Yemen’s Houthis re-open the door to southern secessionists

The Houthis’ military offensive this summer has turned the Yemeni political scene upside down. After the revivalist Zaydi group’s take-over of the capital Sanaa in September, Prime Minister Mohammed Basindwa resigned, the government has been reshuffled and the Islamists of al-Islah have lost a lot of sway within the government.

While the Houhtis’ concerns and actions have been focused mostly on their position in the north and on their northern adversaries, one of the more lasting consequences of their challenge to the business as usual could be southern independence. By showing the vulnerability of the government and that under present circumstances rebellion pays off, the Houthis have inadvertently provided new fuel to southern secessionists threatening to split Yemen in two again.

The international backers of Yemen’s political transition have treated the southern issue mostly as another internal matter

Manuel Almeida

For many Yemenis, the early days of the united Republic of Yemen held the promise of a better future for both the north dominated by Ali Abdullah Saleh’s expensive patronage system and the south coming out of a disappointing experience with Communism. Yet soon, the illusion that the union of 1990 would somehow offer a solution to the worsening economic situation was shattered by the sudden expulsion from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait of 800,000 Yemeni workers, as retaliation for Sanaa’s support of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

Extra burden

The extra burden the returnees placed on the struggling economy coupled with worsening relations between the northern General People’s Congress and the southern Yemen Socialist Party (YSP) paved the way for a three-month-long civil war that ended in July 1994. During the war, southern leaders proclaimed the formation of the Democratic Republic of Yemen as an independent state.

The end of the war and the victory of the northern forces provided a new window of opportunity for unity in Yemen. With some YSP leaders killed and many fleeing to exile, the southern independence drive lost much of its force. Saleh’s dominance was extended to the south and the country came under the rule of a single power center based in Sanaa.

But Saleh’s rule proved unacceptable for southerners, even though some important figures in his government were originally from the south. Years of unattended political and economic grievances were channeled to the creation of al-Hirak (Southern Mobility Movement) in 2007.

Forced to flee

After Saleh was forced to flee following the uprisings of 2011, the southern movement thought the time had come to re-take control of the south and eventually declare independence. Massive protests took place in Aden, once the capital of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, demanding secession and opposing the election of Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi (then vice-president) as the new transitional president.

Among the 565 delegates present at the National Dialogue Conference in charge of setting a new course for the country via a new constitution, general elections, the future structure of the state and the southern issue among many other matters, half were originally from the south. However, the southern delegates representing al-Hirak boycotted the conference whenever the subject was the southern issue.

With the intransigence of the southern secessionists blocking any meaningful discussions on the status of the south, the special committee of the sixteen (eight representatives from the south and eight from the north) was created in September last year to address southern grievances. The resistance from the ruling GPC to the idea of a federal state and al-Hirak’s insistence on separation faded and a consensus emerged around the federation arrangement.

In February this year, the Regions Committee’s final report endorsed a federal state with six regions, with two southern regions, reflecting the reluctance of representatives from Hadhramout al-Mahrah and Shabwah governorates to come again under the rule of Aden. It also conferred special administrative and economic status to the city of Aden. For many, including southerners and al-Hirak members for whom more autonomy was the main priority, this outcome settled the matter. Despite ongoing protests and a campaign of civil disobedience in various southern provinces, the political focus shifted elsewhere.

Swift take-over of Sanaa

The Houthis’ swift take-over of Sanaa and their military offensive across most of the northern governorates revived the southern hopes of secession, or at least of a federation with two regions only, which could well be a first step to a return to two states. The magnitude of pro-secession protests in the south and the defiantly confident tone of al-Hirak factions that support southern independence indicate a belief they can achieve what they want.

Media reports earlier this month revealed that prominent figures within al-Hirak, including their main leader Hassan Baoum and former president of South Yemen Ali Salim al-Beidh, are meeting to settle differences. Once this happens, a peaceful escalation of protests as a prelude to a declaration of independence is expected. Earlier this week, Yemeni security forces killed al-Hirak leader Khaled al-Junaidi in Aden, a dark reminder that things could get much worse.

Perhaps to avoid legitimizing secessionist claims, the international backers of Yemen’s political transition have treated the southern issue mostly as another internal matter and not as a crisis that warrants international mediation. Considering what is at stake and the fragility of the political transition process, that approach should change.

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Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant on the Middle East. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science and was an editor at Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. He can be reached on @_ManuelAlmeida on Twitter.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 13:54 - GMT 10:54
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