Yemen in its current form has only existed since the 1990s, a product of the merger between the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) in 1990. The two states unified in the realization of a long sought dream of forming a single nation of Yemen. The unification, however, did not go as smoothly as was dreamed by Yemen nationalists; by 1994, what had been Southern Yemen broke into open rebellion over what it perceived as mistreatment and marginalization by the northern part of the country. This Yemeni civil war led to the defeat and exile of many pro-South politicians, as well as the solidification of control over the South by the North, imposing terms on unification that favored the North.
Today, with the instability of Yemen following the 2011 Arab Spring revolution there—which saw the resignation of longtime president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the rise in power of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—a growing movement of Southerners is calling for the independence of the South from Northern rule. Hiraak al-Janubi, or the Southern Movement, has increasingly argued that Southern Yemen is only harmed by unity with the North, and that secession is only solution. The movement, which has been gaining momentum since the mid-2000s, has had a significant voice in the ongoing National Dialogue Conference (NDC), which is attempting to resolve peacefully the numerous political challenges facing Yemen.
On October 14, crowds across the South commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the revolution that ultimately dislodged the British from South Yemen and gained it independence. Amongst these commemorations calls for independence featured prominently, with many residents comparing the rule of the North to the British colonial rule of the 1960s. A Southern Movement spokesman illustrated this point by declaring, “It is as though there was no October Revolution and the British are still here.”
At the NDC, the South Movement representation is anemic at best, representing only those of the moderate view, far from the common current of a more militant demand for complete independence, which has led to the bulk of the South Movement sidelining itself and deeming the discussions as “illegitimate.” Despite this, the movement’s representation in the NDC has demanded significant concessions, including the demand for either a two-state federalism (at the least) or a referendum on the South’s political status. At one point, the Southern delegation suspended its participation for nearly three weeks of the conference to protest its treatment at the conference.
The biggest political opponents of the South Movement at the NDC appear to be the Islamist Islah Party and the ruling General Peoples Congress Party, which adamantly refuse to make concessions on the status of the south, or even to negotiate on the basis of a two-state federalism. This has led to the impasse over the “Southern Question” and a strengthening of the support in the South for a more unilateral declaration of independence from the North.
The South Movement is by no means a solidified political movement. It is a diverse and loosely aligned coalition of groups calling for an independent South Yemen. Herein lies the danger, as once it hypothetically gained independence there is no central party or group to take the reins of power. At the very least, any government that emerged in an independent South would be politically weak and divided.
The Southern question in Yemen is likely to be the primary concern of politicians both in the North and the South going forward. The difficulty will be in preserving the country’s unity while addressing the concerns of the Southerners, such as corruption, mismanagement by the North, and infrastructure that favors Northerners. It will remain to be seen whether a historic compromise can reunite this divided country, or whether it will spit into two separate countries.