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Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question
Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Heading Off a Renewed Struggle for Yemen’s South
Heading Off a Renewed Struggle for Yemen’s South
Report 114 / Middle East & North Africa

Breaking Point? Yemen’s Southern Question

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.

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Executive Summary

Ten months of popular protest spiked by periodic outbursts of violence have done little to clarify Yemen’s political future. Persistent street protests so far have failed to oust President Ali Abdullah Saleh or bring about genuine institutional reform. The country is more deeply divided between pro- and anti-Saleh forces than ever, its economy is in tatters and both security and humanitarian conditions are deteriorating. Amid the uncertainty fuelled by this lingering crisis, the country’s unity – and notably the status of the South – hangs in the balance. Old grievances are coming into sharper relief and, among some, secessionist aspirations are gaining steam. There remains an opportunity for Yemen’s rulers, opposition groups and protesters to reach agreement on a political transition that would give priority to the Southern question and redefine relations between centre and periphery, for example by moving toward a federal model. Should this chance be missed, the conflict risks getting bloodier. And Yemen’s unity could be a thing of the past.

The People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) merged with its northern neighbour, the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), on 22 May 1990 to form the Republic of Yemen. From the start, this was a troubled unification that resulted in a short, bloody civil war in 1994. The North emerged victorious, but this hardly closed the chapter. In the wake of the conflict, two profoundly different narratives took shape. Under one version, the war laid to rest the notion of separation and solidified national unity. According to the other, the war laid to rest the notion of unity and ushered in a period of Northern occupation of the South.

The most recent tensions did not suddenly erupt in the context of the January 2011 Yemeni uprising. In 2007, a broad-based popular protest movement known as the Southern Movement (Al-Hiraak al-Janoubi) had come to the fore. The Hiraak originated as a rights-based movement requesting equality under the law and a change in relations between North and South – all within a united country. The government responded to the demands with repression; it also largely ignored its own promises of reforms. By 2009, the Hiraak had begun to champion Southern independence. In the months leading up to the uprising that became the Yemeni Spring, its influence and popularity in the South clearly were on the ascent.

Could the popular uprising open up fresh opportunities to peacefully resolve the Southern issue? If the various sides act reasonably, it should. From the start, it facilitated cooperation between Northern and Southern protesters and broke through barriers of fear, allowing a larger spectrum of Southerners to join the national public debate on the status of the South. Most importantly, it has facilitated debate and growing consensus around federal options. If political foes can reach agreement on a transition of power in Sanaa and launch an inclusive national dialogue, they could seize the moment to negotiate a peaceful compromise on the Southern issue as well.

The problem is that there is no indication Yemen is heading there. Instead, as mass protests have continued without result, frustration has grown and so too has Southern distrust that anything that happens in the North will improve their lot. The risks are many. An enduring political impasse could prompt further collapse of security and economic conditions throughout the country, producing greater unrest and instability in the South. Alternatively, a full-fledged civil war could break out between Northern rival elites, a scenario that could prompt Southern stakeholders to pursue a serious bid for separation. Already, the early euphoria generated by coordination between protesters in the North and South is giving way to resurgent calls by some for Southern independence.

This is a dangerous brew. The South’s secession almost certainly would be resisted by the North and could spark a violent conflict. Any effort toward independence also could trigger in-fighting and additional fragmentation within the South itself. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and other violent groups already are prospering amid growing instability and chaos; further deterioration would only expand their reach.

A clear path toward a redefinition of relations between centre and periphery is badly needed. This can only be achieved through an inclusive dialogue that recognises Southerners’ legitimate grievances and the importance of profoundly amending that relationship. Four possible outcomes are being discussed in various forums, with varying degrees of popularity: maintenance of a unitary state albeit with improved government performance; maintenance of a unitary state but with significant powers devolved to local governments; a federal state consisting of two or more regions; and Southern secession.

Of these, the first and last are the more likely recipes for heightened conflict. The former (a kind of status quo plus) would essentially ignore Southerners’ legitimate demands for greater participation, control of local resources and protection of local identity and culture. The latter (Southern independence) would alienate not only Northerners but also many Southerners who strongly prefer reform within the context of unity.

That leaves the two middle options. Both have their problems. Hiraak supporters suspect that a mere strengthening of local government powers – even under a more democratic and representative central government – could be a subterfuge and fail to truly protect Southerners’ rights. For this and other reasons, they favour either immediate separation or, at a minimum, a federation of two states lasting four to five years, to be followed by a referendum on the South’s ultimate status.

On the other hand, federalism, especially under a two-state formula (one Northern, the other Southern), is eyed by many with considerable suspicion as only the first step toward the South’s eventual separation. Some form of multi-state federalism, with perhaps four or seven regions, potentially could allay those anxieties. It has found relatively wider appeal in the North and arguably could gain traction even within staunchly pro-unity parties, such as the ruling General People’s Congress and the opposition Islamist party, Islah. But much more precision about the details of this model will be required before it does so. Overall, none of these fears ought be brushed aside or downplayed. Instead, they should be aired openly and discussed seriously through robust debate and peaceful negotiations.

External players, including the Gulf Cooperation Council members, the U.S., the UK, the EU and the UN, have a role to play. All officially support a unified Yemen. But that is an umbrella broad enough to accommodate the need for Yemenis to comprehensively renegotiate the relationship between the central government and regional entities.

Yemen’s upheaval presents a rare opportunity to redefine its flawed and failed political compact. At the same time, however, 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.

Sanaa/Brussels, 20 October 2011

A reinforcement convoy of Yemen's Security Belt Force dominated by members of the the Southern Transitional Council (STC) heading to Abyan province, Yemen. AFP/Saleh Al-OBEIDI

Heading Off a Renewed Struggle for Yemen’s South

Separatists have announced self-administration in southern Yemen, angering the internationally recognised government. The last thing the country needs is more fighting. Gulf powers and the UN should help implement a stalled 2019 agreement so that national ceasefire talks can go ahead.

On 25 April, the secessionist Southern Transitional Council (STC) declared self-administration in areas of Yemen’s south that were part of an independent state prior to unification with the north in 1990. The declaration came on the heels of escalating tensions between the STC and the Yemeni government, nominal allies in the fight against Huthi rebels based in the northern highlands. It also came as the UN struggled to engineer a nationwide ceasefire and COVID-19 response plan. STC forces quickly took control of ministries, local government offices and the Central Bank building in Aden, the government’s temporary headquarters since the Huthis pushed it out of the capital Sanaa in 2015. The STC has not yet taken over day-to-day management of state institutions, but it has formed committees charged with doing so, and STC officials say they will soon start running southern affairs.

Taking Matters into Their Own Hands

The STC may have hoped to shore up its waning popular support.

It is not yet clear if the STC’s announcement is indeed an attempt at establishing an autonomous state or a gamble aimed at improving the group’s bargaining position vis-à-vis the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. In justifying their move, STC officials point to stalled implementation of the November 2019 Riyadh Agreement. This Saudi-brokered deal prevented a civil war within a civil war in the south after the secessionists drove Hadi loyalists out of Aden in August of last year. The agreement offered the STC a limited role in government and UN-led peace talks in exchange for a phased mutual withdrawal of forces from Aden and neighbouring Abyan governorate and a handover of heavy weapons by both sides to the Saudi-led coalition. The agreement also stipulates that the STC be integrated into the government’s military and security institutions. The secessionists say they have done everything asked of them, while Hadi has carried out military redeployments that benefit his side and delayed political reforms. The latter are supposed to include appointing new local security and government officials and forming a more inclusive government and negotiating team for UN-sponsored talks.

The STC may also have hoped to shore up its waning popular support. Although the Riyadh Agreement left the STC in effective control of Aden, the government continued to run state institutions and hold purse strings, a situation the STC says played to the government’s advantage by tying its own hands. Since January, STC officials assert, the government has halted salary payments in Aden and allowed public services to wither. Hadi officials acknowledge the holdup in paying salaries – which in the case of most STC security and military forces were anyway paid by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) until the end of 2019 – but attribute it to cash flow problems. They claim that the deterioration of services derives from tensions among the STC, the government and Aden-based Saudi forces. After a devastating spate of flash floods exacerbated electricity and water shortages in April, residents directed their anger at the government and STC in equal measure. Because salaries are going unpaid, some STC leaders worry that their fighters will defect to the government, if it can pay them, or to new Saudi-overseen military units, which receive wages directly from Riyadh.

Developments elsewhere in Yemen also played a role. Government forces in the north have been tied down in heavy fighting with Huthi rebels in Marib since January, limiting their ability to launch or counter a major offensive in the south. STC leaders were also angered in April by their continued exclusion from formal UN negotiations over a nationwide ceasefire and the restart of national political talks. Perceiving a choice between, on the one hand, inaction that would undermine their local popularity and position and, on the other, taking steps that could incur the wrath of regional powers and foreign diplomats who they feel are distracted or ignoring their pleas for inclusion, STC officials say they opted for the latter. At least this way, they say, they have taken matters into their own hands.

What Next?

Predictably, the government condemned the STC announcement as yet another coup attempt, saying the secessionists “blew up” the Riyadh Agreement. They say the STC has refused to honour its obligations under the accord and is instead spoiling the process in hopes of gaining a seat at peace talks without making meaningful concessions on the ground. The government says this bad behaviour on the STC’s part should not be rewarded. It demands that the STC reverse its self-administration plans and allow Prime Minister Maen Abdulmalik Saeed, who was prevented from entering Aden earlier in April, to return and lead the government from the city. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been more circumspect. They rejected the STC’s announcement, calling upon the government and secessionists to return to the Riyadh Agreement.

The government demands that the STC reverse its self-administration plans and allow Prime Minister Maen Abdulmalik Saeed to return and lead the government from the city.

It is unclear what each side plans on doing next. Hadi-aligned military leaders in the south have made inflammatory statements in recent months about wanting to forcibly wrest control of Aden from the STC. They could see the STC’s announcement as a pretext for launching an offensive. The STC says it is prepared for a fight, and that it could win new territory in a replay of the hostilities of August 2019. Riyadh will want to avoid more infighting within the anti-Huthi camp and still hopes to see the agreement fulfilled. But both the STC and the government increasingly mistrust Riyadh and doubt the kingdom’s ability to follow through on overseeing implementation. As a result, the Saudis may be unable to get the parties to return to negotiations without help from other regional or international powers.

The actor best placed to make a difference in the south is the UAE. Abu Dhabi has a close relationship with the STC, whose president, Aydrous al-Zubaidi, is based in the UAE. The Emiratis withdrew from southern Yemen in mid-2019 and Saudi Arabia has since run coalition operations in Aden. But the UAE still has leverage. Absent outside support, which the STC would most likely seek from Abu Dhabi, an autonomous region is unlikely to survive for long. Emirati officials therefore should be able to help convince Zubaidi to return to the negotiating table. Given its dislike of the Hadi government, which it sees as being in league with the Muslim Brotherhood, Abu Dhabi will need some encouragement to do so, most likely from Washington.

The Huthis have taken pleasure in this latest episode in the STC-Hadi power struggle, which has done a great deal over the past three years to undermine the government’s credibility. Tensions in the south have divided the anti-Huthi bloc and diverted the government’s attention from battles with the Huthis in Marib and al-Bayda governorates in the north. If the STC and the government enter into another violent showdown, it would weaken military efforts against the Huthis in Marib and elsewhere.

The infighting also increases pressure on Saudi Arabia, which hopes to find an exit from the war.

Some Yemeni observers believe that the conflict in the south is creating an opportunity for the Huthis to strike a deal with the STC that excludes the government. This eventuality would accelerate the country’s fragmentation. The rebels and secessionists view each other as lesser threats compared to other rivals and, in theory, such a deal could benefit both. Yet officially, each side says it will negotiate with the other only within a UN-led framework. The infighting also increases pressure on Saudi Arabia, which hopes to find an exit from the war and reach an acceptable accommodation with the Huthis before the anti-Huthi front collapses under the weight of its internal differences. The Huthis, who are holding out on a nationwide ceasefire agreement in hopes of getting the Saudis to fully reopen their area’s sea and airports, are keenly aware of the kingdom’s predicament and are likely to double down on their demands.

A Modest Rather than Maximalist Approach

In many ways, the STC’s timing could not be worse for UN efforts to secure a nationwide ceasefire, initiate a national COVID-19 response plan and restart political talks. The government is all but certain to use the standoff in the south as an excuse to delay these efforts. The Saudis, a vital part of any agreement, will now be stretched even more thinly and will likely find it more difficult to find common ground with the emboldened Huthis.

Humanitarian aid efforts could also be affected. Ongoing fighting and disjointed COVID-19 responses by local authorities are already staunching the flow of basic goods and medicine throughout Yemen. Fighting in Aden would shut off Yemen’s second largest port and one of just two airports operating international commercial flights in and out of the country during the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. The Yemeni riyal’s value has already started to fall in light of uncertainties surrounding the impact of the STC’s Central Bank takeover. If the STC tries to run the bank, the government will likely freeze access to its dollar accounts and international payments systems.

A return to the status quo ante is a recipe for renewed violence.

Renewed STC-government fighting is the last thing Yemenis need. Yet a return to the status quo ante – a stalled Riyadh Agreement and gradual deterioration of economic conditions in Aden – is likewise a recipe for renewed violence. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are right to urge the parties to return to politics. But this approach will only work if they reassess and amend the Riyadh Agreement to enable implementation, something neither side appears willing to do at present. As it stands, the agreement’s objectives, particularly integrating two opposing military forces, are too ambitious absent a nationwide political settlement.

Instead of taking a maximalist approach, the two sides could agree on minimum requirements for implementation: separation of forces and demilitarisation of key cities; formation of an inclusive government focused on basic security and service provision; and assembly of a more inclusive negotiating team for UN talks. Saudi Arabia will need to accept help in coaxing the two parties to carry out their obligations in good faith. At the very least, this task will require more involvement from the UAE and ideally oversight from the UN.

Beyond the Riyadh Agreement, the STC is right in saying that the UN’s national ceasefire initiative will not work without its cooperation. As Crisis Group has recommended in the past, UN officials are seeking to establish a UN-chaired national military body that would negotiate ceasefire arrangements. Yet the body supposedly would include only delegates from the government and the Huthis, with meetings attended by Saudi officials as well. UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths has discussed his ceasefire plan, which the STC publicly welcomed, with the group’s senior leadership, but his team is understandably cautious about their formal participation in military-to-military talks. The dilemma is clear: including the STC may prompt a multitude of other Yemeni combatants to want to be included as well, making the process unmanageable and delaying a much-needed ceasefire; not including the STC – or at least securing their clear buy-in – nearly guarantees ceasefire collapse.

Under an imperfect compromise, the UN – with help from the UK and U.S. – could push the Hadi government and Saudi Arabia to ensure that the STC and other important armed groups have a voice in military talks by adding representatives aligned with or even chosen by them to the government delegation in the military body. To make this solution more palatable to the government, which views the STC and similar forces as non-state actors and refuses to legitimise them, the additional delegates optimally would hold pre-war military rank.

Events in the south underscore the necessity of including sub-national groups in any overall settlement to end the conflict.

Events in the south are a stark reminder of Yemen’s fragmentation after five years of war. They underscore the necessity of including sub-national groups, like the STC, in any overall settlement to end the conflict. Regional and Western diplomats working on Yemen so far have largely avoided the south’s messy politics, and they may be tempted even now to leave the problem to the Saudis. But more of the same will not make the problem go away, and failure to engage will only make the war harder to end.