Tensions simmer in southern Yemen

Criticism that Sanaa controls the region’s natural wealth fuels talk of independence.

Yemeni soldiers
Southern Yemenis say the government favours northern tribesmen, such as the ones seen above [GALLO/GETTY]

As the Yemeni army hunts down al-Qaeda-linked groups across the country and struggles to maintain peace with a Zaydi Shia insurgency in the north, political tensions in the south are driving a new wedge into the already fractured country. 

At least 17 protesters have been killed and 864 arrested since the unrest erupted in the summer of 2007, according to Yemeni human rights groups.

While demonstrations, riots, and armed clashes with the military seem to have intensified, demands for political reforms in the Middle East’s poorest country have developed into calls for independence for the south. 

Former military generals, unemployed professionals, and disgruntled youth across the south contend that the north is economically more developed and that northerners are favoured by the government in Sanaa. 

“We aren’t Yemenis. We are South Arabians,” says Ali al-Sa’idi, the vice president of the Committee of Retired Southern Generals, referring to the historical name of South Yemen.

“We used to be an independent nation and we want to go back to what we were.”

New country

The traditionalist north and Marxist south unified in 1990, forming the Republic of Yemen.

The new country was to operate under a structured power-sharing arrangement, but fraternal relations quickly disintegrated, leading the country into a two-month civil war in 1994.

After northern forces crushed a southern bid to secede, the government led by Ali Abdullah Saleh, the current president, scrapped plans to protect regional autonomy.

Thousands of generals were punitively retired after the war, and roughly 100,000 civil and military workers lost their jobs. Thousands of soldiers fled the country, but many have since returned. 

Growing tensions erupted in July 2007 when former generals began organising protests to demand higher retirement funds, claiming they could not survive on their pensions.


Protests rocked Dhalie in March and April 2008 [AFP]

The latest tide of protests erupted on March 28, when tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets were brought in to quell three days of riots in the southern city of Dhalie.

Young men burned tires to block the street from Sanaa to Aden and set two police stations and several military vehicles on fire.

People accused of instigating the riots were arrested and public demonstrations eased off, though protests continued in Dhalie and nearby Lahaj.

Since then, large scale demonstrations have waned, but armed attacks against the government have increased. 

In mid-September, three coordinated bombings, unclaimed by any specific group, targeted Central Security and Criminal Investigation offices in the southern provinces of Abyan.

A recent report in Jane’s, an American military intelligence magazine, estimated that at least 15 separate attacks have occurred against military checkpoints in Aden and the southern province of Lahaj alone. 

“The situation could become much more dangerous than other problems in Yemen,” says Mohammed al-Mutawakkal, a professor of politics at Sanaa University.

“The south comprises two-thirds of Yemen’s land and it used to be its own country.”

Al-Saidi’s group of retired generals and other movements have been calling on southerners to refrain from violence. But al-Sa’idi says that if the government does not meet their needs, the situation might get out of control. 

“We are living under occupation,” he says. “The tribal military regime in the north does not care about Southerners. They just care about our land and wealth.”

Natural wealth control

Around 80 per cent of Yemen’s national budget comes from natural wealth drawn from the dry, barren expanses of the south.

Depleting reserves of natural gas and its primary export, oil, are extracted from southern deserts. The 900-kilometre coastline provides Yemen with fish, its second largest export and its largest port. 

The government responded to the discontent earlier this year by raising the pensions of some former generals and giving others positions in the military.

“We made an agreement with the generals and there is a minority of people trying to take advantage of their legitimate grievances and turn it into a political situation,” Abubakr al-Qurbi, the minister of Foreign Affairs, told Al Jazeera. 

Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president, has remained mostly silent on the tensions in the south, but Nassr al-Shaibani, the former endowments minister, issued a fatwa calling the southern generals apostates and permitting bloodshed of those who staged sit-ins and demonstrations. 

Southern journalists say they have been up against a media blackout. Yemeni and foreign reporters have been arrested for attempting to cover demonstrations.

In February, one person was killed when the Sanaa home of the editor-in-chief of Al-Ayam newspaper, Yemen’s leading independent newspaper – largely perceived to be sympathetic to southern independence, was riddled with bullets.
Independence unlikely

Al-Qurbi says Yemenis are interested in a united country and will prohibit secession [AFP]

Many observers say it is unlikely that southerners will ever achieve independence, citing the government’s military dominance and the fact that south Yemen makes up less than one-fifth of the country’s population.

But with some southerners edging toward violence and with popular sentiment for independence higher than ever, the situation remains deadlocked. 

“The only solution to the southern issue has to be a democratic one,” al-Mutawakkal said.

“The government needs to sit down with them and come up with a suitable agreement.” 

A presidential order to release at least a dozen leaders of southern movements during Ramadan suggested that the government might be changing its tone.

But some say it is far from negotiating a comprehensive settlement. 

“If these people want to make changes, they can form a political party and try to reform the government,” al-Qurbi said.

“Yemenis have worked hard to build unification. They will not allow anyone to break this country apart.”

Source: Al Jazeera