The Risks of Forgetting Yemen’s Southern Secessionist Movement
The botched special operations raid in al-Bayda that resulted in the death of William “Ryan” Owens and several Yemeni civilians on January 29 brought renewed attention to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Houthis’ war in Yemen. However, the media has all but forgotten about the Southern secessionists, Hirak, a movement that will be essential to establishing lasting peace in Yemen whenever hostilities finally end. Hirak, now frequently referred to as the Southern Resistance, is a movement comprised of several ideologically and politically fragmented factions that share a common desire for Southern independence, either through the creation of a southern federal region or outright secession. The movement shares some of the same grievances as those that led the Houthis to seize Sanaa in 2014, but the civil war that has raged since then has only stoked their desire for independence from the North.
Civil wars create unusual alliances. Hirak has been a quiet force behind the Yemeni government and Saudi coalition’s military successes in the south, but the group’s military alliance with exiled President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and Saudi Arabia does not presage a smooth transition when the war ends. Saudi Arabia, emboldened by signs of support from the Trump administration, appears keen on securing a military victory rather than pursuing a political solution with the Houthis. However, there will eventually come a time when the Houthis, Hadi, and Saudi Arabia return to the table to end hostilities and establish the terms of a transitional Yemeni government. When that time does come, the pressures holding the Hirak-Hadi alliance together will dissipate as pre-conflict fractures reemerge. The United States, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council must involve Hirak in the process to avoid repeating the same mistakes made in the flawed agreement and National Dialogue Conference that followed Yemen’s Arab Spring uprising in 2011.
Shared Grievances, Different Approaches
Southern military and political leaders in Aden formed Hirak in 2007. The peaceful protest movement aimed to call attention to the exclusionary policies of northern elites who captured many key government and military positions following Yemen’s unification in 1990 and the civil war in 1994. After attempts to secede during the civil war, the movement spread east from Aden to al-Mahra and began addressing broader grievances such as the appropriation of southern land and resources. This helped build secessionist sentiment across the south. However, secessionist sentiment is still most popular in Aden and southwestern cities, where residents hold fond memories of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen’s socialist past. Southerners from more tribal governorates such as Hadramawt are skeptical of their counterpart’s socialist leanings and the idea of secession, but they share a common desire of greater independence from the north.
The Houthis and southerners were both politically and economically marginalized in their respective areas of the country by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who sought to limit the power of those who might pose a threat to the ruling General People’s Congress. Saleh cracked down on the Houthis due to their advocacy for maintaining Zaydi religious traditions and outspoken criticism of the relationship between Yemen and the United States. Hirak was marginalized because of Saleh’s distrust of southern military officials and the region’s abundant resources, which were exploited to line the regime’s coffers. Both faced violent military crackdowns, but Hirak’s confrontations with the military pale in comparison to the six Saada Wars fought between Houthis and the Yemeni military between 2004 and 2009 . Although Hirak’s grievances are tied to local political realities, the group’s disdain for the ruling elite led them to find common cause with the Houthis during the Arab Spring and while participating in the National Dialogue Conference.
Among the most important and elusive goals of the conference was the establishment of a new state structure that would reconcile tensions with the Houthis in Saada and satiate Hirak’s desire for southern independence. The “8+8 committee,” comprised of eight representatives from the north and eight from the south agreed to transform Yemen into a federal entity in December 2013 but did not agree on the boundaries or number of federal regions. Without consulting the 8+8 committee, a different committee appointed by Hadi created six new federal regions – Saba, Azal, al-Janad, Tihama, Aden, and Hadramawt – and sent the proposal to the Constitution Drafting Committee for acceptance in the conference outcomes.
Thus, although the National Dialogue Conference gave greater representation to Yemen’s youth and women, it still clearly favored the interests of the United States and the Gulf monarchies because it ensured that Yemen would be governed by a well-known, predictable political figure willing to support U.S. operations against al-Qaeda and mantain an amicable relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council. As a result, it was viewed by many Yemenis, not least the Houthis and Hirak, as an elite pact that sought to demobilize groups that participated in the Arab Spring uprisings. The entrenched political and bureaucratic structures that Yemenis fought so hard to dismantle were intentionally left intact by the Saudi-sponsored agreement, which favored maintaining the status quo over social justice and the creation of a progressive democracy.
Hirak and the Houthis immediately rejected the outcome. While Hirak staged demonstrations across Southern Yemen, the Houthis were making their march toward Sanaa, where they seized control of the government. In September 2014, the Houthis signed the Peace and National Partnership Agreement with President Hadi. This called for the implementation of the National Dialogue Conference plan, provided that the state’s structure was revisited, and the formation of an inclusive government with Houthi and Hirak representatives serving as presidential advisors. Hirak supported the agreement and southern representatives engaged favorably in the short-lived process.
However, Hirak’s relationship with the Houthis soured when the latter’s forces began laying siege to southern towns in pursuit of Hadi, who resigned on January 22, 2015 before fleeing to Aden in February . The Houthi’s plundering of southern territory was too reminiscent of previous northern hostilities for Hirak to support the Houthis, pushing them into an uneasy relationship with Hadi and the Saudi coalition.
Military Allies, Political Foes
The media has characterized the forces fighting to evict the Houthis and allied forces from Yemen’s south as Hadi loyalists, but the situation on the ground is far more nuanced. A large percentage of those forces are comprised of Hirak activists who hold Hadi partly responsible for the South’s marginalization under Saleh and the failures of the NDC. Hirak has received material support and training from Hadi’s government-in-exile and Saudi Arabia, but the group’s motivations for fighting the Houthis is rooted in a desire to defend the south against yet another instance of aggression, not to return Hadi to power. Hirak is using their alliance with Hadi and Saudi Arabia to position themselves politically for post-conflict concessions while gaining vital resources and training in the process.
Hadi is keenly aware of the risks a strengthened Hirak would pose to his ability to reestablish political order and is attempting to balance the scales by appointing prominent southern figures to positions of authority, such as the governor of Aden, while making vague promises of future concessions. The appointments have helped Hadi maintain this tenuous relationship, but the flags of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen that can be seen flying all across southern Yemen suggest that aspirations for Southern self-determination are far from quelled.
Hirak has never been as cohesive a movement as the Houthis. It is comprised of ideologically and politically fragmented factions that frequently quarrel over whether outright secession or an independent southern federal region would be best for the south. However, the countless demonstrations that have occurred since 2014, including a massive rally held on October 14, 2016 to commemorate southern Yemen’s independence from British rule, serve as evidence that southern Yemenis, despite Hirak’s internal fractures, are united by a shared past and vision of the future. There is also consensus amongst these disparate groups that the NDC is no longer viable, nor is the vision that Hadi and the Saudi coalition share for a united post-conflict Yemen.
As the war rages on, the alliance between Hadi and Hirak will become more tenuous. Hadi will try to hold the alliance together by appeasing prominent southern figures. Some Hirak activists are likely to create conditions for secession by attempting to effectively secure and govern southern territories, while simultaneously keeping a resurgent al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula at bay. Even if Hirak fails to unite its disparate factions or to govern a war-torn region, the collective desire for self-determination will remain and will prove to be a major stumbling block if future peace negotiations do not fully address southern grievances.
Lessons and Implications for the Future
Hirak may not emerge from the conflict as a unified political unit, but the devastating effects of the war will only stoke Southerners’ desire for independence. While Hadi and the Saudi-coalition may be able to prevent secession, southerners are not going to abandon their vision of southern independence for a deal that leaves the northern political structures intact and grants southerners meager concessions.
Throughout the peace talks that took place in Kuwait in 2016, Hadi and Saudi Arabia thus far have made it clear that they are intent on upholding the 2011 Gulf Cooperation Council initiative, the outcomes of the National Dialogue Conference, and U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for the Houthis to demilitarize. By leaving Hirak out of the talks in Kuwait, Hadi and the coalition have sent a message that settling matters with the Houthis will overshadow long-simmering southern grievances. As the conflict drags on, Hadi and the Saudi coalition will only become more focused on reconciling with the Houthis and less concerned with addressing their own allies’ grievances. Failing to include Hirak in future negotiations risks future turmoil with a now battle-hardened Southern Resistance.
Striking a deal with only the Houthis may address some of Hirak’s grievances regarding the efficacy of the National Dialogue Conference, but any future political settlement will need to go beyond a hasty agreement to end the war. It is essential that a post-conflict settlement addresses the grievances unique to Southern Yemen and Hirak and is led by someone willing to address the needs of all Yemenis or the country will likely collapse into another regional conflict.
Brian M. Perkins is a Senior Intelligence Analyst at iJET International. His article, “Yemen: Between Revolution and Regression,” was published by Studies in Conflict & Terrorism in 2016. You can follow him on Twitter: @brianmperkins.
Correction: The article originally described Hadramawt as a southwestern governorate, which is not the case. It is almost right in the middle of the country and runs from the southern coast to the Saudi border.