Sanaa – Overshadowed in recent years by the rise of Houthi rebels in the north of the country, Yemen’s southern secessionists revealed plans to rejuvenate their push to secession.
The Southern Movement, or Al-Hirak al-Janoubi, hoped to exploit a political vacuum created by the Houthis’ recent military successes to advance their cause.
At the same time, they are being spurred on by fears that the Houthis could soon expand into the once independent south.
Those fears were deepened when on October 19, Houthi fighters continued to push south in Ibb province, taking over the town of Yarim after dismantling a protest camp blocking the country’s main airport in the capital Sanaa.
It remains unclear, however, if al-Hirak, a gathering of ideologically distinct factions, is in a position to mount a significant push towards southern independence.
Secessionists in the southern port town of Aden, a hub for the movement and the regular site of major protests in recent years, worry that internal divisions are hindering the cause, and that local and regional players are trying to co-opt the movement to achieve their own agenda.
On October 14, al-Hirak held its biggest ever rally in Aden, with around 100,000 people attending the event at Al-Orod Square in the Khormaksar district of the city. Secessionists then released a statement demanding independence from a 24-year-old union with the north, setting a November 30 deadline for a response from Sana’a.
Protestors vowed to escalate displays of civil disobedience over the next few weeks if their claims were not met.
“We will stay on the streets for three days and then we will escalate,” 30 year-old Mohammed al-Sakaff, one of the protesters, said during the rally. “We are fed up. There is no regime in Sanaa anymore so we will take the chance to take back our country.”
Al-Hirak supporters believe the Houthis’ takeover of Sanaa on September 21 provided an opportunity and a challenge for secession since the southern independence movement was founded in 2007. The movement was born out of the frustrations with the dominance of a small tribal and military clique in Sanaa over economic and political life in the unified Yemen.
The movement’s supporters complain that since an abortive 1994 attempt at southern secession, that led to a brief civil war war, they have been kept out of politics while the regime in Sanaa has failed to recycle revenues earned from southern oilfields into developing the area.
Like al-Hirak, the Houthis opposed the status quo under former President Ali Abdallah Saleh and paid a heavy price for doing so. But secessionists worry that the Houthis, now in the ascendant, could attempt to extend their territorial control to the southern areas al-Hirak hopes to liberate.
“We have a good relationship with the Houthis,” says Fadi Baoum, the leader of one of al-Hirak’s youth wings and the son of one of its most prominent leaders, Hassan Baoum.
“But we both have different aims. When we were both in a bad situation we were good with them. But the situation has changed and we can’t decide what our relationship is with them until they decide their position on the south.”
|Inside Story – Yemen: New balance of power?.|
According to analysts, pro-independence activists are probably right to be suspicious of the Houthis.
“The Houthis are consolidating in the north, not only to serve their own interests, but to help consolidate Yemen under only one centre of power,” Fernando Carvajal, a US-based Yemen analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“Every actor wants and needs to rule over a unified Yemen. It is the only political solution that would give any successor [to the current government] legitimacy and authority.”
Several Leading activists of al-Hirak say they have been approached by local and foriegn domestic actors in recent months, offering support for the movement. But most southerners are skeptical about the motives.
“There are some forces, some people, who are trying to influence things, but they have not been successful,” said a leading member of one al-Hirak faction, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A number of active Hirak leaders corroborate these claims. Overtures were made by Saleh through his party the General People’s Congress (GPC). Al-Hirak factions were also approached by representatives of Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, through his son Jalal and Mohammed Ali Shaddadi, one of the president’s closest confidantes. Regional governments are also making a play for influence in the south, among them Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
“Everyone has a branch here [in Aden] now,” says a prominent member of the separatist movement.
The Gulf Arab states say the Houthis are backed by their rival Iran, and Riyadh is said to be nervous that the Houthis could reach the strategically important checkpoint of Bab al Mendeb that separates Yemen from Africa and through which millions of barrels a day of Saudi oil pass every day. Diplomatic and officials sources in Sanaa suggest that Riyadh could consider backing secessionist claims if it meant preventing that outcome.
Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who many in Yemen believe has played an instrumental role in the Houthis’ rise, is said to have focused on the south as a way of destabilising Yemen’s ongoing political transition and undermining Hadi’s presidency.
While Hadi, weakened by the Houthis’ growing influence, is thought to be trying to build a base outside of the north while trying to prevent the secessionists from achieving their aims by dividing the movement.
Potential recruits are being offered cash, arms, political appointments, and advice on how to successfully complete the push for secession. Those being approached are skeptical that this last claim is truly part of the agenda of any of their suitors however.
“What is happening is that they are playing on the needs of the people to achieve their own aims and visions,” says Mohammed Ali Ahmed, leader of another Hirak faction that took part in the national peace talks in Sanaa in 2013 and 2014 but walked out claiming that the outcomes were being rigged by the president.
“The leaders of corruption and the people who robbed southern resources of the south, they are playing a game here.”
Hadi, added Ahmed, “is from the same school” as Saleh. “He’s playing the same game, trying to divide us…”
“They [the Gulf states] are looking for allies where they were not looking before. Why during [GCC-backed peace talks held in 2013 and 2014] did they not mention the southern question? Where were they?Their initiative failed and now they are trying to get support in the South.”
Yet outsiders have been able to exploit internal divisions among al-Hirak factions – largely because the movement’s leadership is so fractured.
“There is an inability to come to a unifying plan that creates a cohesive leadership for the movement through the south and on the ground,” says Carvajal.
Ali Ahmed, a relative newcomer to the independence movement, having lived outside Yemen for almost 20 years before returning in 2012, has been trying to create a unified leadership to agree on a plan for independence but has been unable to reach a rapprochement with al-Hirak’s other more established groups.
At the begining of 2013, al-Hirak leaders, who enjoy a broader popular support, including Baoum and Ali Salem al-Beidh, the former southern president who signed a unity pact with Saleh to merge the north and south in 1990, reached an agreement on representation in the talks on independence, but have since fallen out.
Baoum’s group has considered joining Ali Ahmed’s, but, acccording to his son Fadi Baoum, “there are things we have to discuss”, such as the plan for a phased push to secession rather than an outright declaration of independence.
Precisely because of these internal tensions, many young secessionists want nothing to do with the “old guard” of Hirak – those who were part of the pre-1990 leadership in the south.
“We are not happy with what the old leaders are doing,” said one youth leader. “For the last six years, nothing has been achieved. We need a new leadership.”