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Homepage > Publication Type > Media Releases > Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question

Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question

Sanaa/Brussels  |   20 Oct 2011

Amid uncertainty fuelled by ongoing mass protests against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen’s political future, as well as its unity - notably the status of the South - hang in the balance.

Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question , the latest report from the International Crisis Group, explores the roots of the Southern issue, its relationship with the 2011 uprising and the prospects of reaching a compromise that would preserve territorial unity while profoundly redefining the relationship between the central government and regional entities. To peacefully resolve the Southern issue, political actors would need to reach agreement on a transition of power in Sanaa followed by an inclusive national dialogue. Yet, there is no indication Yemenis are heading in that direction. Instead, as mass protests continue without result, frustration is growing along with Southerners’ distrust that events in the North will have a positive impact in the South.

“We face an explosive situation”, says April Alley, Crisis Group’s Senior Arabian Peninsula Analyst. “An enduring political impasse could prompt further collapse of security and economic conditions, triggering greater unrest and instability in the South. Alternatively, if a full-fledged civil war breaks out in the North, Southerners might pursue a serious bid for separation. Secession would almost certainly spark another conflict with the North and could lead to in-fighting and additional fragmentation within the South itself”.

The former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) merged with its northern neighbour, the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), in 1990 to form the Republic of Yemen.  Unity was troubled from the start and resulted in a short but bloody civil war in 1994. Afterward, two profoundly different narratives took hold, one declaring that the war had closed the file on separation and solidified unity, the other claiming instead it marked the end of unity and the beginning of the North’s occupation of the South. Southerners’ feelings of marginalisation and injustice eventually gave way to a popular protest movement in 2007, which later shifted to calls for separation.

At its start, the 2011 Yemeni uprising facilitated cooperation between Northern and Southern protesters and opened up fresh opportunities to peacefully resolve the Southern issue. Yet, the early euphoria is giving way to resurgent calls by some for Southern independence. Political activists in the South point to two possible ways forward: immediate separation or a federation consisting of two regions.  A third option, to organise the country along four to seven federal regions, has found wider appeal in the North and potentially could gain traction within the staunchly pro-unity parties, the opposition Islah and the ruling General People’s Congress. Still others advocate for a system of strengthened local governance.

To pave the way for successful dialogue, all major stakeholders, including the ruling party, should officially acknowledge the importance of the Southern issue and commit to its fair resolution through negotiations. At a minimum, Southerners should have a special status in the dialogue to reassure them that their issues will not be lost amid Yemen’s many challenges. Of course, none of this can happen without quick agreement on and implementation of a viable transition plan for the political system as a whole.

“Yemen's upheaval presents a rare opportunity to redefine its flawed and failed political compact”, says Crisis Group’s Middle East & North Africa Program Director, Robert Malley. “At the same time, it has considerably raised the price of inaction. If nothing is done soon to peacefully address both national and Southern deep-seated grievances, a darker and more ominous chapter could yet be written”.

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