Yemen: can southern separatists break up Yemen?

By mid-2012, those demonstrators supporting a unified democratic Yemen were out-manoeuvred by separatists who now dominate the southern movement both in Aden and in Mukalla, the other main southern city. What are their plans?

Yemeni unity in 1990 was greeted with enthusiasm by Yemenis at large, whether from the former Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) or People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY).  Although there was considerable discussion and disagreement in the leadership about the form it took, there is no doubt that for ordinary Yemenis the possibility of travelling anywhere in the country was welcome. 

While many women in the YAR had looked forward to the spread of the PDRY’s Family Law to the whole country, many men and women everywhere hoped to see the same for qat consumption laws, and southerners were looking forward to economic liberalisation, all were swiftly disappointed when the economy collapsed after the sanctions taken against Yemen by neighbour states following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. In addition, after the initial flourishing freedom of expression through a multiplicity of new parties and newspapers in the first years of enthusiasm, the political situation rapidly deteriorated as tension developed between the two former ruling groups.  Starting with some clearly targeted assassinations of Southern leaders, this eventually brought about the 5 months Civil War of 1994 which was decisively won by Sana’a’s forces.

From 1994 onwards many southerners, in particular the former elite and other Aden residents, considered themselves to be oppressed by outside forces.  Land grabs by powerful northerners (often linked to various military/security institutions) as well as the appointment of northerners to senior political and security positions in Aden and elsewhere in the South did nothing to improve the situation.  Many former military and security officers from the south were soon forcibly ‘retired’,  their pensions paid irregularly or not at all. Over the years, resentment increased as no solutions were found and people’s living conditions continued to deteriorate.  Aden, officially the ‘economic capital’ of the country was neglected; its Free Trade Zone received little investment.  The port which many southerners still see as a possible panacea[1] to the country’s economic problems, was contracted out to Dubai Ports World (DPW) on an agreement that served the international strategy of DPW, rather than that of Yemen. As a result it stagnated.  Continued increase in the population, drought in rural areas, deterioration in the quality of education and health services, all contributed to worsening living conditions and impoverishment for the majority of the population with only a minority (mainly composed of northerners) benefiting from the new opportunities.

‘Peaceful’ beginnings

In 2007 a movement of former military officers and men started in Lahej and Dhala’ Governorates, the areas of origin of the majority of the military leadership and men from the PDRY period, those who had been dismissed in 1994.  Following on the model started in 1996 in Hadramaut, this movement decided to be ‘peaceful’ from its earliest days and its demands were originally straightforward and economic: reinstatement in their positions or full payment of their pensions at current rates.  As if it did not have enough problems with the Houthi rebellion in the far North, Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime chose to answer their demonstrations with force rather than conciliation; whether this was incompetence or deliberate policy remains to be seen.

Confrontations escalated over the following two years and spread to Aden and Mukalla where the movement became a more widespread ‘anti-north’ movement, associating all ‘northerners’ with the hated regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh, regardless of the equally difficult living conditions of ordinary ‘northerners’.  By the end of 2010, Aden and parts of the South were effectively ‘low level war zones’  where the State’s army was retrenched behind sandbags in fortified positions and under frequent attack from local insurgents and where flags of the former PDRY flew openly and were painted all over the place.  In Aden, demonstrations were frequent and usually greeted with the force of guns.  As a result the number of deaths increased and each one was the occasion for further demonstrations and bloodshed.  Alienation of the population was widespread, though it is notable that these movements were particularly strong in Aden, Lahej and Dhala’.  Elsewhere in the southern Governorates, the situation was less clear:  in Abyan and Shabwa the main forces apparently opposing the regime were those associated with the armed fundamentalists of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP],  whose relationship to the previous regime can be best described as ambiguous.  Further east in Hadramaut and al Mahara, while dissatisfaction with the Sana’a regime was high, it did not necessarily translate into secessionist ambitions.

In this context, the street sit-ins which started everywhere in the country in January 2011 were opportunities for the Southern movement to expand and develop, as it suddenly found itself as one of many movements which all shared as main objective the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh and  his autocratic regime.  Most demonstrators hoped to replace it with a truly democratic regime which would respond to the needs and aspirations of the majority of the Yemeni population.  Many believe that a Parliamentary, rather than a Presidential, regime would be the solution. This was the opportunity for the southern movement to unite with that of all Yemenis in a joint struggle for a better constitution and a regime free of corruption and extortion.

Throughout 2011, street demonstrations continued, mainly in Aden where some areas (such as the Main street in Ma’alla and some streets in al Mansoura) became full-time sahas or tented areas occupied by young demonstrators on a full-time basis.  The geography of Aden as a number of towns separated by narrow passes may have contributed to the political and social isolation of the different groups, each one occupying its area and with different leaders. Overall by mid-2012 those demonstrators supporting a unified democratic Yemen were out-manoeuvred by separatists who now dominate the southern movement both in Aden and in Mukalla, the other main southern city.

The separatists

Although it is highly questionable whether the majority of the population of the former PDRY would actually vote for separation were they given the opportunity to decide on the matter, the political debate in late 2012 is entirely dominated by separatists of different hues.  Similarly, although the majority of street demonstrators in Aden and elsewhere are young people, most of whom were born after unification, and others were small children at the time, the debate is dominated by elderly statesmen, long past their ‘sell by’ date who should, by any logic, be living in retirement in their various exile locations, enjoying the benefits of their (in some cases ill-gotten) gains over past decades. 

Their claim to leadership of the movement can only be explained by the absence of new young leaders with alternative policies; one of the main unanswered questions is why no new young leadership has emerged.  The attraction of separatism for youth is based on two perceptions: the first is nostalgia for an imaginary past which ignores and suppresses the negative features of the previous regime (in particular the in-fighting of its leadership) and promotes an idealised collective ‘memory’ of the ‘good old days’ which, incidentally includes the British Colonial period as well as the PDRY.  The second is the equally erroneous belief that all northerners have a good deal and that it is only southerners who are oppressed by the regime.

Instead of a common Yemeni struggle for better economic conditions and democracy, southern citizens find that the politicians who claim to represent them are a multiplicity of individuals and small groups, each of which claims to represent the South, many of whom are holding conferences and meetings to seek to establish their position as leaders and none of whom has demonstrated his (there are no women among them) ability to represent the interests of the population at large, whether rural or urban, in any of the southern Governorates. 

However, they all share the following characteristics

-       Lack of any political or development programme beyond the re-establishment of a southern state within its pre-1990 borders, despite the fact that these borders were artificial and that socially, politically and culturally, they are largely meaningless

-       Refusal to participate in the National Dialogue, presenting a variety of unacceptable pre-conditions, mainly the demand that the dialogue be between the two former states and no more than a discussion on the procedures for separation

-       Displaying their divisions and inability to agree about anything (other than the ambition for separation); this bodes ill for any future independent southern state. In itself this situation should be enough to persuade most citizens to vote for unification, if only to avoid bloodshed in the future.

-       Complete disregard for the economic situation and the living conditions of the majority of the population, other than to claim that ‘all will be well once the old state is restored.’

-       Utter neglect of the international political situation or the economic viability of a potential southern state.  Both the GCC initiative and the UN Security Council resolutions affirm that any solution to the Yemeni problems must be within the framework of a united state.  Have they considered the implications of becoming another Somaliland?

-       Refusal to acknowledge that the likelihood of the population from the different areas wanting to form a single state under the domination of any one of these leaders is so low as to be insignificant.  Economic, social and cultural conditions in Hadramaut are entirely different from those prevailing in Lahej, for example. Should Yemen divide, Hadramis will almost certainly go their own way, given that they have not only oil, but also considerable capital and possibly the only viable mini-state of the former PDRY area. Whether Mahra will join Hadramaut or Oman is something that only Mahris are able to decide. But further west, the divisions are likely to gradually re-create the micro-states existing during the British Colonial period, retaining their main characteristics, namely extreme poverty, lack of resources, and mutual antipathy.  Not a recipe for success.

National Dialogue – who will participate?

Despite this situation and due to the importance of the southern question, the various national and international institutions involved in supporting the Transitional Regime in Yemen are actively trying to coax these factions to participate in the National Dialogue, which will determine the political future of the country.  Why haven’t the many mediators succeeded?  Are these southern ‘leaders’ hoping to scuttle the National Dialogue?  Are they totally unable to overcome their own personal petty in-fights for status and ‘power’?

The National Dialogue will set the bases for a new political structure and Constitution for Yemen.  Non-participation by any one party is likely to strongly and negatively affect not only its own future but that of the country as a whole. Given their past record, the current political ‘leaders’ of the southern separatist movement should at least show some modesty and behave in a manner suggesting that they have concerns other than their own self-promotion.  But they seem to live in a world of their own and are likely to come down with a major bump when they find that the population at large is very much against them and that other southerners do participate in the Dialogue and, indeed, these may be more representative of public opinion in the South.


[1] In the 1950s Aden port was among the world’s largest and the city’s main source of income.  Many southerners are deluded into believing it could return to such a level  and   be the economic engine of the entire country.  In reality, while with good management, the port could play a meaningful role, there is no likelihood of it ever being more than a reasonably successful regional port, producing a moderate income.

About the author

Helen Lackner has worked in all parts of Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years.  She has written about the country’s political economy as well as social and economic issues.  She works as a freelance rural development consultant in Yemen and elsewhere and is currently also engaged in research on hydro politics in Yemen.