This week has seen an atmosphere of relative normality return to Aden, following a few days of intense fighting between the separatist Southern Resistance Forces and army units and militias loyal to Yemen’s internationally-recognized government. The armed wing of the Southern Transitional Council took over most government buildings and infrastructure in the former capital of South Yemen, before a diplomatic push by Saudi and Emirati officials brought the violent quarrel to a halt. The fighting, which involved artillery fire, left more than 40 people dead.
A pledge from the head of the STC, Aidarus Al-Zoubaidi, to refocus military efforts on the joint war against the Houthis may have calmed the waters to a point, but long-running tensions will continue to bubble under the surface. As was the case last May, when the STC was formed, Al-Zoubaidi reaffirmed that the separatist movement’s ultimate goal is to achieve independence for the south.
These foreseeable yet worrying developments bring back to the fore a critical matter: How to address local grievances and legitimate ambitions for greater autonomy from the central government, while guaranteeing the survival of Yemen as a state. The formal processes to deal with these questions crumbled in 2014-2015 with the war launched by the Houthis, the militant Zaidi revivalist group backed by Iran, and assisted by forces loyal to late former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Since then, the war effort to push back the Houthis and subsequent humanitarian crises have set aside any plans to address the future of Yemen as a federal state.
But this issue remains at the center of Yemen’s war and its multiple conflicts. It was opposition to the establishment of a federation, including related matters such as distribution of resources and access to the sea, that the Houthis used as a pretext to move into Sanaa in their attempt to take over the government. The southern movement’s separatist ambitions are also closely tied to any decisions made on this front.
Following a GCC initiative, the National Dialogue Conference kick-started in March 2013 in Sanaa’s Movenpick Hotel. Backed by UN Security Council Resolution 2051, it was tasked with addressing Yemen’s most sensitive challenges, including the Saada conflict, the southern problem, a new constitution, and the federation issue. The proposal that came out of the presidential panel in February 2014 envisioned six regions, four in the north — Azal, Janad, Saba and Tihama — and two in the south: Aden and Hadramawt.
The Houthis and the southern separatist movement, at the time spearheaded by Al-Hirak, were the only two groups not to sign off the federation proposal. They remained attached to a vision of Yemen that probably no longer exists. The Houthis aimed to control as much territory as possible outside of their northern strongholds, and perhaps even revive the dominance of the northern Imamate. The southern separatists looked for a return to two states along the pre-1990 borders.
Serious negotiations between the government, local stakeholders and the Arab coalition focusing on the region-based solution — rather than southern independence — could provide greater stability and eventually offer a roadmap for peace.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
Opposition to a Houthi-controlled north is a goal shared by virtually every group and political faction in Yemen. A strong signal of the difficulties the separatists would have in realizing their vision of a southern state was given in 2014 by the NDC representatives of the eastern governorates of Shabwah, Hadhramout and Al-Mahrah, formerly constituent parts of South Yemen, when they pushed for the creation of an eastern region. This would work decisively against the idea of a two-region federation that would almost inevitably lead to two separate states.
The formation of the STC last May, however, reveals an even more complex situation in the south. Among its members are various former senior officials and governors of the southern provinces of Dhale, Hadhramout, Lahij, Al-Mahrah, Shabwah and Socotra, as well as Hani bin Breik, the prominent leader of a popular southern Salafist movement.
The STC’s leadership has, on occasion, talked about plans to hold an independence referendum in the south, in the hope that it would show that a majority supports a return to two states along the pre-1990 borders. The government rejects the possibility.
It is hard to envision how the political and security conditions could be created for a meaningful referendum to be held. And a victory for southern independence — not a guaranteed outcome — would impose Aden’s rule, a solution that many southern cities and militia leaders oppose, thus opening the door to new problems.
A serious process of negotiations between the government, the various local stakeholders and the Arab coalition focused on the federation solution could provide greater stability in areas not under the control of the Houthis, and eventually offer a roadmap for peace. It would remove the pressure over Yemen’s understaffed and overreached government, allowing it to focus on fewer and crucial matters such as humanitarian aid, defense and foreign relations. It would also force local authorities to step up and assume formal responsibility and accountability for areas under their control.
Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida