As Yemen’s 32nd national unification anniversary approached, people in southern and northern Yemen displayed various sentiments. Some cherish this occasion while others detest it.
Nonchalance is the general attitude of many when it comes to discussing the national unity of the country.
Every year on May 22, authorities in Yemen celebrate the anniversary of this occasion. However, the country’s unification has sustained severe scars since its birth in 1990, and the momentum of the southern secession is now stronger than ever before. The impact of the seven-year-old civil war on the country’s unity continues to this day, and addressing this remains a massive challenge for Yemen’s political and military leaders.
In April, Yemen saw the formation of the Presidential Leadership Council. This political development, which included leading figures from north and south Yemen, was a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-sponsored attempt to repair the relations between officials from the two regions.
The Saudi-backed northern and southern Yemeni officials have a common enemy: the Iran-allied Houthi group that rules Yemen’s north.
The question remains, however, whether the new leadership council will wipe out the idea of secession from the south and restore the reverence for unity among all southerners?
Unquestionably, this is an arduous task. Afterall, the memories of wars that ensued following the unification of the two regions, remain amongst the people.
Moreover, the southern separatists are no longer an armless group that can be easily contained. The political and military muscles of the secessionists have actually grown over the last few years.
Two significant moments in the country’s history that led to this reality are the destructive wars that were launched by the northern forces.
The first took please in 1994 when southern leaders attempted to withdraw from the unification and restore the independence of the south after disputes related to power-sharing. Disagreements led to a military confrontation. Northern forces commanded by late president Ali Abdullah Saleh pushed south and took over all the region’s provinces by force of weapon.
Saleh emerged victorious, whereas southern leaders escaped abroad or capitulated.
The military option was seen as crucial for maintaining unification at the time. However, for multitudes of southerners, this was a military invasion - or internal occupation - by Yemen’s northern forces.
The separation attempt in 1994 may have been foiled, but the use of force did not quash the desire for freedom amongst the people.
The second war took place in 2015, when the Houthi group and Saleh forces advanced towards the south, seizing many southern provinces, including Aden. The Houthis and Saleh’s forces toppled former president Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi, who belongs to the south. He was placed under house arrest in Sanaa the same year, but managed to escape to Aden where he announced the continuity of his presidency.
The Houthi group and allied forces immediately decided to wage war. They deployed their fighters towards the south, forcing Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia. Consequently, Aden and other neighbouring southern provinces experienced deadly battles between the northern fighters and the southerners, who received military support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE, among other Arab countries.
After about three months of fighting, the Houthis were driven out of multiple southern territories.
Given the post-unification conflicts, it is tough to overlook all of these atrocities ; it is also hard to justify such wars.
Though the regime of President Saleh launched important development projects in the education, health and tourism sectors across the southern provinces, some southerners feel that this is not an adequate alternative to the independence of their country.
Whilst the southern movement which came into being in 2006, was initially peaceful, as time went by, it grew increasingly confrontational when it came to government forces. Today, the southern separatists are represented by the Southern Transitional Council (STC) which was established in 2017 with direct military and financial support of the UAE. It had repeatedly clashed with Yemen’s UN-recognised government in Aden, and it declared self-rule of southern Yemen in 2020.
Saudi Arabia keeps intervening to bring the STC and the Yemeni government together. In fact, the formation of the Presidential Leadership Council was the result of Riyadh-hosted talks on Yemen. This move did not stop the secessionist activities however.
On May 21, southern rallies gathered in several southern cities, hoisted the flags of their pre-unification state and chanted for the separation from Yemen’s north.
Fadhl Al-Ja’adi, a southern separatist leader, also wrote on Twitter, “May 22  turned into a nightmare, which created the unjust war of 1994. [That war] produced the unity by force and bloodshed.” While the people in Yemen’s north celebrate this national occasion with pride, countless southerners remember it as a bitter setback. As Ja’adi put it, “[t]he south was invaded, its people were marginalised, and its wealth was looted by force”.
Regardless of the number of the southern people who seek self-determination, it is clear that war has severely scarred Yemen’s unification since the early 90s.
As long as Yemen’s new internationally recognised leadership council is unable to dismantle the Houthi group in the north, it will be difficult to stop the separatist vision in the south. Attempting to prevent pro-separation actions will also undoubtedly lead to rising tensions and eventually, potential escalation.
The writer is a Yemeni journalist, reporting from Yemen, whose identity we are protecting for their security.
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