Can Yemen Once More Be a United Nation?

The country’s future is being decided on the battlefield rather than through political dialogue

Unity Day, a public holiday commemorating the unification of North Yemen and South Yemen 31 years ago, fell on Saturday, amid a bitter civil war that began six and a half years ago.

Asked about the prospects for a return to that unity, Muhammad Hussein, a 59-year-old Yemeni businessman, told the Media Line, “There are already two governments, two banks and two banknotes between Sanaa and Aden, and you are still talking about unity.”

Iran-backed Houthi rebel forces control Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, and all of northern Yemen except Marib Governorate.

Aden is run by the UAE-backed Southern Transitional Council (STC), which controls most of and advocates for the separation of southern Yemen from the rest of the nation, restoring the pre-1990 status.

The oil-rich eastern governorates (Hadramaut, Shabwah and Marib) remain loyal to the internationally recognized government and support Yemen’s unity, on the condition of implementing a federal system and that they are allowed to utilize their wealth for their own interests.

In the far west, near the Bab el-Mandeb strait connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden, the forces of Tareq Saleh, a nephew of the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh and a former commander of the Presidential Guard, control parts of the governorates of Hudaydah and Taiz, which are loyal to the former regime.

The north and south of Yemen were more tolerant of each other before the unification of Yemen in 1990, and, unlike today, rejected violence.

“After the unification, we in the north did not face any harassment when we worked or visited the southern regions. However, after 2015, and after the civil war between the southern forces and the Ansar Allah forces [the Houthis), the story changed,” Hussein said. “We became afraid of visiting the south to travel [through Aden International Airport] or to work; we became outcasts and we could place ourselves at risk just by disclosing that we are from the north.”

Hussein explained that his job in the south was suspended many times due to hate campaigns against northerners, and many northerners were forced to employ intermediaries to be able to do work in the south.

During the period 2017-2020, some northern workers in southern cities were harassed or deported. Also, some properties were vandalized or demolished by armed groups affiliated with the Southern Transitional. Many travelers were prevented from entering the southern regions.

‘Three parties seek to destroy Yemen’s unity’

President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, in a speech on Friday ahead of Unity Day, said, “Yemen’s unity has been gnawed on and shattered. Turning against the state, and having it subjected to racial violence and sectarian prejudices, as well as the Iranian agenda, has harmed Yemen’s unity at its core, and has reproduced the stereotypical image of imamate [i.e., Houthi] racism.”

The president held three parties responsible for the threat facing Yemen’s unity, which could lead to its destruction: the “former regime,” meaning that of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was president from 1990 to 2012; Ansar Allah; and the STC.

The “Southern Issue” began in 2007 with the establishment of the Southern Movement and the demand for an equitable division of the country’s wealth and of prestigious positions in state institutions. It changed after the establishment of the STC on April 4, 2017, which later became a political faction with a military wing outside state institutions and called for separation from the north and for the right to self-determination. In April 2020, the STC declared autonomous rule in the south and entered into armed confrontations with the Yemeni Army, in what many analysts saw as a prelude to secession.

‘Separation is a reality on the ground’

Journalist Samah Lotf said Ansar Allah forces took control of most of the north and so enabled the STC, militarily and politically, to control the southern and eastern regions. In addition, there is the complete absence of the internationally recognized government, which is based outside Yemen.

In light of the deteriorating economic and development conditions in the southern regions, to the extent that the currency collapsed, electricity and water were cut off and diseases spread, the return of Yemeni unity would be a “miracle,” Lotf said.

“Separation has become a reality on the ground, waiting to be announced,” she said. “We are already living the reality of separation in everything. In addition to the existence of central institutions in both the north and the south, such as the Central Bank of Yemen, the House of Parliament, as well as separate government and financial transactions, the social fabric has become separated, especially in the southern regions. Everything has come to produce the separation scenario.”

‘The right to self-determination’

In 1994, four years after unification, southern forces declared a war of secession. A two-month civil war ended with the exile of many southern military and political leaders. The impact on the deterioration of the political situation between the north and the south can still be felt today.

Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, head of the STC and the commander in chief of the southern armed forces, spoke on the 27th anniversary of the Separation Declaration, saying, “The Unity project was aborted by the forces of the Sanaa regime by declaring war on the south and occupying it, choosing to turn it into an occupation that usurps the land and kills the people.

“Since then, our people have made enormous sacrifices in a continuous, legendary national struggle toward the restoration of their state. We are still walking on the same path for which our martyrs gave their lives, and we will not hesitate or deviate from our path until our people regain and build their independent, federal and fully sovereign southern state,” Zoubaidi said.

‘The Southern issue is a people’s cause’

Some people from the south believe the unity project has ended and that the solution lies in the establishment of two states within the borders of Yemen as they were in May 1990. Many blame the deterioration of the social and economic situation in the south and the deterioration of the health and security situation throughout the country on northern actors and their leaders.

Bassam al-Qadi, a southern activist, told the Media Line, “The rectitude of the southern people’s cause and the legitimacy of its legal and human rights, and the injustices inflicted on the southerners, are the only guarantor of the re-establishment of the southern state and the return to the two-state solution within the borders of May 1990.

“The issue of the south is a people’s issue and the southerners’ rights to regaining their state will be given to them sooner or later,” he said.

“The reality today proves the existence of two states, one in the south and another in the north, despite the conditions of war and the country’s placement under Chapter VII,” Qadi said.

Security Council Resolution 2140, approved under Chapter VII of the UN Charter in 2014, provides for the use of sanctions against those seeking to derail Yemen’s “political transition.”

“There is no just peace, nor a comprehensive solution to the crises and war in Yemen, except through a two-state solution and the involvement of the south in the current negotiations,” Qadi said, adding that the international community knows full well there will be no peace and no cessation of war except through a south-north dialogue.

The 2-state solution has become a dream

Radwan Jawar, a political scientist, agrees that separation is inevitable, in light of the “clinical death” of the unity project and the division into political and military components and alliances that reject the legitimacy of the internationally recognized government.

“The Federal Yemen and six regions proposal that was devised during the National Dialogue Conference in 2013 was the last hope for Yemen to be a unified state with a federal administration, but after this war, maintaining the two-state solution has become a dream as opposed to the alternative, which is the formation of many states within Yemen,” Jawar said.

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