Yemen’s Southern Question

For a quick chronology of events pertaining to the Southern Question click here

Yemen’s north-south division continues to pose a significant threat to the stability and social and political cohesion of the ailing country. Ever since the 1994 civil war, which saw the security forces of the former PDRY lose a quick and decisive war against Saleh and the security forces established under the YAR, southern secessionist sentiment has maintained relevance and seen an upsurge in support over the past 5 years.  The North-South division originated in 1904 after a treaty between the Ottomans and the British designated areas of control for the two, with the Ottomans in the northwest and the British in the south in order to control the strategic seaport of Aden.

The hasty unification in 1990 saw the PDRY essentially co-opted as junior partner, cementing their future marginalization as a political force in the new Republic of Yemen. The 1994 civil war was as much a result of the lack of commitment to real integration as it was a result of the landslide victory by the GPC-Islah contingent against the YSP during the 1993 parliamentary elections. The most glaring example of that fact was the lack of integration with regards to the armed forces. Ultimately, Saleh controlled all the forces that originated under the YAR, while southern politician and then Vice-President Ali Salem Al-Beidh maintained the loyalties of PDRY forces. Therefore, the two entities of the newly unified Yemen had the structural capability to wage war on one another despite the unification. After Saleh and the GPC won the civil war, southern politicians and military figures fled the country or eventually joined the GPC.

In 2007, a rights based movement known as Al-Hiraak al-Janoubi emerged as an umbrella group for various southern entities upset with the status quo, which was a perception of political and economic marginalization at the hands of Saleh and the North. Although this movement began as simply working towards equality under the law and improving the North-South dynamic, Saleh responded by quelling peaceful protests at times through force and shutting down multiple southern news outlets in order to stifle information flows. When concessions were offered by Saleh, they were perceived as half-measures and therefore inadequate. The movement radicalized as a result and in the past couple years began demanding secession.

The Southern Movement has evolved from a rights-based movement to one demanding either secession or significantly increased regional autonomy, with the latter, in a general sense, mirroring the demands of the Al-Houthi Zaydi Shiite movement in the North. There is a divide within the southern movement regarding these two options as well as within the less influential yet still present YSP party, who constitute a large portion of the JMP. On an elite level, former southern exiled leaders Ali Nasser Muhammed and Haydar al-Attas support a federal option that would aim to decentralize government with the North and South as the two components and a bicameral legislature with equal representation in the upper chamber and an eventual referendum vote on secession after a set period of years. Former Vice President Al-Beidh advocates secession outright and maintains a level of animosity towards the other figures for their willingness to dialogue with the JMP for a resolution to the Southern question within the context of unity. This point of contention stems from the presence of Islah, the dominant entity within the JMP and their history of cooperation with Saleh as well as the role of the Northern tribal entities and the Al-Ahmars (whose family founded Islah) participation against the PDRY and the south during the 1994 civil war.

The southern question demands immediate attention during the transition period. On December 7th, Southern Movement leader Hassan Baoum and his son Fawaz Baoum were released from prison in Sanaa after several months of incarceration. This is a positive signal that their is a significant interest in addressing the grievances of the southern movement. The status quo will not be an acceptable result and with the interim National Unity Government consisting of almost equal numbers of loyalists from the GPC and opposition members of the JMP, the possibility of the southern question becoming a secondary issue remains. While actions of good faith such as the release of the Baoums are important, there are very difficult challenges ahead that demand structural and institutional reform. These reforms will most likely demand a greater role for local governance structures, overall economic autonomy, greater access to civil service and military positions for Southerners, legislative reform etc. Without major adjustments to the governmental structure, the southern question will persist. With Yemen in such a fragile state, this could prove to be unsustainable, therefore federalism, either multi-state or two state, is an option that should be explored through an open dialogue with Hiraak and Southern political leaders.

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