Yemen Unification: A Failed National Project

May 29, 2023

Ali Mahmoud

Photo: Ahmed Shehab Alqadi - Aden Southern Demonstration August 2019

Historically, Yemen has been a dichotomous entity, embodying two distinct nations with unique sociopolitical dynamics. The country's current issues can be traced back to the contrasting trajectories that North and South Yemen embarked on during the mid-20th century.

North Yemen, previously governed by the conservative Zaydi Imamate, experienced a significant political shift when these traditional rulers were ousted in 1962 by northern officers. The military figures, educated in Egypt and Iraq and filled with revolutionary fervor, replaced the Imamate with a republic. This led to the creation of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR).

On the other hand, South Yemen's course was primarily influenced by its colonial past. The British took control of the South in 1839, a strategic maneuver designed to safeguard the sea passage to India and the broader East Asia region. However, the winds of change swept across the South when a revolution against British rule erupted in October 1963. The process set in motion a sequence of events that eventually led to British withdrawal in November 1967. Subsequently, a socialist state, the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), emerged in the South.

These two parallel narratives converged roughly thirty-three years ago when an ill-prepared unification process took place. The Socialist People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (South Yemen) and the Yemen Arab Republic (North Yemen) merged to form the present-day Republic of Yemen. Arabism and the dream of a "Unified Yemen" was a persuasive force that encouraged Southern leaders to merge with the Northern regime hastily. Regrettably, this rash unification process ignited intense conflict, culminating in the invasion of Aden in the summer of 1994.

The idea of a unified Yemen is under serious scrutiny today, particularly in the South. A growing movement of Southerners is advocating for the reinstatement of their independent state, adhering to the borders that existed before May 22, 1990. These calls reflect a yearning to return to their pre-unification status, asserting their distinct identity and socio-political aspirations. This demand for independence highlights the flaws in the initial unification process and underscores the urgency to address the deep-seated grievances that have festered over the past three decades.

On May 22, 1990, a landmark unification agreement was signed, amalgamating the Socialist People's Democratic Republic of South Yemen and the Arab Republic of Yemen. The leaders of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) were influenced by the powerful wave of Arab Nationalism that swept the region at the time. Riding this wave, they propelled South Yemen into an extensive merger with the autocratic regime reigning in North Yemen following the overthrow of the Imamate rulers. However, this hurried union, devoid of the authenticity lent by a popular referendum, stumbled almost immediately in the face of a wide array of daunting challenges.

The sociocultural and religious landscapes of North and South Yemen were as dissimilar as chalk and cheese. South Yemen, significantly influenced by British rule, had cultivated a robust education system, particularly in its urban areas. Following Britain's withdrawal, this legacy was carried forward by the South's socialist regime, creating vital educational and healthcare infrastructures. The South's socialist government didn't just stop at the usual progressive policies of the time; it made significant strides by actively endorsing female education. Despite certain drawbacks, the regime even attempted to eliminate tribalism and nomadism.

In contrast, the governance in North Yemen was orchestrated by a complicated alliance of military tribes associated with the Zaydi sect. Here, the prominent tribal sheikh operated as the president, effectively ruling his people. This power structure was an evolution post the overthrow of the Imamates in 1962.

The unsuccessful unification of Yemen thus serves as a potent cautionary tale of the potential pitfalls and hurdles involved in combining distinct regions characterized by contrasting cultural, educational, and political systems. Notably, it underscores the critical importance of a consensus-driven approach instead of hurried, top-down decisions. Absent such a consensus, any merger between disparate regions is fraught with the risk of failure, as evidenced by the Yemeni example. Moreover, this experience suggests the urgent need for due diligence and comprehensive ground preparation before undertaking such momentous decisions, ensuring that the aspirations and welfare of all affected people are adequately considered and catered to.

Unfulfilled Vision of Yemen's Unity: Insincerity and Hostility at the Heart of the Issue

"The unification of Yemen proved to be an ill-fated endeavor, primarily owing to the duplicitous motives of the governing elite of the Arab Republic of Yemen (North Yemen)," Colonel Mohammed Al Qomali, a former Southern military pilot displaced following the aggressive Northern invasion of South Yemen in 1994, revealed in an enlightening interview with ACSYS.

After the unity agreement was signed on May 22, 1990, Southern leaders faced hostility upon their arrival in Sana'a. The Northern regime and its Islah Party allies plotted assassinations against them, causing the deaths of 156 influential political figures and military officers from 1990 to 1993.

Colonel Al Qomali also explained the rampant land grab that ensued after the military invasion of the South during the summer war of 1994, "The Northern tribal and military leaders, who were instrumental in aiding Saleh's invasion of the South, subsequently appropriated vast swathes of both public and private lands."

Ambassador Saleh Mothana, a former Southern minister, debunked the mistaken belief that the two states of Yemen possessed a common political lineage, an assumption that critically undermined the unification endeavor. "The term 'Yemen' traditionally refers to a geographically defined region characterized by significant social divergences, leading to the rise and existence of various states that often found themselves at loggerheads," he explained.

Mothana highlighted the stark governance differences between the North, governed primarily by tribal customs, and the South, where the rule of law prevailed across the board, from the remotest desert hamlet to the bustling capital.

The absence of a comprehensive agreement or adequate safeguards to ensure unity led to a flimsy political proclamation that spanned a mere page and a half. "This weak agreement was conveniently disregarded in the first Presidency Council's agenda discussion. The late Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh imposed a unilateral rule, establishing a firm grip over state and societal affairs," says Ambassador Mothana.

He criticized the Northern regime's simplistic interpretation of "rule and unity," seeing it as a mere tool for acquiring power and resources. This perspective spurred an assassination campaign targeting Southern military and civil leaders in Sana'a, which was firmly under the control of the Northern military-tribal alliance's security services.

These events collectively triggered the full-scale war in 1994, as the North invaded the South, leading to the widespread destruction of Southern state institutions and infrastructure and resulting in the exile of Southern leaders.

Dissatisfaction with the oppressive practices of the Northern coalition incited a rebellion in South Yemen. Several armed factions, including the Movement for the Right of Self-Determination "Hatm," under the leadership of General Aidarous Al-Zubaidi, started pushing back against the Northern regime's dominance. By 2006, these demonstrations had evolved into cries for secession.

The Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 led to political instability and the removal of President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen. However, despite President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi being from the South, the people of South Yemen were determined to reclaim their independent state that existed before 1990. As a result, they boycotted the 2012 elections.

The firm desire for independence from the North endured. On February 21-22, 2013, the first anniversary of Hadi's rule, Southern demonstrators demanding independence flooded the streets of Aden. The demonstrations led to numerous casualties among the protestors, signifying the escalating tensions between the South and Sana'a, further highlighting the ever-widening chasm between the two regions.

A Renewed Northern Offensive and the Emergence of the Southern Resistance

In 2015, Yemen experienced another turning point in its troubled history, exacerbating the North/South rift, when an unlikely alliance was formed. Former Yemeni President Saleh, who had been removed from power during the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, teamed up with his former enemies, the Houthi rebels, to launch a major attack to regain control over the South. This attack was a departure from earlier conflicts and led to strong resistance from the people of the South.

The people of South Yemen stood up against the Northern aggression and formed a strong front with support from the Arab Coalition to fight the Houthis. Ordinary civilians became dedicated combatants, taking up arms to defend their homes and lives. Their courageous efforts paid off with a victory in the Southern governorate of Al Dhalea on May 25, 2015. General Aidrous Al-Zubaidi, leader of the Southern Resistance, declared this victory over the Northern Houthi-Saleh coalition. This force originated from the Hatm Movement, founded by Al-Zubaidi in 1995. Encouraged by this triumph, the Southern Resistance forces continued to liberate the remaining Southern governorates from the Houthi-Saleh coalition.

The Southern resistance has persevered through numerous obstacles and has emerged even stronger. A significant milestone was reached in 2017 with the creation of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) led by General Aidrous Al-Zubaidi. The STC serves as a unified voice for the Southern cause and embodies the people's hopes for autonomy. General Al-Zubaidi announced the formation of the STC in response to a massive rally held in Aden on May 4, 2017. The STC has spearheaded the Southern cause, representing their interests and aspirations with a united front.

The Emergence of a Power-Sharing Government

The year 2019 witnessed heightened tensions between the STC and President Hadi's forces, leading to a power struggle over the strategic port city of Aden. This discord was mitigated on November 5, 2019, when Saudi Arabia and the UAE stepped in to broker a power-sharing agreement between the contending parties. This Saudi/UAE-sponsored agreement resulted in a new government divided between the North and South, marking a significant shift in the political landscape of Yemen.

By April 2022, in a move heralding further transition, President Hadi transferred power to an eight-member Presidential Council. This council was constituted with an equal representation of four members, each from the South and North. Among the Southern members was General Aidrous Al-Zubaidi, the president of the STC, signifying the STC's growing influence in the political arena.

The continued struggle for independence became even more significant at the Consultative Meeting on May 4, 2023, when various Southern political and social factions and civil society organizations convened in Aden to ratify the Southern National Charter (SNC). This pivotal agreement affirmed their collective desire to establish a modern democratic, independent federal state in South Yemen, further cementing the South's push for disengagement from North Yemen.

A Step Towards Independence: The Consultative Meeting of May 2023

The dawn of May 2023 ushered in a period of heightened political activity in the South. A diverse array of political factions, social groups, and civil society organizations from across the South flocked to Aden to participate in a pivotal Consultative Meeting. The joint meeting concluded with the signing of the Southern National Charter (SNC), which served as a consensus agreement among the Southern components to establish a modern democratic, independent federal state in South Yemen. The ensuing restructuring process within the Southern Transitional Council (STC) saw the addition of Faraj Salmeen Al Bahsani, and Abdurahman Al Maharrami Abu Zaraa, two top Southern leaders who serve as members in the Yemen ruling Presidential Leadership Council (PLC). This bolstered the STC's leverage for a more assertive disengagement with North Yemen.

Revisiting the Past: A Late but Necessary Admission

In an unprecedented address on the 33rd anniversary of Yemen's Unification Day, May 22, 2023, Rashad Al Alimi — a once crucial aide to Yemen's former president Ali Abdullah Saleh — made a profound confession that caught the attention of many. He acknowledged that the unification project, once seen as a beacon of shared values and unity, had been effectively stripped of its essence in the wake of the destructive war inflicted upon the people of South Yemen in the summer of 1994.

Al Alimi urged for a comprehensive review and reconstruction of the unification project, emphasizing that it must be rebuilt from its core to serve the people it was meant to unify truly. This declaration marked a notable shift in the narrative surrounding Yemen's unification, signaling an overdue admission of the flawed nature of the original unification process.

Concluding Remarks: A People Yearning for Independence

It is clear from the narrative of South Yemen that it's not feasible to expect the Southern population to continue within the framework of the so-called Unified Republic. This sentiment echoes particularly loud after enduring decades of systemic marginalization and various atrocities committed across the eight provinces of the South.

Compounding this is the lack of proactive intervention from regional powers and the international community. Their reluctance to challenge the dominance of an oppressive, religious extremist group, which has established a stronghold over Sana'a, fuels the discontent. The Houthi group continues to harbor ambitions to extend their control over Yemen, a prospect that further exacerbates the Southern desire for independence.

As South Yemen stands on the precipice of a new era, the journey to reclaiming its identity, autonomy, and sovereignty presents an arduous path. The lessons from the past remain a poignant reminder of the repercussions of forced unity without proper dialogue, understanding, or agreement. As South Yemen strives to chart its independent course, the need for international recognition and support becomes more critical than ever. After all, the quest for self-determination and freedom is a universal right that the people of South Yemen have been denied for far too long.

The path toward a peaceful resolution in Yemen requires an acknowledgment of the South's unique political, cultural, and social aspirations. Any attempt to impose a unilateral vision of unity will only perpetuate the cycle of violence. A genuine, inclusive dialogue that respects the South's aspiration for self-determination and the commitment to redress past injustices could pave the way toward lasting peace in this war-torn nation.

Ali Mahmood 

Ali is a journalist based in Aden covering the war in Yemen for The National and other foreign media organizations.