Yemen’s Untold War Story: The South-North Division
Modern Yemen was established after a merge of two sovereign states- the Northern Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and People Democratic Republic of Yemen ( South Yemen) in 1990. The unity project was earnestly pursued in both states especially with the rise of Arab nationalism in the 60s onwards. Yemen’s unity was seen as the first building block for a greater Arab unity project. However ideological and political differences were obstacles towards achieving that unity. The South was a socialist state ideologically aligned with the Soviet camp while the North commanded a traditional capitalist economy. However towards the end of 80s especially that the cold war lost its urgency, the northern regime started to receive less aid to contain the socialist threat and the infighting within the governing Yemen Socialist Party (YSP) in the South has convinced both regimes to speed up the unity negotiations. Finally on 22 May 1990, the united Yemen state was declared with Sana’a as the capital city while Aden was maintained as the commercial capital due to its strategic location. Saleh became the president of the new state while YSP leader Al-Beidh served as his deputy.
Soon after the unity materialized and due to the non-incrementality of the unity agreement, political crisis ensued. The YSP accused the Saleh of being an accomplice in the assassination of their cadres and breaching the terms of agreement for a democratic, transparent and equal share of power. YSP felt it was been marginalized and it was not treated as a partner in power. Tens of the party’s civilian and security leaders were assassinated between 92-93.Things escalated in 1994 al-Beidh declared a reinstatement of the Southern state after all channels for correcting the path of unity were exhausted. Saleh was however able to defeat YSP and took control the South by force. Thousands of personnel in the military and bureaucracy were soon fired from their jobs. That is why for some the 1994 war as a mark of the end of the crippled unity and the start of a new era of occupation- forced control of the South. This discourse came to surface especially after the peaceful protests of 2007 led by al-Hirak- grassroots-based Southern secessionist movement. Today although the YSP is no longer a representative of South Yemen, the South-North borderline is evident especially after the outbreak of the ongoing war in the country in March 2015.
The Arab Spring has in fact given opportunities for Southern issue to be discussed officially. For the first time there was a larger recognition for the atrocities committed against the South by Sana’a regime. Therefore this attempt to reinvade the South by the Houthis and Saleh forces in 2015 meant a regression towards the old-time repression of Southern activists prior to 2011 with South’s fierce enemy Saleh back in the picture. The fact that Houthi rebels and pro-Saleh troops were all coming from the North give the war a regional dimension- at least in the eyes of the Southerners. Despite the fact the Southern resistance did not have fighting experience and lacked resources of their rivals, they showed considerable resilience in defending their city. The morale was high as it was not seen as mere struggle for power but rather defending one’s homeland. Saleh and Houthi forces were seen as invading “foreign” forces. Southern nationalism was the main drive for mobilization even though elements of Hadi’s loyalism ( against Saleh) or Sunni reactionism (against Houthis) were also present. When coalition reinforcements came in July, it took only few days before Houthi and Saleh forces were driven outside of Aden. Prior to the liberation of Aden, another Southern city named Dhale was liberated and it’s known to be the stronghold of al-Hirak. Other neighboring cities followed track after including Lahj, Abyan and Shabwa and later Hadramout- from AQAP though. It was in this war that the name “Southern Resistance” came to prominence for its role in fighting the Houthis and Saleh forces in many fronts. If we look at the current map of fighting in Yemen and who control what, we see that the government is in control in mostly the Southern areas while Houthis and Saleh forces are still in control of almost all cities in the Northern part of the country. This is yet another piece of verification that the South-North division is real.
Hadi - despite being a Southerner – he did not enjoy high popularity in the South as he was largely regarded as another tool for legitimizing Northern “occupation” of the South. Prior to ascending to presidency in 2012, he had served as Saleh’s vice president since 1994. He was one of Saleh’s men who helped end the YSP-led South’s attempt for separation in 1994. However it was until he was almost dethroned that he managed to earn the sympathies of people in the South. After all, this was another proof that he was limited to effectuate any real change even if he had the real will to do so. Despite being a president with an extensive legal mandate of power, the real power rested with Saleh’s deep state. Saleh’s role in obstructing the political transition –culminating in assisting the Houthis with their seizure of power and taking part in the war against Hadi- were reminders that positive regime change in Sana’a is impossible. For this reason, the unity is less likely to get reformed and Southerners can’t afford to stay outside the political game in Sana’a forever. The current war has brought Hadi and Southern factions closer than anytime before. Not surprisingly, Hadi’s pleas for interventions in Yemen was far more welcomed in the South compared to the North despite the fact the South has not been immune from collateral damage of the coalition’s airstrikes.
Finally, I would like to note that although al-Hirak and other Southern factions are collaborating closely with Hadi, it does not mean they have compromised their demands for separation and reinstatement of Southern state. In fact, after the war the demands for separation have only gone higher. The Northern-dominated security apparatus that was keeping the South under control has been largely dismantled. Local Southerners are replacing the security personnel as institutions are under re-construction. Now, it’s very rare to see the unity Yemen flag to be waving in any government buildings while Southern flags are seen everywhere. Local authorities make sure they speak a language sympathetic to the South. Due to changing reality on the ground in the South, this calls the question if central and unitary system of government will be accepted anymore. It seems the future of Yemen’s unity will be largely based on two factors- how much Sana’a regime will be able to accommodate the popular demands in the South and how viable the other alternative systems of governments will be- namely federalism or confederalism.