South Yemen and the question of secession

Resource-poor and fragmented secessionist movements, by their very nature, fail in the long run.

Shia Houthi rebels ride on a patrol truck in Sanaa [Reuters]

Sunday marked the 47th anniversary of independence from the United Kingdom for what eventually became known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, or more simply, South Yemen. From 1967 to 1990, South Yemen existed as an independent state, with the strategic port of Aden serving as its capital. To the northwest was the Yemen Arab Republic, or North Yemen, with its capital in Sanaa.

While both countries remained on relatively friendly terms, there were occasional border clashes that sometimes kept tensions high. However, in 1990, North and South Yemen put aside their differences and united to create the modern day Republic of Yemen, with its capital in Sanaa. As part of the new unity government, it was agreed that North Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, would become president of the new republic, and South Yemen’s president, Ali Salim al-Beidh, would become vice president.

But the honeymoon didn’t last. Nationwide food shortages and claims of marginalisation by the north – both economic and political – resulted in Beidh’s 1992 return to Aden in protest, followed by a short, bloody civil war for southern independence in 1994. The north won, Saleh solidified his control, Beidh fled to Oman and the south continued to be marginalised.

Arab Spring swept through

Fast-forward to the Arab Spring that swept through Yemen like it did much of the Middle East in 2011. With Saleh’s downfall, there was a cautious yet optimistic belief that Yemen’s new president, Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, could move the country forward. So far, those dreams have yet to be realised, as not much has changed for the better in Yemen. The same problems of rampant corruption, poor governance, poverty, regional rivalries and religious differences that have been around for as long as anyone can remember still plague the country, both in the north and in the south.

Yemen southerners push for independence

Following a decade of on again off again fighting, Houthi rebels from the north took advantage of nationwide discontent with the government in Sanaa, and swarmed into the capital just two months ago, forcing the resignation of Yemen’s prime minister and taking control of much of the security apparatus in and around the capital.

In many respects, the Houthis have been calling the shots there ever since, sparking fears in southern Yemen that they may very well have their sights set on extending their influence to the south. Which brings us back to Sunday’s 47th anniversary of South Yemen’s independence.

Things seem to be heating up again in the south, too, with renewed demands for total independence or at least greater regional autonomy, led by the Southern Separatist Movement or al-Hirak, gaining momentum by the day. What has up until now been characterised as mostly peaceful demonstrations could quickly erupt into rioting or even another civil war.

Sunday’s demonstrations by southern separatists in Aden’s Al-Orod Square, timed to coincide with the 1967 Independence Day activities, drew a crowd that by some estimates numbered in the tens of thousands. Waving the now all too familiar flag of what was South Yemen prior to unification in 1990, demonstrators clearly rejected Sanaa’s efforts to maintain control over them, with banners in the square declaring they would not leave before achieving independence. In response, government troops fired tear gas and live ammunition into the crowds, allegedly killing one demonstrator and wounding four others.

Biggest challenge

Based on media reports, which seem to have taken a keen interest in the demonstrations, you would think secession is a done deal, and that any morning now the headlines will announce “Independence for South Yemen!” But is that really in southern Yemen’s best interests?

Based on media reporting, which seems to have taken a keen interest in the demonstrations, you would think secession is a done deal, and that any morning now the headlines will announce ‘Independence for South Yemen!’ But is that really in southern Yemen’s best interests?

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing southern secession at this point is the lack of a unifying movement or strong, central leader, as is the case with the Houthis. Al-Hirak is really made up of three camps, each with its own agenda: those calling for total and immediate independence from Sanaa; those favouring a federalist system that gives each region of the country greater autonomy; and those who want to give Hadi’s new technocratic government, which includes representation from al-Hirak, more time to resolve lingering issues. Right now, there’s no telling which has the louder voice.

And don’t forget, the government in Sanaa has a say in all of this, too. While far from certain at this point to succeed, Hadi’s new technocratic government is designed to play his rivals against each other in order to accomplish two things: prevent any single power centre from emerging as a dominant military or political force, while at the same time ensuring they maintain a stake in preserving some degree of central authority.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It was the same strategy used by the former regime under Saleh. The difference this time is that Hadi is willing to discuss splitting Yemen into six autonomous regions – four in the north and two in the south. Not perfect by any means, but it may still be Yemen’s best chance to avoid another civil war – at least for now – which southern secession is sure to cause.

One final point to consider for those demanding independence is that by their very nature, secession movements generally don’t fare well in the long run. If fact, the odds are against them. This is particularly true in countries as resource poor and fragmented as South Yemen would be. Granted, Yemen itself isn’t exactly rich in natural resources, and what oil and a gas reserves it has are in decline. But those reserves are sufficient to meet both domestic consumption and export needs.

Consider also, that the International Monetary Fund estimates hydrocarbons account for 60 percent of the government’s overall revenues, and more than 90 percent of its export revenues. With significant oil reserves in the southern governorate of Hadhramaut, it’s unlikely Sanaa will allow any secession movement there to jeopardise those revenues.

Without a doubt, southern Yemen has legitimate grievances against the north in terms of both political and economic marginalisation that have festered since their unification in 1990. Emotions are high, but so are the stakes. At this point, two options are on the table. The first is outright secession, which could very well lead to another civil war that the south risks losing again. The second is to give Hadi’s new technocratic government and proposal for six autonomous regions a chance to succeed. Let’s hope the second option wins out. The consequences otherwise are too great.

Martin Reardon is a Senior Vice President with The Soufan Group, a New York-based strategic security and intelligence consultancy, and Senior Director of Qatar International Academy for Security Studies. He is a 21-year veteran of the FBI, and specialised in counterterrorism operations.