Hadi and the south: Brothers in arms or a marriage of convenience?
As a leading military official in independent South Yemen, Hadi fled north following the 1987 civil war there and was a key player in the defeat of Ali Salim Al-Beidh’s attempt to regain southern independence in 1994.
Within a year of being appointed defense minister in 1994, President Ali Abdullah Saleh promoted Hadi to vice president. In a position he would hold until Saleh’s resignation in 2012, Hadi has remained closely associated with what southern separatists view as a northern occupying regime.
Hadi’s endorsement of a six-region federal plan and more recent scandals have not helped relations. On Jan. 19, the Houthi-run TV channel Al-Masira broadcast a phone call between Hadi and his then chief-of-staff, Ahmed Awadh Bin Mubarak, in which Hadi dismissed the Southern Movement. “They are satisfied from within [about federalism] but they are still afraid,” said Mubarak. Hadi responded, “I am a southerner and a state representative, they [the Southern Movement] alone do not represent the south.” The channel called the phone call “humiliating for the southern people.”
When Hadi arrived in Aden with military-backed Houthi militias in pursuit, however, historical grievances were hastily put aside. The political climate in Yemen today makes such an unlikely alliance necessary, and it is by no means unprecedented—something Saleh’s union with the Houthis, a group he waged war with for six years, demonstrates.
But Hadi is also a southerner, just as Saleh is a Zaydi-Shia, and such alliances may also reflect strong regional ties in Yemen that are never fully severed. Indeed many in the south are keen to identify Hadi as a southerner first and foremost, making it easier to forgive his political affiliations and past actions.
“We used to view Hadi as the leader of an occupation, we know what he did in the war against the south in 1994, but he has the right to repent and return home. Lots of southerners were enthusiastic about unity, but later learned it’s a mistake,” said Ahmed Bamualem, a Southern Movement leader and deputy head of the National Southern Body for Liberation and Independence, a body within the movement.
Hadi’s arrival in Aden ushered in yet another turning point in Yemen’s volatile politics and had an immediate impact on events in the south. Civil disobedience campaigns and weekly protests, a mainstay of the southern movement since it was founded in 2007, were put on hold after March 10 due to growing instability. At the same time, tensions boiled over into violent confrontations between popular committee members and Special Security Forces (SSF) when the commander in Aden, Abdulhafez Al-Saqqaf, refused Hadi’s orders to step down.
In a speech aired on Aden Live TV on March 21, Hadi stressed his commitment to national unity and denied his presence in Aden signaled a move towards secession. Aden was to be a “temporary” capital, he said.
Nonetheless, he identified the southern issue as an essential component of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) and said it is “key to all of Yemen’s problems.” While Hadi’s objectives remain at odds with the aspirations of many southerners and Southern Movement leaders, he continues to receive their support as the country’s legitimate president.
Khalid Bamadhaf, a Southern Movement leader in Aden, said his movement is a peaceful one and he is therefore willing to treat Hadi as the legitimate president in spite of his lack of support for southern secession. “President Hadi does not have a program to regain the southern state. He is still talking about unity and his keenness to maintain it,” he said, but says supporting Hadi is an important means to undermining the Houthis and working towards southern independence.
Abdullah Rashid, a founding member of the Southern Movement, says Hadi should be supported by southerners because he is a fellow southerner and remains the legitimate president of unified Yemen.
“At this particular time, the Southern Movement recognizes the importance of supporting Hadi. Questioning his legitimacy is counter-productive because it will only lead to violence in both south and north,” said Rashid.
Popular committee members came to Hadi’s support in his standoff with Al-Sakkaf, says Bamualem, because he is the only legitimate ruler and as such government or military officials have no right to rebel against his authority.
“The international community endorses Hadi's constitutional legitimacy, and Al-Sakkaf was supposed to commit to the presidential orders, not to receive directions from the Houthi militia,” said Bamualem.
Radfan Al-Dubais, spokesperson for protesters in Aden’s Al-Arood Square, claims many in his movement had earlier called on Hadi to return south when he resigned in January and was placed under house arrest.
“The southern people will not let Hadi down, and will not allow the Houthi group to take over the south at any cost. If the Houthis step on Hadi’s legitimacy, they step on both the south and north. What has happened in the north and what has happened to President Hadi has only strengthened the unity of the southern people,” said Al-Dubais.
In spite of widespread opposition from many Yemenis across the country, including those opposed to Houthi rule, Hadi has found considerable support for foreign intervention in the south.
Nasser Al-Khubaji, a Southern Movement leader in Lahj, said he is supportive of Hadi’s call. “The purpose of the call for military assistance is to defend the south. We need military aid and we support it. We know Hadi wants to defend his legitimacy, and we also want to defend our land,” he said.
Al-Dubais agrees with Al-Khubaji, but feels the need for military intervention goes beyond the southern issue. Regardless of his group’s motivations and their primary objective of protecting the south from Houthi occupation, he says military intervention is necessary for the “security and safety of the entire region.”
Whatever personal ties may exist between Hadi and his fellow southerners, there is no doubting the practical wisdom of working together during this critical phase in Yemen’s political transition, something not lost on either side. “Hadi is not infallible, and his mistakes should not hinder our cooperation with him. The southern people do not want to retaliate against individuals, we simply want to restore our sovereign state,” said Al-Dubais.