The idea of a unified Yemen must be rebuilt

A follower of the Houthi movement raises his rifle as he shouts slogans during a rally against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen's capital Sanaa last month. Mohamed Al Sayaghi / Reuters
A follower of the Houthi movement raises his rifle as he shouts slogans during a rally against the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen's capital Sanaa last month. Mohamed Al Sayaghi / Reuters

There was a telling detail in The National’s story yesterday about the return of Yemenis to Aden: “As the pilot announced the plane’s impending arrival, it was not Yemen’s flag that passengers waved, but that of a southern separatist movement.” As Houthi rebels are gradually pushed out of the south – yesterday, forces loyal to president Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi declared they had recaptured another southern province, Abyan – many of those who fled the fighting are returning. But they are returning to a Yemen that is united in name alone.

Support for secession has always been high in the south of Yemen. The region was a separate country for two decades after independence, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, and rather reluctantly unified with the north in 1990. So reluctant, in fact, was the south that, in 1994, the region seceded, triggering a civil war.

The resultant reunification – southerners sometimes called it an “occupation” – was uneasy, exacerbated by Ali Abdullah Saleh’s presidency, during which southerners were marginalised in the political process and in the military. The Hirak movement for independence from the north predates the Arab Spring.

None of that ill-feeling went away after Mr Saleh was removed. But the rise of the Houthi rebels, and particularly their march from Sanaa to Aden, has created a belief that the days of unification have come to an end. In that sense, the Houthis not only destroyed large parts of south Yemen – they also destroyed the idea of a unified Yemen.

Rebuilding Yemen once the Houthis have been defeated will not be easy. But in tandem with the physical rebuilding, there must be a conscious attempt to rebuild the idea of Yemen. Once the legitimate government is reinstalled in a secure Sanaa, political leaders must explicitly reach out to the south and make a compelling case for why the south must remain.

Mr Hadi, as president, has one clear advantage: he is himself a southerner. If a new government can decide on a federal structure for the country, deal with at least some of the grievances of the south and work out a formula for more equitable sharing of resources (southerners grumble that although much of Yemen’s natural resources are in the south, they see little development), then the country could hold together. That will be in the interests of all Yemenis, and will be a significant victory after the Houthis have tried so hard to tear Yemen apart.

Published: August 12, 2015 04:00 AM

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