The Southern Question: Political Exclusion, Economic Marginalization and Internal Division in Yemen

Written by J. Comins 

Translation: María Blanco Palencia

More than two decades have passed after the unification of the Yemeni territory into one country under the umbrella of common political institutions. Officially, the integration was effective on the 22nd May 1990, a date still celebrated by the population and on which two different political and economic models ceased to exist: the Yemen Arab Republic –North­-West– and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen –South-East–. With nearly no time for the project to mature, the outbreak of the 1994 Civil War broke the wanted equilibrium. Since then, the victory of the Northern Army has been politically translated into lack of attention towards political, economic, and social demands from the southern population.

Since some time ago, the Yemeni Government maintains two simultaneous fronts in the country’s southern provinces. One is the fight against terrorism and consists in the physical elimination of al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia militants. Even if during the last weeks this tactic seems to have had results, it could have also influenced the worsening humanitarian situation in Abyan, as explained by the International Committee of the Red Cross. The scarcity of food adds to the precariousness of the health system and of water and electricity supplies. Mentioned organization warns of the fact that this situation could lead to the exodus of 100,000 Yemenis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugeeshighlights that there are currently around 347,000 internally displaced people in Yemen.

The second front is related to the management of integration, intentionally asymmetric, from North to South. The southern opposition movement demands the end of political exclusion and economic marginalization imposed from Sana’a. More precisely, their demands have to do with equalizing their rights to those of northern citizens, who occupy the majority of key administrative positions. Moreover, they consider the need for reform towards a more egalitarian redistribution of income derived from the extraction and sale of hydrocarbons from southern oilfields. This disequilibrium, resulting from the prevailing revanchism after the Civil War is, in the current context after the overthrow of president Saleh, a factor that hinders and slows down any initiative of political transition and institutional reform.

Another difficulty that burdens the advance towards a permanent solution is thedivision between unionists and separatists in significant localities such as Aden, ground for the separatist movement al-Harak. This city, which used to be considered an example of economic and trade prosperity in the southern regions of the Arabian Peninsula, is today influenced by an increasing polarization materialized in street confrontations between both trends. And this added to the recent action taken by the Army which, according to some local testimonies, has caused the death of several civilians. Some local media such as Yemen Oberver have reported that the locality of Aden has become, during the last months, in a real war scenario. Moving away from this complicated situation, according to the provincial governor Wahid Rashid, needs of the implementation of a project of political decentralization and economic development.

Moreover, the southern opposition movement is ideologically fragmented. Far from constituting a homogeneous block, it is composed by different trends and their demands range from independence to a federal system with reinforced autonomy for the southern provinces. Another sector only demands its guaranteed rights in the framework of a unified state. With these premises it seems clear that different factions should overcome their internal differences if they finally decide to sit on the national dialogue negotiation table. An initiative that, otherwise, “does not include the southern issue in its list of priorities”, as insists one of the southern leaders, Amen Saleh.

Without moving away from the waybill marked by the Gulf Cooperation Council –and endorsed by Resolutions 2014 and 2051 of the Security Council–, President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi now has an excellent opportunity to publicly recognize the importance of the southern question, placing it among his Government’s priorities. The southern citizens need to obtain certain guarantees, including that their demands will not dissolve among the multiple challenges that the country faces. Building Yemen needs, in first place, rebuilding and strengthening its territorial integrity. An old aspiration that started in 1990 and has been ruined during its first years.

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J. Comins

J. Comins is a political scientist specialising in Diplomacy, International Relations and Security. In recent years, he has served with the United Nations peacekeeping missions in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and Mali (MINUSMA), and also worked as safety advisor for the International NGO Safety Organisation (INSO) in Afghanistan. He occasionally contributes analysis to the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (Ministry of Defence) and the International Security Studies Group (GESI) at the Department of Political Science of the University of Granada.

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