There were, however, a number of built-in safeguards which provided central government with a constitutional means to assert control if necessary. For example, the document proposed:

Central government decisions will be binding within the area of the local councils, provided they do not conflict with the legal powers required by the councils.

Laws enacted by the House of Representatives and promulgated by the head of state must be applied by all local councils in the republic.

It seemed possible, also, that the Interior Ministry’s supervisory role over security would give it ultimate control. Finally – and perhaps very significantly – the accounts of all makhalif were to be held by the Central Bank of Yemen.

Reorganisation of the armed forces: 
The armed forces, the document said, “must serve as a model for national cohesion based on qualifications and experience, not influenced by factors of politics, familial and tribal ties, sectarian or geographic affiliation.” To achieve this, it proposed that the law forbidding military personnel to belong to political parties be implemented and that a plan be developed “to reform, merge, reconstruct and organise” the armed forces according to basic principles which included the following: 

1. Yemen’s armed forces are for defence; they are responsible for protecting the republic’s land, sea and air borders, and defending national sovereignty.

2. The budget of the Ministry of Defence must be controlled in a way that will enable it to perform its functions in defending the Republic of Yemen.

3. The size of the armed forces is to be determined, and the men distributed to the three branches: army, navy and air force. No other units shall be permitted to remain or to become established contrary to that and separate from the three defined branches.

Recognising a need to reduce the size of the army, it also proposed compulsory retirement according to the law on conditions of service, a scheme for voluntary early retirement and a maximum term in senior command posts of five years.

Given that the existence of separate armies under separate control was the main background factor that had allowed the crisis to develop, this was perhaps the weakest part of the document. It merely reiterated frequently-espoused aims without providing a mechanism to merge the forces, other than by continuing discussions.

GPC and YSP responses to the accord

CONSIDERED as a whole, the Document of Pledge and Accord provided an imaginative blueprint for the future of Yemen, a benchmark against which progress towards the creation of a modern state could be measured. But in terms of its declared aim – providing the basis for an accommodation between the GPC and YSP – it was a failure. It accepted the YSP’s demands at face value and sought to modify them in ways that would be acceptable to both sides, though without attempting to resolve the underlying power struggle. By that stage it was too late for well-intentioned appeals to reason: positions were too deeply entrenched and it made no difference that both parties eventually signed the accord.

The YSP’s position (at the time and ever since) has been that the blame for failing to implement the accord lay firmly with the president and the GPC. Its case rests mainly on two points. Firstly, that since the document incorporated virtually all of the YSP’s Eighteen Points, the party had a strong interest in seeing it implemented. Secondly, that the GPC could not afford to implement the accord because the required security measures would have exposed the GPC’s alleged role in attacks on the YSP and Salih’s presidency would have been fatally damaged by the constitutional changes. Plausible as these arguments may sound, though, the reality is that sides were unwilling to implement the accord, for different reasons. 

Although the YSP welcomed the document for its content (since it vindicated long-standing grievances), the party’s subsequent actions showed great reluctance to move towards implementation. There were good reasons for that. Implementation was extremely hazardous for the YSP because once the process began the party leaders would be obliged to return to Sana’a and resume their government duties. That not only raised new fears about the YSP leaders’ personal safety but, more importantly, by returning to Sana’a the YSP would lose most of the political leverage it had acquired during the crisis. The party’s problem, therefore, was to find a way of extricating itself from the accord without being seen to reject it.

The GPC, while accepting much of the accord’s content, found substantial parts of it unpalatable. President Salih’s initial inclination was to reject the document but his advisers persuaded him acceptance would be a better tactic. The GPC’s over-riding concern was for national unity. Unity was seen as essential, not only for the good of Yemen but also for the survival of the Salih regime: the president had staked his political career on unification and there was little doubt that if it failed he would be finished. It was therefore in the GPC’s interests to begin implementing the accord in order to secure the YSP’s return to Sana’a and thereby preserve unity. Whether all the remaining pledges would be fully honoured, honoured in letter rather than spirit, or simply abandoned in a welter of argument about the details was a different matter; the important point was that the GPC had an interest in implementing enough of the accord document to entice the YSP back. In fact, the more elements that were implemented, the more the YSP would become locked into the national political system and the more its capacity to threaten a renewed separation would be reduced. Obviously at some point the benefits of implementation in terms of national unity would have to be weighed against the accord’s potential for causing long-term damage to the northern establishment, but that was still in the future. 

As far as the GPC’s immediate needs were concerned, large parts of the document could be implemented in the short term without causing serious difficulties. In the case of suspected terrorists, for instance, it was conceivable that some of the smaller players would be found and punished but anyone from an important family would probably have fled long before they could be arrested or tried; that had been the usual pattern in the past and there was little reason to believe the Document of Pledge and Accord would change it. Similarly, although there is no doubt that the document did seek to weaken presidential power, the likely consequences were uncertain. It should be remembered that the formal powers granted to the president under the 1990 constitution (and indeed the previous one in the north) were already fairly minimal; Salih exercised power through his personal influence and authority rather than anything else. It was therefore doubtful whether the provisions of the accord would actually make much difference, and even if they did it would take some time for his influence to diminish. Also, the proposed transfer of formal decision-making to the government and local authorities was not necessarily harmful to the president; he would no longer be held responsible for bad decisions and would be able to take the credit if he intervened to put them right. In general, the GPC recognised that many aspects of the document had popular support across the political spectrum (including sections of the GPC itself); its anxiety was not about implementation per se, but about implementation in a context that would allow the YSP to exploit the changes for its own ends.

The result was that both parties became engaged in a game of bluff. The YSP, by a mixture of prevarication and procrastination, made repeated attempts to provoke the GPC into rejecting the accord, thereby buying more time for its own military and diplomatic preparations. Meanwhile the GPC, which was generally more adept in the art of political manoeuvres, was not to be lured into such an obvious trap. Ignoring the provocations, it continued to explore all options for implementation. In the end, the GPC out-bluffed the YSP because it could afford to play a longer game, insisting on its willingness to implement the accord until the YSP became obliged either to return to the capital or abandon its pretence.

Even as the dialogue committee concluded its work, it had become clear that the YSP was not looking for a rapid solution. In the second week of January, when agreement seemed close, Yemeni religious leaders attempted to lure the vice-president into visiting the north for the first time since August 1993 by inviting him to meet the president in Tai’zz, the northern city which has traditionally strong links with the south. Salih arrived early for the gathering of ulema at the Janad mosque and waited for al-Baid, who failed to arrive. The ulema kept their invitation to al-Baid open and continued to wait for him until January 13, when they issued a statement saying they held him responsible for “the consequences of his failure to attend” [3]. It emerged later that the vice-president’s home in Aden had been raked by machine-gun fire a few hours before the meeting was due to start [4] and, according to one journalist in Yemen at the time, al-Baid had become convinced that if he went to Ta’izz an attempt would be made on his life [5]. Whatever the truth of that, the meeting was certainly intended to embarrass al-Baid, since it was obvious that by that stage he would not wish to make the symbolic concession of returning to the north, even for talks. But his refusal to attend without a word of explanation or apology was seen by many in the north as a calculated insult, alienating those who sympathised with his arguments but abhorred his tactics; it became another example of what Yemenis referred to as al-Baid’s “personality problem”.

A further series of incidents in January and February 1994 brought GPC-YSP relations to a new low. In the first incident, Haydar abu-Bakr al-Attas, the socialist prime minister, unilaterally cancelled Yemen’s first national census five days before it was due to be completed. Attas claimed that the count, which was organised by the northern planning minister and had already cost $25 million, was not being carried out in a professional way [6], though it seems likely he was more concerned about the results drawing attention to the huge population disparity between north and south.

In the second incident, the northern authorities intercepted a Ugandan aircraft over the northern city of Hodeida and forced it to land. The Boeing 707, which was flying from London to Aden via Athens, had been chartered from a British company by the southern Yemeni airline, Alyemda [7], and was carrying military supplies for the southern forces – reportedly “a large quantity of batteries, spy equipment, a communications system and military equipment” [8]. Among other things, this raised questions about jurisdiction over Yemeni airspace. An official at Aden airport said the plane had been given permission to land in Aden and that aviation authorities in Sana’a and Hodeida had been informed of this. He added that the Civil Aviation Authority and the Air Force Command in Sana’a and Hodeida would be held responsible for the consequences of “such illegal acts”. Their action in forcing the plane down represented a grave step that jeopardised movement in Yemeni airspace and harmed Yemen’s international reputation, he said [9]. In Sana’a, the Civil Aviation Authority maintained that the aircraft had entered Yemen illegally, and that it was the only body competent to authorise entry [10]. A similar dispute about legalities broke out over the plane’s cargo, with the socialist Defence Minister, Brig-Gen Haytham Qasim Tahir, claiming it was an authorised purchase of equipment for the forces in the southern and eastern provinces, and the Defence Ministry in Sana’a claiming that no such purchase had been approved [11].

A third – and ultimately much more serious – problem occurred when Prime Minister Attas appointed a new governor of the southern Abyan province and the appointment was promptly annulled by President Salih. Article 94 of the constitution specifically granted the power of appointment to the Presidential Council but Attas argued that his action did not infringe the constitution because it was aimed at preventing corruption in the province [12]. The YSP’s action was such a direct challenge to the president’s authority that it made a swift and tough response by the GPC inevitable.

On the day the dialogue committee finalised the Document of Pledge and Accord each side accused the other of military manoeuvres. A GPC spokesman claimed that a southern warplane had flown low over the northern Amaliqa brigade’s camp in the southern province of Abyan "and opened fire and dropped bombs". Although no deaths were reported, a statement claimed that "areas neighbouring the camp" were damaged. A senior officer in the southern air force admitted that its aircraft had been engaged in “routine exercises” near the former border but denied attacking the camp. The officer suggested the GPC’s claim was intended to justify the deployment of Amaliqa troops in four areas in breach of earlier agreements. He said the northern troops had set up unauthorised roadblocks and detention centres close to the old north-south line [13]. Meanwhile Reuter reported that the YSP had despatched tanks and armoured equipment to the Shabwa oil field, using transportation provided by Shaykh Ahmad Farid al-Aulaqi, an Oman-based businessman whose family ruled part of south Yemen until 1967. Travellers were also quoted as saying that Russian-made tanks which had previously been stationed along the frontiers with Oman and Saudi Arabia had been moved to support four southern army units which were being rushed to Sayyun in Hadramawt [14]. The GPC further claimed that the YSP had deployed its Twentieth Brigade on the old border, facing the northern province of al-Baydah and had strengthened its forces opposite Ta’izz [15].

Immediately the accord was finalised on January 18, the GPC announced that President Salih had accepted it unconditionally and was “ready to sign, on the date and at the time specified”, adding that he considered it “a good step emerging from the current crisis and he is ready to translate it into action” [16]. Al-Baid, however, commenting the following day, said he wanted to be briefed on security arrangements for the signing ceremony before deciding: “The committee must first present the required programme for implementation of Article 7 and then we’ll offer our point of view.” [17] (Article 7 of the document called for the formation of a committee to “discuss with the president and vice-president the necessary security measures to sign and start implementation of this document”.) At a meeting with northern dignitaries in Aden shortly afterwards, al-Baid indicated that security arrangements for the signing might not be the only condition. He said the accord contained “something that enables all parties to have a common ground" but added that the future task of Yemenis would be to "put into tangible reality agreements and accords to be reached and to narrow the gap between words and deeds." [18] This was interpreted as meaning that guarantees of implementation would also have to be in place before he would meet Salih – a view later confirmed by prime minister al-Attas [19].

More obstacles to the signing followed when Jarallah Umar, a YSP member of the committee established to organise the ceremony, disclosed that al-Baid and other socialist leaders did not think it necessary to go back to Sana’a immediately after signing the agreement. The suggestion was rejected by the GPC and Islah, who argued that the document could not be implemented without participation from all leaders of the coalition. In what appeared to be a further delaying tactic, the YSP said the ceremony should be attended by representatives from the United States, the European Union, Russia, the China, Canada, Syria and Saudi Arabia, in addition to Fahim al-Qasimi, the secretary general of the Gulf Co-operation Council. Although the YSP said the purpose of this was to bolster the guarantees, the GPC suggested it was a move to internationalise the crisis.20 In a press statement, al-Baid blamed the delay in signing the document on those who refused to give the guarantees: “The YSP ... asserts that this important document must be signed,” he said, but added “in the light of its assessment of its previous experience it asserts, and it has a right to do so, that there must be real and adequate guarantees that what is in the document will be carried out. As to who is preventing the document being signed, it is the party that is placing obstacles in the way of providing the guarantees that this document will be carried out.” [21]

Meanwhile the military situation continued to deteriorate. On February 3 the YSP said it had seized an army vehicle carrying 40 anti-aircraft missiles from the north to supply its forces in the south. "Military reinforcements by the GPC to former border areas are continuing and escalating," a spokesman said [22].

The signing of the accord

THE YSP’S REFUSAL to sign the accord in Yemen led to an invitation from King Hussein of Jordan to sign it in Amman, which was eventually accepted. Three days before the ceremony, a new quarrel erupted in Aden concerning the northern Central Security forces who were stationed at Khurmaksar, near the airport.23 On February 17, the Saudi-owned newspaper, al-Hayat, claimed that elements in the Central Security camp were plotting to shoot down the plane taking al-Baid to Amman. The socialist governor of Aden, Salih Munassar al-Siyali, then summoned the camp’s commander and ordered him to remove his forces within 12 hours or face “radical measures”. Shortly afterwards, supplies of water and power to the camp were cut off [24].

In fact, al-Baid did not fly directly from Aden to Amman but spent the two days before the ceremony abroad, seeking international support. He arrived in Cairo on February 18, where he had brief meeting with President Mubarak “concerning issues of common concern and the current developments in Yemen” [25], then went on to Damascus, where he was received by Vice-President Abd al-Halim Khaddam but apparently did not meet President Assad [26]. There are suggestions that his real motive in going to Syria was to meet Ali Nasser Muhammad, the exiled southern leader ousted in 1986, who had begun to emerge as a potential power broker [27]. Ali Nasser, however, had no wish to meet al-Baid and had already left his Syrian home for Amman (where he later met President Salih) [28].

The signing in Amman proved a bitter-sweet affair where the festivities laid on by the Jordanians contrasted with the frosty meeting between the two Alis and the scepticism voiced by many of the 150 Yemeni dignitaries who attended. For Jordan, which had been ostracised since the Gulf crisis in 1990, the gathering was the most important diplomatic occasion in the country since the Arab League summit of 1987. Hundreds of Yemeni and Jordanian flags fluttered on lamp-posts in the capital and banners welcoming the president and vice-president hung above the ceremonial route [29]. Vice-President al-Baid, patently reluctant, arrived late and shook hands with Salih only when cajoled by King Hussein. Newspaper photographs showed the two Yemeni leaders, surrounded by flowers, sitting on either side of the king and staring grimly in opposite directions.

Speaking at the ceremony, Salih promised to “break with all past pages”, saying: “We make the promise of loyal men that with this document we shall move to the stage of pledge, success and implementation, God willing.” [30] Al-Baid responded with a somewhat rambling speech which showed signs of hasty preparation. Referring to the “martyrs” who had been killed during the crisis, he said that Yemen was more precious than them all. “Despite the wounds, the wound of the homeland is dearer and greater as far as we are concerned. Everything dear becomes worthless for the sake of Yemen. Our sincerity and seriousness will be tested tomorrow, when we return there.” [31] It was an odd remark from a man who, little more than an hour later was back on his plane and heading not for Yemen but for Saudi Arabia and Oman [32]. Given the history of Yemen’s strained relations with Saudi Arabia, al-Baid’s journey there was seen in the north as a further provocation. In Sana’a, the official news agency was quick to condemn the visit: “The masses of the people were surprised at the refusal of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) leadership to return to the capital of the homeland and to convene the state legislative and executive institutions to embark on the practical implementation of the document’s provisions. Instead of showing concern for the immediate implementation of the document following its signing, the YSP leadership paid visits abroad that were not agreed on and without the knowledge of the state Presidency or the Foreign Ministry, which are charged by the constitution with running the foreign affairs of the Republic of Yemen. This shows that the YSP leadership is not interested in the immediate implementation of the Document of Pledge and Accord.” [33]

Aftermath of the accord

NO SOONER had the Amman accord been signed than fighting broke out in Abyan, the southern province immediately east of Aden which stretches from the old north-south border to the Arabian Sea. On the evening of February 20 a southern officer, Col Badr Snaid, was stopped at a checkpoint manned by the northern Amaliqa (“Giants”) Brigade which had been stationed in Abyan since unification. The purpose of the colonel’s journey (from Aden to Abyan) and the reason for his arrest were never made clear, but when the Amaliqa troops attempted to take him to their headquarters he sought refuge with the southern Madram brigade. In the resulting clash between four and 10 soldiers were killed, according to varying accounts by Yemeni officials and local leaders [34]. Next morning residents of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, awoke to find the town surrounded by Amaliqa tanks. Government offices in the town, which lies on the coast 45 miles east of Aden, remained closed [35].

In the 24 hours that followed, 30 southern tanks arrived in Abyan from Aden and – more significantly – the southern Wahda (“Unity”) Brigade was swiftly re-deployed from Hadramawt further east [36]. Southern forces thus converged on the Amaliqa from opposite directions in a move to encircle the northern brigade. On February 22, troops of the Wahda and Amaliqa brigades clashed near Lawdar, some 30 miles inland and close to the old border, with the northern forces capturing seven southern tanks [37]. Other clashes occurred in the Mudiyyah area, a few miles away, where – according to the GPC’s account – troops from the Wahda brigade turned their weapons on villagers. The YSP, on the other hand, claimed that its forces had been trying to defend the villagers while repelling a northern attack [38].

Coming so soon after the Amman agreement, the outbreak of fighting in Abyan was cited by each side as proof of the other’s insincerity towards the Document of Pledge and Accord. Such “proof”, of course, rested on the assumption that it was always the other side who was the aggressor. However, there were greater issues at stake than the affair of the colonel at the army checkpoint; the conflict in Abyan was political as well as military and there were important reasons why the flashpoint lay there, rather than elsewhere in Yemen.

Politically, the clashes were a continuation of the dispute that had arisen in the week before the Amman accord, when Prime Minister Attas had unconstitutionally attempted to replace the northern governor of Abyan with a southerner. Not only did this appear calculated to sabotage the reconciliation meeting in Jordan but, more significantly, it represented another stage in the creation of a separate state in the south – and as such was bound to be resisted by Sana’a. To the YSP, Abyan was also the most politically suspect of the southern provinces. It was the birthplace of Ali Nasser Muhammad, the southern president ousted in 1986, and the region from which he had drawn his support. In this respect, Attas’s choice of governor for Abyan was interesting: not one of the southern leadership’s loyal time-servers but Muhammad Ali Ahmad, a former YSP member who had been on the losing side in 1986 and had since joined the GPC. The GPC and Islah viewed his appointment as an attempt by the YSP to secure Abyan by wooing back the supporters of Ali Nasser – and the confrontation in Zinjibar, the regional seat of government, should be considered in this light [39]. The subsequent clashes in Mudiyyah also evoked memories of 1986 and appear not to have been a direct battle between northern and southern forces so much as one between the southern Wahda battalion and villagers. In 1986 the Wahda had defeated local forces in the area to oust Ali Nasser, which accounted for Muddiyah’s hostility eight years later.

To a large extent, therefore, the February conflict was a struggle for control of Abyan. But it was also a tussle to win the support of a powerful group known as “Ali Nasser’s men”. Numbering between 15,000 and 20,000, these were the remnants of seven PDRY army brigades who had fled to the north in 1986. Although linked by association to the former president (who was then living in exile in Syria), they were no longer controlled by him. Some had since joined the GPC or Islah, while others remained independent. On the whole they had not been particularly active since 1986, though their potential importance in the political equation was well understood by both sides. In 1989-90, for instance, Salih had reportedly offered to keep the group in check if YSP leaders agreed to unification – with the implication that he would allow them to cause trouble if the south rejected unity [40]. Thus in the period immediately before the 1994 war, both Aden and Sana’a were right to regard the support or otherwise of Ali Nasser’s men as vital; this was fully borne out by their subsequent role in the war which was scarcely reported at the time but has since come to be recognised as significant and perhaps decisive.

The final factor contributing to Abyan’s position as a flashpoint was strategic. Beyond Zinjibar the broad coastal plain surrounding Aden narrows and the mountains reach almost to the sea, creating a natural bottleneck in east-west communications. A few miles further east at Shuqra, the single main road divides into two, one branching northwards to Mudiyyah and Lawdar, the other continuing along the coast to Hadramawt, Mahra and Oman. In Abyan also, the territory of what was once South Yemen becomes particularly narrow, with the old north-south frontier little more than 40 miles from the coast. The consequence of this is that by controlling a relatively small amount of territory in Abyan it is possible to control the rest of southern Yemen, isolating the politically important and heavily-populated capital, Aden, from the sparsely-populated but economically vital oil fields of Hadramawt. There is little doubt that during the February clashes the north attempted to signal to the south that it would be able to separate east from west in the event of war. This has led to suggestions that the northern decision to place the Amaliqa Brigade in Abyan at the time of unification was evidence of a long-term plan to control the south militarily; at the same time the south is said to have naively positioned its finest troops in the north, in places where they could be easily wiped out. That may be how it appears with hindsight but there are other, less conspiratorial, explanations. Abyan was such an obviously strategic point that it would have been strange not to have placed troops there. However, the choice was not without some risk because of the difficulty of supply routes from the north which, once or twice during the 1994 war, came close to jeopardising the Amaliqa’s position. In the north there were few such obvious points for stationing southern forces, though the ones actually chosen were by no means unintelligent: Dhamar on the main Sana’a-Aden road and Amran, close to Sana’a but in Bakil territory. 

The clashes around Mudiyyah continued for several days and were followed by reports of fighting in various parts of the country, from Lahij in the south to Sa’ada in the far north [41]. Although these proved mostly untrue or highly exaggerated, substantial movements of troops and weapons were taking place. On February 23 the YSP said the northern Second Armoured Brigade was being re-deployed in Lahij, forces from another northern brigade were taking up positions in a former border area, and republican guard and riot police units from the north had occupied the Shanhab area in al-Dali province [42]. Three days later, oil industry sources said the southern forces had moved tanks, long-range guns and ground-to-air missiles to positions near Ataq, capital of the oil-producing Shabwa province about 100 miles north-east of Aden. They said the consignment appeared to be larger than two others sent to the area in the previous two months which had included more than 50 elderly Soviet-made T62 and T52 tanks. All the weapons consignments, they said, had been transported in trucks owned by Shaykh Ahmad Farid al-Aulaqi, an Oman-based businessman whose family were traditional rulers of Hadramawt province until independence from Britain in 1967 [43].

Meanwhile the GPC accused southern troops of preparing to capture Qa’tabah on the northern side of the old border. It said the YSP had sent several tanks, 37 Russian-made armoured vehicles and nearly thirty 36-mm guns to Awabil, Shi’b al-Khanaq and Jahaf, and had distributed 3,000 light weapons to its militiamen in these districts. The spokesman added that several fighter aircraft, bought by the YSP from Bulgaria, had recently arrived in Aden and Hadramawt. Tens of tons of military uniforms, tents and blankets had also been delivered by air to Hadramawt [44].

Conciliation attempts

AMID THIS military manoeuvring, efforts to avert a full-scale war gained pace. At the military level, an international committee which had been formed the previous November to monitor unauthorised troop movements, attempted to get the Wahda troops back to their base in Hadramawt but eventually admitted failure [45]. “This was due to the refusal of the other party [YSP] to respond to the committee’s request and their insistence that the troops should remain in Abyan,’’ a spokesman said [46]. Civilian efforts to halt the fighting included a visit to Abyan by members of the Political Forces Dialogue Committee [47] and peace demonstrations in a number of Yemeni cities [48]. Pleas for peace by rival groups calling themselves “the sons of the Mudiyyah District” were broadcast separately by Sana’a and Aden radio [49]. A number of opposition parties, including the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, the Union of National Forces Federation and the Strugglers of the Yemeni Revolution, went so far as to urge members of the armed forces to disobey orders in order to prevent fighting [50].

Perhaps the most original response to the conflict was the sit-in movement which began in Ta’izz in March and spread rapidly to other cities. Although at an official level it was treated with suspicion by the main parties, at a personal level it drew supporters from all parties and none. Sittings began at eight in the morning and lasted until nightfall, with a qat session and speakers in the afternoon. People came and went throughout the day, writing their name in a visitors’ book as they entered. Others “sat” by proxy after signing a declaration of support. Sympathisers were issued with a postcard-sized piece of white cloth to pin to their chest, on which they wrote whichever of three slogans most appealed to them: “No to fighting”, “No to separation” or “Yes to implementation” [of the accord document]. One of the organisation’s founders, Dr Abd al-Kader al-Guneid, described it as Yemen’s first grassroots protest movement. Its tactics were uniquely Yemeni – to sit and literally chew over the country’s problems – but designed to be simultaneously innocuous and yet subversive. “I realised that we were powerless materially, but powerful morally,” he said. “In our tactics we should not anger people or cause trouble, and we should do it with the attitude of a marathon, not a 100-metre race. We should show continuous stubbornness.” [51]

Although the sit-ins tended to be treated as an irrelevance by the official media, or dismissed in high places with a patronising smile, they were, perhaps, an indication of long-term changes in Yemeni society. Their supporters were not in any sense part of a mass movement but the cream of the country’s small but highly-educated middle class: doctors, professors, lawyers, students and – not yet a dirty word in Yemen – intellectuals. In a political establishment still dominated by tribal leaders and ex-military men from the north and socialist apparatchiks from the south, they felt both alienated and angry; alienated because there was almost no role for educated professionals in Yemeni politics unless they came from a prominent family, and angry at the drift towards a war which they neither sought nor had any power to prevent. 

Parallel with these internal attempts at conciliation there were numerous diplomatic initiatives. At the beginning of April, Salih and al-Baid met in Oman at the behest of Sultan Qabus. The Omani Foreign Minister, Yousef bin Alawi, said later they had agreed on measures to avert the threat of civil war but failed to agree on a joint communiqué [52]. Thereafter the Sultanate appeared to wash its hands of Yemen, announcing that it was withdrawing its members from the joint military committee. Political sources in Sana’a said the Omanis had become frustrated with Yemeni army units which agreed to move out of areas where they were confronting rival forces only to move back again when the committee had left [53]. Nevertheless, after the Oman meeting some diplomats claimed to detect a slight thaw in relations between the two Yemeni leaders and conciliation efforts were maintained during the next three weeks by Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Eritrea and the United States [54]. Little is known of these later contacts, but it is thought that they were urging a federal or confederal solution which would have given the south a measure of self-government while preserving a semblance of unity [55].

Resumption and abandonment of cabinet meetings

ON MARCH 27 Yemen’s cabinet held its first meeting since the previous December. Under pressure to end the paralysis of government caused by the socialists’ withdrawal, al-Baid had proposed holding the first meeting in Aden, the second in Ta’izz and the third (and subsequent meetings) in Sana’a. This would allow government business to resume without requiring the YSP to return to Sana’a immediately. At the Aden meeting, which followed an agenda largely set by the YSP, ministers discussed plans for implementing the Document of Pledge and Accord and – in what was probably another delaying tactic – set up 10 committees to work on the details, including one committee to determine the members of the other committees [56]. A date was also set for the second meeting in Ta’izz. In the meantime the YSP began searching for ways to avoid holding the third meeting in Sana’a – for example, by proposing to make Ta’izz Yemen’s “temporary capital” (a move firmly rejected by the GPC) [57].

Few details emerged from the Ta’izz cabinet meeting, held on April 6-7, but some progress seems to have been made. An official statement said ministers had reviewed a ‘‘final formula’’ for implementing most of the articles in the accord document [58]. On the second day, the cabinet approved a plan submitted by the Interior Ministry concerning the trial of suspected terrorists. “This took place after a lengthy discussion of all aspects of the plan, including any corrections which have been made to it,” a statement said. “The cabinet stressed the importance of co-operation among all parties, particularly the parties related to the ministry, to make this plan a success.” [59]

On the day the cabinet met in Ta’izz, an incident occurred near Dhamar, 125 miles south of Sana’a, where the southern Ba Suhayb brigade was stationed. Whether or not this was intended, as the YSP claimed, to sabotage progress towards a reconciliation, it certainly highlighted the nervous state of the armed forces and the ease with which small incidents could flare up into something much more serious. According to YSP sources, northern forces had for some time been preparing to surround the camp with units of the Republican Guard, Central Security and the Majd Brigade from Bajil. They had also allegedly been arming hundreds of local people and consolidating positions in buildings near the camp [60]. During the afternoon of April 6, a number of officers and men left the Ba-Suhayb camp, intending to travel to Aden on leave. Outside, they were intercepted by two vehicles – one described by the YSP as military, the other a luxury car – and the occupants “unlawfully tried to conduct the officers and men to an unknown place”. The soldiers, who were carrying their personal weapons, resisted and the two vehicles drove away. The southerners then returned to the camp, considering it impractical to continue their journey [61]. 

About eight o’clock that evening, guards on the gate were fired at from an unidentified red car which sped away. At this, according to the GPC’s version, some 300 soldiers of the brigade fanned out with tanks and armoured vehicles "firing haphazardly hundreds of rockets and volleys of machine-gun fire in the surrounding regions" [62]. Residents of Dhamar took shelter as the firing continued for more than an hour, some of the shells apparently directed towards government offices in the town, as well as the headquarters of the Central Security Forces and the Republican Guard, whose personnel (according to the GPC) “maintained complete calm and self-restraint in order to avoid any escalation” [63]. The southern account was substantially different: simultaneously with the shooting from the car, machine guns, bazookas and shells were fired at the camp from several directions – including Katyusha shells fired from vehicles belonging to the Republican Guard. Communications from the camp were cut for more than two hours, which the southern forces interpreted as evidence of a planned attack [64]. However, claims of a full-scale onslaught by northern forces were difficult to reconcile with the southern claim that its troops suffered no casualties 65]. Over the next few days, the Joint Military Committee talked to commanders and soldiers on both sides and announced that tension had been defused and the situation in Dhamar had returned to normal [66].

To all intents and purposes, the cabinet meeting in Ta’izz signalled the last round in the game of bluff. Under the terms the YSP had set for itself, it was now obliged to return to Sana’a for the third cabinet meeting and a resumption of coalition government. It had failed to provoke the GPC into rejecting the Document of Pledge and Accord and the GPC had shrewdly, if unhelpfully, gone through the motions of preparing to implement it. Politically, of course, the YSP could not return to Sana’a; that would have meant throwing away most of the bargaining cards it had carefully assembled. On the other hand, it was running short of plausible excuses. There was, however, one final ruse to postpone the next cabinet meeting. On April 12, shortly after discussing the crisis with the American Ambassador, Prime Minister Attas (whose duty it was to convene the cabinet) developed an undisclosed illness and hurriedly left Aden “for medical treatment abroad” [67].

© Copyright Brian Whitaker 2009