Yemen: Is Southern secession possible?

The southern Yemeni secession movement has received fresh impetus recently as a consequence of the upheaval in the capital caused by a train of political and constitutional crises and the opening of a power vacuum. The southern drive so far has been peaceful. Its leaders have underlined that they had no intention to take recourse to violence although they may be forced to defend themselves at some point in the future if Houthi extremism in the north threatens to spread to the south or if conditions caused by ongoing pressures on the part of the Houthi movement to alter the results of the national dialogue and influence the terms for a national constitution become unsustainable.


Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly from Aden, the south Yemeni activist Abdel Hakim Al-Mayouni said that a National Organisation to Liberate the South was created Monday. It is headed by Abdel Rahman Al-Jafri, the leader of the Arab South project, and Mohammed Ali Ahmed, the first interior minister in the era of unification. “There are a large number of colours of the spectrum of the movement and representatives of all political projects regarding the south [present in the organisation],” Al-Mayouni said, adding: “It is a balanced leadership. This is the first time in which all the brigades of the movement have been unified and begun to coordinate so closely.”

The south Yemeni activist stressed that all participants were of one mind on the need to accelerate the process of activating the organisation and the need to act quickly at both the local and international levels. One step that has been agreed upon is to organise a form of civil disobedience every Monday. That measure was set into motion this week. In addition, the southern bloc in the Yemeni parliament was due to hold a meeting in Aden this week. However, by the time of going to press, the members of that bloc were not yet able to reach the southern capital due to security circumstances.

Al-Mayouni relates that considerable commotion has been stirred by rumours that Iranian aircraft filled with arms have arrived in Sanaa in order to equip the Houthis. He added that there are fears that such rumours might be believed in Yemen in general, especially in light of clashes that have already begun to erupt between the Houthis and some of their adversaries, such as the Rejectionists movement in the North. On top of this there are numerous other problems, he said. Not least US intervention in the country against the backdrop of the political vacuum in the north. Al-Mayouni pointed to President Barack Obama’s remarks to the effect that he would fight Al-Qaeda in Yemen whether or not there was a central government.

Mohammed Ali Ahmed, a key member of the recently formed Southern Yemeni Liberation Organisation, said last month in interview with the Weekly in Aden that there were as yet undeclared moves on the part of regional and international powers to pave the way for southern independence in the framework of a five-year transitional project that would continue to bring to bear the federal system. “The north controls the management of all the affairs of the south and it is difficult to separate the two from one day to the next,” he said.

From Taizz, at the juncture between the north and south, political activist Abdel Aziz Al-Majidi, one of the founders of the Madd movement, maintains that Yemen is being propelled towards total chaos in many of the provinces in accordance with a Houthi plan to sow anarchy in the country. Nevertheless, he reports that demonstrations have been staged in the mountain city demanding the return of President Hadi who resigned last week. Al-Majidi adds that there is even support for Hadi’s return among the southerners because of the grave implications of the current situation for everyone in Yemen, both in the north and the south. On the other hand, according to Al-Majidi, there is a growing tide in Taizz, as well, in favour of moving toward independence from Sanaa. “We will not remain with our hands behind our backs, especially as the army here in Taizz, as is the case in many provinces, moves at the command of the [former President Saleh-Houthi] alliance. On top of this there are the tribal mobilisations and mounting sectarianism that threaten to revive the history of the conflict in Yemen in the 1960s.”

Al-Majidi, a political affairs specialist, held that reports of direct Iranian intervention were true. He said that more contingents of Iranian Revolutionary Guards had arrived at the air base in Yemen. This is why that base was surrounded last week by forces from the “coup-making” Houthi movement, he said.

General Nasser Al-Tawil, a prominent figure in the movement of retired servicemen in the south, underscored the importance of the creation of the new liberation organisation there. Speaking to the Weekly by phone from Aden he said, “The governmental vacuum in Sanaa did not influence us, as effectively such a vacuum has existed since 2011. All the talk about ‘institutions’ is baseless from the aspect of legitimacy. Even the governments that were formed, the latest being the Bahah government, had no representatives from the south. Therefore, we are totally aligned with the current drive and the step it took to create the liberation organisation. We, as military men, came from that drive. In 2007, we forged a powerful kernel of the movement from retired servicemen. It was peaceful. We did not carry arms. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have the ability to carry arms. In fact, we will when necessary.”

Al-Tawil stressed that the retired officers were well organised and could form a military force at any moment the south came under threat from any enemy. On developments involving the Houthis in Sanaa, he said: “What did we expect? Some of the Houthis are Iranian. So what’s the problem with there being Iranian Revolutionary Guards or planes carrying arms? On the opposite side we have seen a similar Saudi position in support of the Salafists.” He added: “The Houthis are a contingent of Yemeni society. They do not represent a threat to us at all. They have been the victims of injustice and we deal with them now on that basis. However, if they move in the direction of a project to occupy the south, then we certainly will turn to arms and confront them at the time. We have taken heed of what is taking place in Syria and Iraq. We do not want the situation to deteriorate any more than it already has in Yemen.”

In sum, southern Yemen appears to be moving steadily toward the independence option. It is utilising the current anarchy in the north to advance this project by means of unifying ranks among diverse components of civil society, including retired military servicemen who could form a major military force for the drive if need be. If, indeed, the situation evolves in the form of an extended project that results in secession, as occurred with South Sudan for example, the world will be looking at a north Yemen in the grips of a shift from the conflict of the tribal state to an internationalised militia-based conflict, and at a south Yemen that has resolved to modernise but that will still have to contend with identity issues.

Above all, will south be an Arab Gulf project, as was proposed before during the unification era, or will it attempt to revive the leftist project that ground to a halt three decades ago when unity was settled militarily in 1994? In either case, both models are riddled with potential problems.

*This story was first published by Al-Ahram Weekly