Yemen’s President, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, has been attempting to achieve a difficult balance in Aden with the Southern Nationalist Movement, locally known as “Hirak”. It is fair to argue that President Hadi seeks to essentially restore the authority of pre-unification elites in order to alleviate the possibility of secession, while also pursuing a counter-revolutionary platform. President Hadi’s moves towards Hirak can be understood within his broader mandate of ensuring stability by maintaining the status quo: whether in a hierarchical framework of Yemeni society, or in exclusive and nepotistic political institutions.
President Hadi has made numerous gestures to appease Hirak, including last year’s appointments of leading separatists Aidross al-Zubaidi as governor of Aden, Ahmed Mahdi Fudail as governor of Lahij (who has since been replaced by Nasser al-Khibji), and General Shallal Ali Shaye’ as the Aden’s Security Director. More generally, these moves are in conjunction with a softer stance on separatist activities. It is worth discussing Hadi’s motives, as well as those of Hirak, especially as the civil war continues to ensue in Yemen.
Zubaidi, Fudail, and Shaye’ have all variously called for independence from northern Yemen since protests by retired military pensioners erupted in 2006. While it may seem like Hirak is gaining power and influence through these appointments, based on political context, it is fair to speculate that President Hadi is seeking control over the scope of the movement. Since the commencement of civil war, President Hadi’s hold on power in Yemen has been made possible almost entirely by Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bombardment, and he is dealing with Hirak primarily as a means for expanding and consolidating that control. It remains to be seen whether or not Hadi will achieve his objectives of winning back the central government, and part of the problem is that his government lacks a coherent strategy in the first place.
Rather than the independence of South Yemen under a radical platform, Hirak’s demands would be guided into a manageable rearrangement of southern elites. It is telling that President Hadi’s appointments, and interactions with Hirak leadership figures, seem to favor those leaders that benefited from the ideological shifts of the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP), and internal crackdowns during the 1970s and 1980s.
These are people who are accustomed to directing local control, and President Hadi would seek to deal with them in order to placate separatist demands without endangering Yemeni national cohesion too much. It is critical to understand that President Hadi is not a new political figure that was produced from the 2011 Yemeni uprising (as part of the Arab Spring) and its demands for substantive democracy.
Rather, he is an establishment figure who was effectively installed through an election in which he was the only candidate, for the purpose of managing a potentially revolutionary political situation. In short: President Hadi has spoken of a democratic transition, but he came to power to blunt its effects. Moreover, he has been supported in this agenda by local allies, and international actors, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United States. The National Dialogue Conference (NDC) became a means to official this domestication of the revolt, and for Hirak, it meant that President Hadi only agreed to deal with secondary figures, rather than its primary leadership and their demands.
President Hadi is fairly easy to understand as someone who seeks to maintain the current framework of the Yemeni state, including Saleh’s tactics of divide and conquer. It is misleading to argue that his government has much of a goal or strategic vision, apart from maintenance of the status quo. President Hadi wishes to short circuit the possibility of a major domestic uprising, with potential international effects for his allies in the GCC. Thus, he probably regards his alliance with Hirak fighters as temporary, in order to defeat the Houthis, and restore Yemen, as it previously existed but with minor changes. These cosmetic shifts could include some concessions to the movement, after the war.
There is reason to believe that he may be successful, however, this ignores how politics on the ground continue to evolve. Deputy governor of Aden, Ali al-Ghoraib, recently commented in Middle East Eye that separatists are “satisfied with the appointments,” but there is a diversity of opinion on their long-term purpose. “Satisfied” could mean abandoning secession in favor of new southern elites. It could also be a stopgap measure, ahead of either a federalized state, or outright independence, following the defeat of the Houthis. Combined with Hadi’s likely view of this alliance as temporary, this could mean that a confrontation between Hadi’s cadre and Hirak has simply been delayed.
So far, independence has been proposed through a variety of flawed approaches. The National Dialogue Conference (NDC) envisaged a devolved state with six principalities, three of which would be in the south of Yemen. However, the NDC’s legitimacy on this point is questionable, given that it was passed without consensus. Former President Ali Nasser Muhammad’s Cairo Group has called for a five-year transition under a North-South federation ahead of independence. Of course, it remains to be seen if Ali Nasser’s plan would have much support on the ground. Not only would it have to gain the approval of tens of thousands of active militiamen, it would also have to make southerners accept Nasser’s proven authoritarian tendencies, and ignore unanswered questions about whether he would restore the state former capitalist structures administered by the Aden Politburo.
For the interim, Hirak’s membership seems to be maintaining an uneasy relationship with President Hadi to gain the land, resources, and positions necessary to push for a variety of possibilities. It could be a power-sharing deal, autonomy, or even independence. Since the GCC formally intervened last March, the majority position seems to have become that Hirak should try to position itself for concessions after the war, while also proving to regional powers that local forces are able to fighting Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and Islamic State, on their own. There continues to be tension on this point, not the least of which is because southern forces are bearing the brunt of the violence.
The problem is not just the Houthis; Jihadist groups are expanding through the instability of the civil war. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula took the Hadhrami port city of al-Mukalla in April 2015, which led to more territory in southern Abyan and Hadhramout. It is now launching major attacks in Aden, with the Islamic State asserting its presence as well. Both are expanding as a result of how the civil war has peeled away local institutions in much of southern Yemen, particularly in remote villages that are targeted by the Saudi Air Force, and American drone strikes.
They are also benefiting from superior financial resources, especially when it translates into better pay for their fighters, growing tactical experience, and sophisticated munitions (AQAP raided a Yemeni Special Forces base in Al-Mukalla). Additionally, jihadist politics have a growing appeal in Yemen as a result of an atmosphere of hopelessness, itself reflecting the absence of a durable peace settlement, and the fact that the 2011 uprising failed to translate into tangible material gains for the country’s population.
Hirak could manage to pursue independence if it is able to meet these challenges. However, it requires regional support, especially given international support for President Hadi’s government, and the presence of a now mobilized Saudi Arabian military. It is difficult to predict what happens next, especially given that President Hadi may be planning to move against separatists once they stop being useful. Perhaps the most important point is that even if Hirak achieves its objectives, or President Hadi manages to outflank it, neither party may find stability. Popular Committees that have now been fighting for nearly a year could easily develop their own strategic objectives, especially as they command growing numbers of fighters, and effectively administer large sections of the country (including Hadi’s de facto capital of Aden). They could very easily begin to further their own platforms for autonomy, secession, or an unforeseen arrangement with Sana’a.
Editor’s note: Update: Critics of President Hadi accused him of solely appointing officials from the south of Yemen, many of which are pro-secession. On 04 April 2016, President Hadi sacked his Hadrami Prime Minister and Vice President, Khaled Bahah, and appointed controversial northern military general, Ali Muhsin, as his Vice President. This appointment got mixed reactions from the south and may provoke splintering within the Southern Resistance.
 The Southern Peaceful Movement (al-Hirak al-Janoubi al-Silmi) is frequently explained as a Southern separatist movement that started after Yemen’s Civil War of 1994 and reinforced in 2007 when the Assembly of the People of Radfan (Jam’iyat Abna’ Radfan) proposed unifying a number of southern separatist movements to strengthen their unified goal of secession. Today, the Southern Movement is a term that fuses heterogeneous southern factions by their intent to secede. Since the war against pro-Saleh/Houthi militia began in the south, the Hirak movement became known as the Southern Resistance, which is now armed. For more on Hirak, click here.