Thirty years after unification, Yemen is on the verge of fragmentation as a result of armed conflicts, regional rivalries, and foreign interference.
On May 22, 1990, to popular acclaim, the leaders of the former North and South Yemen states announced from Sanaa the formation of a new republic that was seen as “the dream of an entire generation of Yemenis,” according to political analyst Saleh al-Baidhani.
But 30 years on, that dream has faded and the impoverished country has turned into a patchwork of rival zones mired in endless conflicts.
Yemen has been embroiled in civil war since 2014 between the government — supported by a Saudi-led military coalition — and Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who now control much of the north, including the capital Sanaa.
The government still holds the central district of Marib and the eastern provinces, while the south is in the hands of the separatist Southern Transitional Council (STC) — which has made no secret of its intention to declare an independent state.
“Our strategic goal, on which we will not concede, is the establishment of an independent state,” STC official Thabet al-Awlaki told AFP.
According to Ali al-Sarari, an aide to Yemen’s prime minister, the country appears to be faced with two options. Either “fragmentation” as already in place or a “federal nation” resulting from a political agreement which seems a remote possibility, he told AFP.
Yemen’s unity was the result of “revolutionary transformations”, Baidhani said.
The Zaidi monarchy in North Yemen was overthrown in a 1962 coup by nationalist officers.
South Yemen, for its part, gained independence in 1967 after a four-year armed revolt against the British, which controlled the key port city of Aden.
The political rhetoric of nationalists in the north and socialists in the south — which in 1970 became the only communist state in the Arab world — focused on unification. That was achieved in 1990 despite a host of obstacles, including border clashes between the two states’ forces in 1979.
Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the north since 1978, became president, and Ali Salem al-Beidh from the south was the vice president.
But the honeymoon was short-lived, as officials in the south felt they had been sidelined from power. An attempt by the south to break away in 1994 sparked a brief civil war that ended with it being overrun by northern troops.
According to Hussein Hanachi, director of the Aden Centre for Studies, unification was founded on shaky foundations.
“It was then destroyed after the ruling class in the north transformed the situation into one of military occupation after the 1994 conflict,” he told AFP. Hanachi was referring to the dismantling of southern enterprises in favor of northern businessmen and to the distribution of land to supporters of the president.
Saleh clung on to power despite the rise of jihadist groups, economic hardships, and ongoing violence.
The first real challenge to his rule came with the eruption in 2011 of Arab Spring-inspired protests that brought thousands of Yemenis onto the streets.
Saleh finally ceded power in February 2012 after 33 years in charge and his deputy, Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, took over. Saleh was killed in 2017 by his former Houthi rebel allies.
In 2014, the Houthis seized vast swathes of the country including the capital, prompting the intervention of the Saudi-led coalition to support the government. Since then, tens of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have been killed in a conflict that has triggered what the United Nations terms the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The country is also faced with the coronavirus pandemic which has so far officially killed 20 people, widely considered a vast underestimate given Yemen’s collapsing healthcare system.
A power struggle in the south between the government and separatists — part of the anti-Houthi camp — has further complicated the situation.
Just last month, the STC declared self-rule in southern Yemen.
“Yemeni unity in its current state has ceased to exist,” Maged al-Madhaji, executive director of the Sanaa Center for Strategic Studies, told AFP. “The war has created a new reality on the ground,” he said.