Yemen's south: Marking Independence Day, envisioning secession

Yemen's south: Marking Independence Day, envisioning secession
Comment: While southern Yemenis celebrate the 50th anniversary of independence from the British, they envision the day when they will rejoice over parting from northern Yemen, reports Khalid al-Karimi.
5 min read
29 November, 2017
Voices calling for independence in Yemen's south have been amplified in 2017 [Getty]
Yemen's south yesterday commemorated the 50th anniversary of its independence, an historic occasion on which they remember when their land ultimately emerged free from occupation.

Any southerner, if asked about what happened on 30 November, 1967, would reply that the last British soldiers returned home after more than a century of colonisation.

However, marking the anniversary this year is different, as the enthusiasm of the southern people is running high and their pro-secession voices are louder. A week ago, the Southern Transitional Council began preparations for celebrating Independence Day in Aden.

The momentum for secession is unprecedented, and the thirst for autonomy is hard to quench. For fifty years, the  southerners have taken great pride in their independence from the British - and now they struggle for another independence, namely from Yemen's north.

On Monday, Aidrous Al-Zubaidi, the UAE-backed head of the Southern Transitional Council, called on southerners to take part in the 50th anniversary. The southern secessionist leadership intended to use the occasion to hammer home that the continuity of Yemen's unity is unbearable, unacceptable and even impossible.

The damage to national unity

The 1994 war was the birth of southern secession sentiments. When Yemen's south and north signed the unity deal voluntarily and agreeably in May 1990, the two leaders of the two states at the time calculated that their potential differences would be manageable and resolvable.

Unfortunately, those calculations appear to have been wrong, and the country slid into war after the southern leadership decided to renege on the unity agreement in 1994. The war ended in the victory of the pro-unity camp led by the north. Though the war ended within two months, the concept of national sustained severe wounds - and the southern attitude began to shift.

As the years passed, southern grievances kept accumulating, dealing further blows to the idea of Yemen's unity

The government of the unified Yemen in the post-war years tightened its grip on the south. Secessionist attempts vanished and campaigning for, or speaking about, separation completely disappeared. This situation changed in 2007 when a group of retired and fired southern officers began calling for "equality".

The disgruntled officers set up the Southern Movement and organised several protests. That movement became the nucleus of outspoken demands for secession. As the years passed, southern grievances kept accumulating, dealing further blows to the idea of Yemen's unity.

While the government was powerful enough to quash any bold moves intended to undermine the country's integrity, the Southern Movement struggled peacefully through sit-ins, protests and press statements.

However, the secessionist enthusiasts landed a golden opportunity in 2011 when the popular uprising broke out, demanding the overthrow of the regime. The country spiraled into unprecedented chaos and the government in Sanaa became fragile. Although the uprising ended with replacing the northern president with his southern vice-president, the country remained fraught. 

In March 2015, Yemen's unity received another blow. The political deadlock in Sanaa led to civil war between the Houthis, backed by its allies in Tehran, and President Abd Rabu Mansour Hadi's military units.

The conflict sparked foreign military intervention in Yemen spearheaded by Saudi Arabia. Aden and many southern areas endured heavy destruction, displacement and deaths. The southerners believe that the fighters who came to fight in the south are from the north. If no unity existed between the two states, the north would not invade the south as an independent sovereign state.  

2017: Pro-secession voices amplify

President Hadi in May fired the former governor of Aden, Al-Zubaidi, sparking rage among people in the south. Thousands of southerners took to the streets of Aden, demonstrating against the president's decision. The protesters called on the sacked governor to establish a "national leadership" to represent the south.

The voices calling for independence in Yemen's south have thus been amplified in 2017, and the demand for autonomy is no longer haphazard or divided. The southerners have grown more organised, working under the umbrella of what is called the Southern Transitional Council, initiated in May with the goal of governing the south.

It is reasonable to say the majority of southerners want a referendum for self-determination. But it remains unclear if this will happen or when

This council wants to rebuild the sovereignty and the independence of the south. Today, this council receives staunch support in several southern provinces and its efforts are in full swing to consolidate the concept of an independent south.

In October, Al-Zubaidi, the president of the council, said that an independence referendum would soon be held. He also declared the establishment of a 303-member parliamentary body to represent southern Yemenis.

It is reasonable to say the majority of southerners want a referendum for self-determination. But it remains unclear if this will happen or when. The evident fact is that it is hard to dissuade southerners from aspiring to secede from Yemen's north.

While they celebrate this 50th anniversary of independence from the British, they envision the day when they will rejoice over parting from northern Yemen.  


The southerners want to decide their fate, but this is not necessarily in their hands. There remain major challenges ahead. The independence of the south is an international and regional issue.

Will the southern people receive the support of the international community to attain independence? Will Saudi Arabia allow secession in Yemen to materialise?

Saudi Arabia, leading an Arab coalition, has been fighting a three-year war to restore the government of Yemen. Has the Arab coalition been fighting in Yemen to preserve its unity or to break up the country?

Additionally, the south is beset with a variety of troubles. Today, the Saudi-led backed legitimate government operates in the south, and it has different agendas compared with those of the southern separatists. Their clashing agendas will be destabilising the future of the south.

Another worrying challenge is the lack of harmony among the southern tribes. They could yet turn to fight one another as happened after their independence from the British. The southerners agree that they want to be independent from Yemen's north, but every territory has its own vision.  

Khalid Al-Karimi is a freelance reporter and translator. He is a staff member of the Sanaa-based Yemeni Media Center and previously worked as a full-time editor and reporter for the Yemen Times newspaper. 

Follow him on Twitter: @Khalidkarimi205