In 1990, three months before Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iraq, North Yemen president Ali Abdullah Saleh surprised everyone by announcing his agreement with South Yemen leader Ali Salem al-Beidh to integrate the two regimes and unify. Optimism reigned in both countries, as well as in the wider Arab world. But those who knew Yemen at the time were aware that the agreement was in fact a power sharing scheme between Saleh and Beidh. In southern Yemen, Beidh was living in conflict with his fellow communists. He was the sole leader there after the killings of Abdul Fattah Ismail and Ali Antar, and the flight of Ali Nasser Mohammed.
I remember at the time I wrote an article for The Majalla magazine about unity. It is a noble ideal, but the Yemeni scheme fell far short of it.
Saleh announced himself as president and Beidh as vice president of the new, unified state of Yemen. However, shortly after he joined the south with the north, Saleh wanted to get rid of his partner Beidh, so he pitted the Al-Islah Party against him in the ruling coalition. Suddenly, a campaign of assassinations was launched targeting left-wing southern figures, and Saleh claimed that Islamist parties were behind it.
Saleh’s dictatorship led to the Yemenis labeling him “little Saddam”. He implicated the Yemenis in the invasion of Kuwait when he supported Saddam’s forces. He caused the severance of relations with his neighbor Saudi Arabia and the rest of Gulf states. Together, Saleh and Beidh killed off the noble concept of unity and created a detestable regime. Under the pretense of unity, the poverty and marginalization of the Yemeni people, whether in the north or the south, increased. Saleh and his comrades robbed the country’s limited revenues and resources, including oil, which experts warn will be depleted in less than four years.
As a result, it is not surprising that the idea of separation is now being strongly advocated in the south; in Aden, Hadhramaut, Al-Mualla, and Al-Mansoura.
This long introduction is not intended to be a justification for Yemeni division. On the contrary, it is a call for unity to be maintained. Mistakes in contemporary Yemeni history have not come about because the Yemenis lived under a single government. Rather they came about as a result of Saleh and Beidh’s rule. Yemen is big enough for everyone and positive results can be achieved for its 24 million citizens if an equitable political structure is established, sharing resources, improving opportunities, and preventing disputes, which in any case would be more likely to occur after separation.
The people of the south must remember that those who overthrew Saleh were the people of the north, and that those same people are now championing the idea of good governance.
Unfortunately, various southern leaderships are engaged in a cheap auction against each another. They all promise secession but they are not being frank with their citizens. The concept of restoring a south Yemeni state is plagued by a variety of dangerous problems, such as tribal disputes and leaders’ infighting. Now Salem al-Beidh lives in Beirut, where he has sealed an alliance with the Iranians. Southern leaders like him are currently embroiling the Yemenis in a feud with important countries like Saudi Arabia and the US. Others are allying with Al-Qaeda and the rest do not have a genuine developmental project for the south. We should also remember that secession will neither have the international community’s support nor political or economic viability.
Is it too much to expect southern leaders to put forward ideas that, on the one hand, express the southern citizens’ demands for some autonomy, while on the other hand maintain Yemen’s unity and stability? There are solutions that could achieve both goals: administrative independence and Yemeni unity.