Yemen's Southern Challenge: Background on the Rising Threat of Secessionism
Yemen currently faces three separate security threats – the al Houthi rebellion in the north, the Southern Movement in the south, and al Qaeda elements throughout the country. The combined impact of all three could collapse the central government or render its security apparatus ineffective, which could permit al Qaeda to operate freely within the country. Currently, the majority of the country’s security resources are involved in suppressing the al Houthi rebellion, the most direct security threat to the government. If the Southern Movement, which fights for secession, opened a second front, the Yemeni government would probably not be able to respond adequately to both the northern and southern security challenges, potentially leading to the failure of the state. State failure in Yemen could create an environment conducive for al Qaeda to establish a base of operations, building on the organization’s current presence in the country.
The Southern Movement poses less of a threat to state stability than the al Houthi insurgency and has not yet conducted a violent insurgency, as the al Houthis have. The secessionists are not an Islamist group and have not used Islamist rhetoric. Yet the Southern Movement has clearly stated its grievances and held massive demonstrations, some of which have resulted in instances of disorganized violence, demanding secession. Yemen must work to address the challenges posed by the southern secessionists in order to avoid a civil war and to allow the state’s security forces to take on the other security threats.
Yemen’s Southern Movement, or al-harakat al-janubiyya, is an umbrella group for various southern anti-government factions that trace back to the 1994 civil war between northern and southern Yemen. Following the May 1990 unification of the northern Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) and the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY), the new central government located itself in the former capital of the north, Sana’a. Former YAR President Ali Abdullah Saleh became the president of the new Republic of Yemen, while Ali Salim al Beidh, the president of the former PDRY, became the vice president under a power-sharing agreement. The April 1993 parliamentary elections, however, shifted the power to Saleh’s northern-based General People’s Congress (GPC) and to al Islah, an Islamist party formed after Yemen’s unification that drew most of its members from the GPC. The elections, deemed generally free and fair by the international community, gave al Beidh’s southern-based Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) control of only 69 of 301 parliamentary seats. Southern political leaders, who until then had enjoyed an essentially equal distribution of power, reacted to the election results by returning to Aden, the former capital of the south, and refused to join the new government.
Both of the former ruling parties criticized the other for not supporting unity and power-sharing. Collapse of negotiations between the two in March 1993 set the stage for civil war. Southerners complained of economic marginalization in the south, which generates most of Yemen’s oil revenues, of the relocation of state bureaucracies to Sana’a in northern Yemen, and of the assassinations of southern leaders after unification. Civil war broke out when Saleh’s forces bombed the Aden airport on May 4, 1994, and southern forces retaliated by bombing the airport in Sana’a. On May 21, 1994, southern leaders seceded and proclaimed the independence of the Democratic Republic of Yemen, which was never recognized by the international community. Northern forces pushed southward, and on July 7, 1994, they entered Aden as al Beidh and other southern leaders fled by boat to Oman, marking the end of the civil war.
Southern Yemen faced an expensive rebuilding effort since the majority of the fighting occurred in the south and destroyed much of the infrastructure. The war cost the southern YSP its parliamentary veto, which allowed the GPC-Islah coalition to retreat on many reforms initiated by the south at unification. The new government amended nearly half of the original articles of the constitution and added 29 new articles consolidating power within the northern-dominated executive office, including ones that allowed the president to appoint the prime minister and serve as head of the Supreme Judicial Council.
Today, in addition to the grievances that led to the 1994 civil war, southerners complain of the illegal acquisition of southern land by northerners following the war, forced retirements from civil and military positions, the withholding of pensions for southern military officers, and a sense that central government troops are enforcing a northern occupation of the south. Moreover, the central government has taken ever more oppressive measures to stop the secessionists’ momentum as the Southern Movement has gained popularity. Recent efforts by Sana’a have included censoring the press, resulting in the closure of seven newspapers in May 2009, increasing government troop presence in the south, and detaining some of the movement’s supporters. These measures had the unintended result of inspiring others to join the movement.
The movement unites southerners, though al Houthi rebels in the north also voice many of the Southern Movement’s demands, as broadly conceived. Supporters of the Southern Movement primarily accuse the government of deliberate marginalization of the southern territories. This perceived marginalization manifests itself both in the political and economic spheres. Political power is physically concentrated in the northern city of Sana’a, and the practice of clientelism among political elites has resulted in the exclusion of southerners from political benefits. Furthermore, military governors loyal to Saleh rule each major southern province. Economically, southerners feel that the distribution of government services unfairly favors the north, and that following unification, the north has been draining oil revenues from the south. Southerners increasingly voice demands for infisal, separation, from the north as the central government has refused calls for federalization.
At its inception in 2007, the movement lacked clear leadership or organization, instead drawing guidance from local elites. Today, now that Southern Movement has gained momentum, two voices – those of al Beidh and Tariq al Fadhli – have dominated the organization. Al Beidh lives in exile, first in Oman and now in Germany, having fled Yemen after leading the 1994 secession efforts. He and former Prime Minister Haider Abu Bakr al Attas (1990-1994), voiced support for the movement from their respective homes in Oman and in Saudi Arabia. Yemen’s extradition requests for the two show the threat the pair pose to the regime; Yemen has security and cooperation treaties with both Oman and Saudi Arabia. On May 21, 2009, the eve of the anniversary of the unification of Yemen, al Beidh declared himself the leader of the separatists in the south. Al Beidh has since continued to issue statements of support for the Southern Movement from exile in Germany, as well as regularly addressing crowds in the south via telephone.
Al Beidh may dominate the international voice of the Southern Movement and serve as its nominal leader, but al Fadhli has emerged as the dominant leader inside Yemen. Al Fadhli, a veteran mujahid who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets, is a controversial leader for the more secular south because of his former ties to Osama bin Laden; he has a degree of local credibility, however, because his father was a former Sultan in the southern Abyan province. Al Fadhli’s family lost most of its land to PDRY nationalization prior to the 1990 unification, much of which he recovered by supporting Saleh during the 1994 civil war. He defected from the government in early spring 2009 and openly called for separation from the north during an April 27 rally in Abyan province. Al Fadhli controls militia forces in Abyan province, and officials note that many of those participating in violent attacks against government troops affiliate with al Fadhli. On October 1, the government accused al Fadhli of supporting an assassination attempt on Nasir Mansour Hadi, the head of Yemen’s political security body and the brother of the vice president. Al Fadhli’s position as a leader and his command over the militant factions of the Southern Movement has led the government to ask the former Saleh ally to surrender or leave the country.
Over the past year, the Southern Movement has progressively demanded more attention from Sana’a as anti-government demonstrations have become a regular occurrence and factions within the movement have become more militant. The secessionist issue resurfaced in 2007 when former southern military officers demanded that reinstatement of their pensions and other southerners began to voice concerns of political and economic exclusion. The movement continued to grow in 2008: March and April 2008 witnessed multiple riots in Dhale and Radfan provinces during which tens of thousands of protestors demonstrated and set fire to police stations and army property. Prior to this, violent demonstrations were anomalies – the Southern Movement had used peaceful means to protest the regime, and only after the regime used increasingly repressive tactics did supporters call for an armed revolution. The government further added to the secessionists’ anger when, in April 2007, it instituted new security checkpoints in problem areas in preparation for a secessionist rally commemorating the fifteenth anniversary of the start of the civil war. 
Tensions escalated over the summer as the government established a special court to prosecute members of the press for inciting sedition, arrested over 500 southern elites, and continued to clash with protestors. A major rally held on July 23, 2009 in Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan province, resulted in the death of at least sixteen after security forces tried to disperse the angry crowd. Additional fighting occurred along the roads into Zinjibar when security forces tried to prevent armed men from the village of Yafaa from joining the demonstration. Separatists still managed to shell local police headquarters and other government buildings despite the increased security in the area. In addition to mass demonstrations, the separatists carried out attacks on government targets – killing four soldiers in an ambush in Abyan province five days after the Zinjibar rally and bombing the GPC’s office building in Zinjibar.
The Southern Movement continues to enjoy southern popular support and host regular anti-government demonstrations. Recently, on October 6, 2009, thousands of protesters took to the streets across south Yemen during a visit by the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, to demand that the Arab League, which has come out in favor of a unified Yemen, oversee secession talks with the government. On October 14, 2009, the anniversary of the 1963 revolt against the British, separatist demonstrators took to the streets across southern Yemen waving the flag of the former PDRY. That same day, the Southern Movement announced the establishment of the Supreme Peaceful Revolution Council, based out of Zinjibar, although the refusal of a few prominent members of the Southern Movement to join underscored factional divisions within the movement.
International concern that domestic support for the Southern Movement could instigate a civil war has led neighboring and allied countries, as well as the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council, to come down in support of Yemeni unity. The Southern Movement nonetheless has continued to hold large anti-government demonstrations. Fears that the combined challenges posed by the al Houthi rebels and the southern separatists could precipitate the collapse of the Yemeni government and create a safe haven for terrorist elements have contributed to Saudi and American efforts to boost international support for Sana’a and to increase the amount of foreign assistance to the government. Rhetoric from the al Houthi rebels expressing solidarity with the secessionists and al Qaeda’s announcement this summer that it backs the southerners underscore these fears. There is little, if any, evidence, however, that any of the three groups are coordinating their efforts against the government. Reconciling the differences between Sana’a and the southern secessionists is critical to fending off a second civil war and preserving a unified Yemen.