Secession for South Yemen would lead to catastrophe

Yemen's "national dialogue" finally began one week ago today, after several deferrals. The agenda is dominated by the "southern issue", the question of southern secession.

The Southern Movement, commonly referred to as Hirak, is already expressing its dissatisfaction with the dialogue. Hirak has 85 seats in the dialogue assembly, but several factions within the movement said in a joint statement on March 21 that those 85 representatives do not properly delineate Hirak's demands.

Any scenario other than full Hirak participation in the talks will threaten the nation's security and will ultimately cost many Yemenis their lives. The national dialogue will be squandered if Hirak's entire leadership is not on board.

Last month alone the government reported four deaths due to clashes between the Hirak and local authorities in the South.

On February 23 the president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi - originally from Dhakeen, a southern village - made his first visit to Aden, to acknowledge Hirak's grievances.

After the 1994 civil war, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh consistently overlooked the concerns of the South, as a form of revenge. There was talk of secession even then, and the movement gained momentum from 2007 to 2011, but was never unified enough to pose a real threat to Yemen's unity.

But now Hirak's fragmented leadership is a problem for national unity: if the factions cannot speak and act together, the dialogue will dissolve and chaos will follow.

Secession would not provide Hirak's divided factions with the independence they seek; rather, it would result in the creation of several weak regional regimes, in constant conflict with each other.

Yemen's government should have addressed legitimate southern concerns long ago. Now the issue will not be settled easily or quickly.

The present weak agreement among Hirak factions is the product of an interim alliance. The only thing uniting all of them is their common goal of secession, and their common enemy, the central government. Hirak members consider the South to be under occupation.

The southern proverb "he removes an onion, and grows garlic" refers to an apparent change that actually yields the same results. Southern power struggles have persisted through deceptive leadership changes, and this pattern is a good indicator of what the future would hold after secession.

The South has been divided since the days of the British occupation, which saw power struggles in Hadhramout, Abyan and Lahj. These internal rivalries continued after independence in 1967.

Over the next two decades, the South, as its own state, cycled through six presidents. Some transfers were peaceful while others were bloody, but all of them, while disguised as ideological or political, were driven by tribal politics and personal ambition.

In June 1969, a peaceful coup led to the removal of military leaders but also changed the regional balance of high-office-holders. And in January 1986, when internal "ideological" divisions occurred within Yemen's Socialist Party (YSP), several regions associated with the losing faction suffered losses; other regions gained influence based on their tribal loyalties.

These divisions still exist. Most current Hirak leaders were members of the YSP in the old southern People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. For these men the YSP served as a vehicle to power, and now Hirak does the same thing.

Personal conflicts still boil under the surface, damaging Hirak's leadership. No one in Hirak is capable of producing a transitional plan that can win wide support.

If secession occurs and the northern government is out of the way, a few southern leaders would opt for the creation of smaller political units, rather than consolidating the South.

Individuals such as the southern Islamist leader Tariq Al Fadhli would hope to restore their former reigns. For them, secession would be a golden opportunity.

Some within Hirak openly yearn for a return to "the old days", while others are still speaking in vague terms.

It is only a matter of time before individuals from powerful families claim authority based on their genealogy, especially if they manage to secede.

Beyond the old sultanates, there are some who would prefer a tribal emirate, another form of dynasty. And in the past few years, political Islam has gained momentum. Those who identify the most with their religious ideology are likely to demand the creation of Islamic caliphates or strict implementation of Islamic Shariah.

With a central government out of the picture, AQAP and Ansar Al Shariah could grip parts of the South.

The southern population is culturally diverse. New villages have sprung up, and older ones have expanded. Distinct identities do not exist anymore. But there are many who want distinct areas to control.

Taken together, all this means that after secession the South would have several inefficient micro-states, some of them strongly divided by prejudice and class distinctions.

Mr Hadi's government may still convince the remainder of southern Hirak to join the dialogue. Given the flexible nature of the talks, more seats can be assigned to other Hirak factions. But at the same time all elements of Hirak must consider their options and participate in the dialogue if they truly seek genuine "liberation".

For the South's sake, Hirak must submit to the dialogue and reach a settlement. The idea that secession will solve the South's problems is nothing but an illusion maintained by a few who seek power for themselves.

Secession would bring catastrophe. Participating in the national dialogue guarantees nothing, but it is the best alternative.

Sama'a Al Hamdani is a Yemeni researcher who lives in Washington DC and blogs at

On Twitter: @Yemeniaty


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