Why the unification of Yemen remains elusive

Illustration - Yemen unity - Analysis
5 min read
24 May, 2023

This year marked the 33rd anniversary of Yemen's national unity but gone are the days when the occasion was celebrated by the state and wider society.

When Yemen's north and south merged as one nation on 22 May 1990, the move was seen as a prologue to Arab unity. It was a deceptive assumption, however, especially after a civil war broke out in 1994 between northern and southern forces.

As the years have passed, Yemen's national unity has lost its importance and popularity in Yemen, particularly in the south. Today, it is on the brink of being completely forgotten.

Neither internal political dialogue nor international diplomacy can guarantee the revival of a semblance of national unity or stop the tide of southern separatism.

"As the years have passed, national unity has lost its importance and popularity in Yemen, particularly in the south. Today, it is on the brink of being completely forgotten"

Unity: A provocative word in south Yemen

Holding or promoting a pro-unity festival is an unwelcome move in south Yemen. No group, organisation, or government body can publicly celebrate the anniversary of unification in southern provinces such as Aden, Lahj, Dhale, and Abyan.

Even if national unity has some supporters in the south, the number of opponents is enormous and has a more powerful influence.

Abdulrahman Nasser, a southern separatist fighter, told The New Arab that any action or rhetoric that commends national unity now appears provocative. "On this 33rd anniversary, I feel that unity in Yemen is dead. No dialogue or power can dictate otherwise," he said.

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The first attempt to secede from the north occurred in 1994, four years after unification. Though the south failed to regain independence, that attempt planted the seed of a years-long struggle. In 2017, a new separatist leadership was formed under the name of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), marking accelerating strides toward separation.

"When it [unification] is mentioned, it reminds us of occupation, repression, and injustice. We will not allow this to continue or happen again. We have achieved remarkable progress on the way to secession, and the South will not calm until it becomes an independent country recognised by the United Nations as it used to be," said Nasser.

A visit to south Yemen clarifies the irrelevance today of national unification in 1990. The flag of the former southern state flies everywhere. Pro-secession forces are deployed on the roads, cities, and government buildings.

Yemeni women perform a traditional dance during the military parade marking the 10th anniversary of the unification of Yemen in Sanaa on 22 May 2000. [Getty]

On 20 May, Aidrous al-Zubaidi, the head of the STC, delivered a speech before social dignitaries and civilians in Al-Mukkala, saying they have the right to an independent state and will regain and defend it.

"Be steadfast and be fully confident that the southern state is inevitably coming," he said, addressing the crowds.

North Yemen's declining concern for unity

Northern Yemenis are freer to publish pro-unity photos or write social media posts praising the 33rd anniversary of unification. While countless northerners are proud of the event, they have been living under Houthi rule since 2016, by which time the militia group had seized most of the north, having captured the capital Sanaa in 2014.

Today, the north is beset by economic and humanitarian problems, with the primary concern of the de facto Houthi authorities in Sanaa to tighten their grip on the northern provinces. Negotiating with the south is a non-starter, with military force the only available means to impose unity on the country.

"Several Yemeni politicians argue that adopting federalism could keep the country's unification intact"

But as Yemen keeps fragmenting, the public in the north has lost hope in Yemeni unification. Ahmed Mohammed, a 55-year-old retired officer in Sanaa, remembers how the unification anniversary was seen as a glorious occasion every year in Sanaa and other provinces nationwide.

"We used to prepare for this occasion one month in advance. There were military parades and festivals across the country commemorating this day. Unity has been ruined, and I do not see any logic in celebrating it," he told TNA.

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Pinning hope on federalism

Fighting over power and wealth has been Yemen's chief cause of war and instability. Given this chronic turbulent environment, unification has failed to thrive and opponents in the south have been growing since 1994.

Today, several Yemeni politicians argue that adopting federalism could keep the country's unification intact. "Preserving a republican Yemen and a federal state which all the national forces agreed upon is the cornerstone of the country's future vision," Ahmed Obaid bin Daghar, the head of the Yemeni Shura council and former prime minister, told The New Arab.

A fighter of the UAE-trained Security Belt Force, dominated by members of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) which seeks independence for south Yemen, poses with a Kalashnikov assault rifle and the southern separatist flag (the old flag of South Yemen) on 29 August 2019. [Getty]

Proponents of federalism, like bin Daghar, believe that this form of governance could keep the country united and hinder the accumulation of power and wealth with one party or a single group. Irrespective of the suitability of this type of governance, implementing it is what counts.

Transforming Yemen into a federal state requires consensus, concessions, and cooperation from all regions. Given the deep rifts between numerous armed and political groups, adopting federalism will be difficult to engineer.

While some politicians still hope to revive Yemen’s national unity, it remains a divisive issue with a bleak future. "It was like a miracle when Yemen's North and South emerged as one country in May 1990. Today, we also need a miracle to revive the country's unity," Mohammed said.

The writer is a Yemeni journalist, reporting from Yemen, whose identity we are protecting for their security.