Karen Dabrowska

Originally published: 15th September 2021

by Friends of South Yemen

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Is a unilateral declaration of independence the only option for South Yemen?

Yemen is witnessing one of the bleakest periods in its long and troubled history. By the end of 2021 it is estimated that some 233,000 people will have died as a result of the war, including 140,000 children under the age of five.

The United Nations has described the country as experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. In August 2021 Henrietta Ford, Executive Director of UNICEF, reported that 21 million people – including 11.3 million children – need humanitarian assistance to survive. One quarter of the population rely on civil service salaries which are paid erratically if at all. Gross domestic product has dropped 40 per cent since 2015.

In his report to the UN Security Council on August 23, 2021 Khaled Khiari, Assistant Secretary­General for the Middle East, Asia and the Pacific said that no progress has been made to reach a political agreement to settle the civil war which is now in its seventh year.

“It is imperative to resume an inclusive, Yemeni led political process to reach a negotiated solution to the conflict,” Khiari said, referring to a 2015 peace plan, which called for a nationwide ceasefire, the reopening of Sanaa airport, the easing of restrictions on fuel and goods flowing through Hodeidah port and the resumption of face­to­face political negotiations.

But the Houthis have rebuffed calls to stop their deadly military offensive on Marib. They submitted an initiative which calls for the formation of a joint command for Marib, joint security forces and joint technical committees, and demanded shares of oil, the reoperation of the export pipeline that extends from Marib to the Houthi­held Ras Issa port on the Red Sea, the release of their supporters from detention centres and freedom of movement for their members to and from Marib.

These are conditions to which the Internationally Recognized Government (IRG) will never agree. The Houthis are demanding they be given control of Marib which they have been trying to occupy militarily for over a year. America’s recently appointed envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia at the beginning of August stating that he had met a “dead end” on the Yemen crisis.

South Yemen Flag
South Yemen Flag

The Houthis are continuing their occupation of over 80 per cent of the North and are consolidating their de facto administration. The IRG can no longer be described as a government: the Southern Transitional Council (STC) controls Aden and the surrounding areas and has not allowed the IRG to function from Aden. The IRG ministers are either in Saudi Arabia or in Mukalla. No progress has been made in the implementation of the Riyadh Agreement intended to resolve the conflict between the STC and the IRG, and the people in the South continue to be deprived of essential services such as electricity and water supply, while salaries are paid erratically if at all.

Al­Qaeda’s Yemeni branch congratulated the Taliban on their takeover of Afghanistan, and vowed to continue their own military campaigns. Al­Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters in Bayda and Shabwa celebrated the Taliban's return to power with fireworks. That hardline Sunni Muslim group has taken advantage of Yemen's war since 2014, bolstering its presence in southern Yemen.

The Houthis have been emboldened by the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and may well be thinking that they can take over the south of Yemen in the same way. It is also possible that the Houthis may make a deal with Saudi Arabia and the South will be abandoned by its erstwhile allies.

So has the time come for the Southerners to issue a unilateral declaration of independence? A power sharing government made up of the IRG and STC was formed at the beginning of this year but the past nine months have shown that it is not fit for purpose. The international community’s insistence on a united Yemen can be compared to rearranging chairs on the Titanic.

The Houthis have been driven out of South Yemen by the Southerners with the assistance of the coalition, and there is tremendous potential for the development of the South if the Gulf states channel their investments in ways that benefit the people. Wealthy expatriate Yemenis may also return once they are sure the dust of war has settled.

The IMF said Yemen will receive about $665 million worth of reserves to help ease the acute economic crisis, and Qatar has made a $165 million cash donation. Through prudent use of these funds the South could capitalize on its strategic location and revitalize its economy – the port, the Aden Free Zone, the fishing and tourist industries. A GCC Marshall Plan could provide the impetus for the south to revitalize its beleaguered economy.

The STC’s ambition for self­determination requires them to have a sound plan for achieving a Southern state. Their current foreign policy plan is unclear and the eastern governorates, including Shabwa and Hadhramaut, seem to some extent to align themselves with the IRG, drifting away from their supportive position towards the pro­independence Southern Hirak movement in 2015.

Regional pressure on the STC has seen its immediate goal shift towards a federal arrangement as part of a transitional phase, but this step is not necessarily supported by its rank and file members.

The STC has shown some flexibility by engaging in negotiations with the IRG through diplomatic means by signing the Riyadh Agreement, which it hoped would give it a formal seat at the governance table. But this table has collapsed and a functional IRG is no more than a mirage.

It is time for the STC to act to consolidate the Southern movement by bringing together Southerners through a conciliation initiative, and court international support. This is a strategy that it has so far failed to pursue intelligently or achieve, despite the overwhelming Southern support for a separate state in the South.

The STC has recently initiated a reconciliation process in an attempt to bring Southerners together under its umbrella but so far those who oppose it have initially refused to participate, leaving an uncertain future for the STC and South Yemen.

The STC has military control over Aden and those governorates close to the city but lacks a hegemonic position within South Yemen overall. It has so far has been unable to achieve a similar position to that of the National Liberation Front’s hegemony over south Yemen in the successful anti­colonial struggle in the late 60s.

The STC position on a separate Southern state is opposed by Southerners in the IRG and Islah who want to preserve their own power base and who do not share the STC vision for independence but support a federal state.

This opposition to the STC seems to be orchestrated by opposition groups particularly in the eastern part of the South, in order to politically and militarily prevent overall STC hegemony in South Yemen; this leaves a major obstacle for the STC to overcome.

But when and if the South Yemenis declare independence unilaterally an all­embracing Southern movement which includes the many diverse and powerful elements in the South is essential. The creation of such a movement focused on the development of the country is vital for self determination. But will the Southerners seize this historic opportunity to put their independent state on the world map?