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Yemen’s Southern Question: Avoiding a Breakdown
Yemen’s Southern Question: Avoiding a Breakdown
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 145 / Middle East & North Africa

Yemen’s Southern Question: Avoiding a Breakdown

Yemen must agree on its state structure, including the South’s status, to forge a stable future. A final agreement cannot be forced by the National Dialogue Conference; for some key issues, only continued, more inclusive talks in the context of confidence-building measures can succeed.

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Executive Summary

Yemen is at a critical juncture. Its six-month National Dialogue Conference (NDC) was to have closed on 18 September, ushering in constitution drafting, a constitutional referendum and new elections. The timetable has slipped, and, though no end date has been set, there is an understandable urge among many international and some domestic actors to stick closely to agreed deadlines, wrap up the NDC negotiations and finish the transition to-do list. But despite progress, there is no broad-based, implementable agreement on the state’s future structure, and thus on the South’s status. Worse, such a result is unlikely to emerge from the current dialogue, even with a short extension. A rush to declare victory and complete the transition checklist could mean forcing through an outcome without necessary legitimacy or buy-in. It would be better to agree to a time-limited delay of the referendum, put in place modified transitional arrangements and ensure the next round of negotiations is in concert with confidence-building measures and includes a wider, more representative array of Southern voices.

How to structure the state arguably has become the most complicated and divisive political issue and must be a key component of any new constitution and durable political settlement. Parties have presented a wide array of options: from the current unitary system, through multi-region federalism, to two-state federalism (one entity in the North, the other in the South). Even this broad spectrum fails to include what, in the South, has turned into an increasingly attractive rallying cry: the demand for immediate independence.

Indeed, the question of the state’s structure inevitably is tied to the so-called Southern issue, shorthand for the political, economic and social demands emanating from the South, which had been an independent state prior to 1990. There, a loosely aligned mix of organisations and activists, known as the Southern Movement (Hiraak), is calling for separation or, at a minimum, temporary two-state federalism followed by a referendum on the South’s future. Separatist sentiment is running high and appears to have strengthened over the course of the transition.

To an extent, the NDC has made advances. It helped launch a healthy and overdue public debate over the roots of the Southern problem and began the consideration of potential outcomes. But the conference faced severe limitations. Debate in Sanaa is far removed from the increasingly separatist Southern street. Within the NDC, discussion of solutions, bereft of detail, was squeezed into the last two months of negotiations. Although consensus appears to be forming around a federal structure, critical elements remain unresolved: how to define administrative boundaries; redistribute political authority; and share resources. Even a general agreement will be hard to achieve. It will require bridging the yawning gap between Hiraak delegates, who demand a three-year transition under two-part federalism in order to rebuild the Southern state in advance of an ill-defined referendum on the South’s future status, and staunch pro-unity advocates, who passionately reject this option.

Garnering popular support for any eventual agreement will be more challenging still. The Hiraak delegation suspended its participation for nearly three weeks, complaining that negotiations were biased against it; even that delegation hardly is representative of broader and more militant Hiraak sentiment. Only a small slice of the Hiraak – many enjoying close ties to President Abdo Robo Mansour Hadi – agreed to join the NDC. The bulk of the movement chose to stay on the sidelines of talks they deemed illegitimate.

The South’s lack of faith in the NDC process perhaps was inevitable, but it has been exacerbated by the absence of genuine measures to improve security and economic conditions in the region. Government promises notwithstanding, little has changed, further undercutting those Southerners willing to negotiate and providing fodder to those for whom the only way out is separation.

As the time for reaching an agreement nears, all parties appear to be digging in their heels. The Hiraak NDC delegation demands significant concessions, arguing that anything short of two-state federalism and/or a promise to organise a referendum on the South’s future status is unacceptable; leaders from the former ruling party, the General People’s Congress (GPC), and from the predominant Islamist party, Islah, flatly refuse either prospect, clinging to the notion of a federal model with multiple administrative units. Each has made bets on the effect of competing political pressures: the former believe that their more militant rank and file will force the North to move toward them; the latter wager that Hadi’s interest in overseeing a successful transition will lead him to impose a compromise on his Hiraak allies. Both cannot be right, and middle ground remains elusive.

Then there are those on the outside. Most Hiraak members bank on the negotiations’ failure, due to inability to reach a substantive compromise or, if it comes to it, lack of implementation on the ground. They vow to escalate protests and a civil dis­obedience campaign, regardless of NDC decisions, until they achieve independence. A constitutional referendum would provide a focal point for their opposition, triggering a boycott and likely violence. The result would be to further undermine the transition’s legitimacy.

If Yemen hopes to forge a more stable future, it desperately needs to agree on the basic question of its state structure. That much is clear. But it does not mean forcing through a final settlement in circumstances where basic trust, legitimacy and consensus are lacking. That would be more than a fragile state, fragmented country and fractured political class could handle. It likely would further discredit the process, strengthen more militant Southern views and provoke dangerous brinkmanship and bloodshed. The goal instead should be a broad-based agreement that only continued, more inclusive negotiations in the context of improved security and economic conditions potentially can achieve.

Sanaa/Brussels, 25 September 2013

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.