Mr. Hassan al-Yafa’ei, head of the secessionist "Hirak" in al-Houtta South of Yemen, spoke with passion and grief about his region. He is filled with indignation over the unfair discrimination of the South. He is completely convinced, however, that the 1986 civil war is a historical incident that will not be repeated. In his view, the almost 10,000 deaths that occurred in a single month is just an "aberrant phenomenon." Al-Yafa’ei, just like many other Southerners, underplays the possibility of violence occurring if a Southern secession should take place. Such incessant denial of the possibility of the past repeating itself is convenient for many Southerners who want to become an independent Southern nation — putting the chapter of "Unity gone bad" behind them.
The question of "What will happen to the South if a secession takes place?" has rarely been probed by Hirak. The mechanisms of this desired disunion are left to the same politicians who plunged the South of Yemen to its previous fate of wars and instability. And once again, sentiments of people in the streets are high on "self-determination" rhetoric, without adequately thinking through how this step would resolve their political differences and leaders’ penchant for popular exploitation.
Meanwhile, in their attempt to find "reasonable" voices to represent the Southern interest in the National Dialogue, the dialogue committee wasn’t able to capture the essence of the street in its selection. The dichotomy between the street movement, which is calling for secession, and the National Dialogue, which is contemplating federalism, should be worrying for the capital. Violence is more likely to erupt at the end of the dialogue because the most influential factions controlling the Southern street are not directly involved. It is expected that these factions will revoke any agenda that doesn’t reconcile with their own.
Struggles for representation over Southern politics have already begun, yielding a plethora of actors with divergent interests. The clearest view of this political fragmentation can be seen through the lens of the Yemeni diaspora: Haidar Abu Bakr al-Attas, Ali Salem al-Beidh, and AliNasser who are attempting to influence the political scene from their different regional locations of Cairo, Riyadh, and Beirut, backed by regional agendas. While Al-Hirak al-Janoubi "The Southern Movement" was first initiated in 2007 by retired army personnel seeking reinstatements and better pensions, it eventually became a Southern-wide movement representative of the people’s demands for justice, equality, and now secession. The movement’s core leadership, which consisted of esteemed figures with fresh portfolios, such as Hassan Ba’aum, and Nasser al-Nouba, is now completely overshadowed by the power and influence of the former, older, Southern leadership.
Most worrying for many Yemenis is the resurgence of former Southern President Ali Salem al-Beidh, who is presumed to be receiving support from Iran. While this is not proven, many draw conclusions from al-Houthis — the northern group that enjoys strong support from Iran — which support the Southern right for self-determination. Iran has long desired to distance Yemen from any U.S. influence and has strategically sought to use the weakest points in the Yemeni regions to garner more support for its agenda.
Although many would prefer to dismiss it, al-Beidh’s power is steadily growing and dominating the street movement. He sits in Beirut, Lebanon, advocating "disengagement" on his television channel Aden-Live and dispatching his envoys to Cairo (where many negotiations among current and former Southern leaders are taking place). He has skillfully capitalized on the recent dynamic of North-South rancor in an attempt to garner more support for his agenda.
Al-Beidh’s popularity should not be underestimated; it stems from supporting the street movement where he is creatively — and sometimes destructively — channeling its anger. Much to his misfortune though, the former president is not viewed as the most benevolent leader for the South. Many blame al-Beidh for initiating the South’s decline as the primary figure responsible for plummeting the country into undesired unification back in 1990 in order to escape a coup d’état that was lurking on his presidency.
In a similar vein, the government of Yemen’s attitude toward the different dynamics in the South lacks perceptiveness and caused it to fail in gaining the Southerner’s popular support for the National Dialogue. The government has often underplayed or overplayed certain aspects of the political life in the South focusing only on the violent and unusual. For example, the government depicts the Civil Disobedience, which takes place in Aden every Saturday and Wednesday, as a violent movement that "terrorizes" the southerners; when the majority of people in the South see it as a continuum to the uprising and participate in it willingly, and peacefully.
Furthermore, there is a blackout on national television on the number of people who fall dead or injured in clashes with the army in the South; yet there is a focus on displaying army casualties who are targeted during demonstrations. Reputable southern-based newspapers, like al-Ayam, have been suspended from publication, or have no circulation in the capital like Aden al-Ghad. So while there is an attempt to integrate North-South politics at the national level through dialogue, the dynamics of the situation on the ground are marching in a different direction.
While all of Yemen has suffered its fair share of bad governance, the South was to fall furthest as it was standing up on a perceived stable administrative and economic platform prior to unification. Many experts argue that the support of the former USSR to the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) was key to the disillusionment of the Southerners about their wealth, but the Southerners’ core economic grievance stems from the rapid depletion and exploitation of their natural gas and oil resources without reward.
The disenfranchisement of the South acutely intensified after the 1994 North-South civil war, as Southerners were discharged en masse from the military, and laid off from many civil service positions (a decision that the government is attempting to reverse by reinstating several thousand Southerners to the civil service). There is also a strong perception of "sabotage through neglect," as many industrial factories were seized through non-transparent bids by notable Northerners who shut down the factories and sent many workers to the precarious fate of unemployment. The Southerners felt they were denied their rights and treated as second-class citizens.
Amid all this, there is a conspicuous political vacuum and an absence of state in the South. Local popular committees in Abyan took over the protection of their cities from violent terrorist networks, while in Aden, distrust in the security apparatus caused people to instigate neighborhood watches, which are in effect everyday after 11:00 p.m., in order to deter criminal activities and stop suspicious behavior. There is an eerie sense of insecurity that permeates in all corners of Aden, Lahj, and Abyan. Decreasing dependence on state resources for protection is causing the Southerners to believe that they are better off governing their own territories.
While the grievances of the Yemenis in the South are legitimate, their clamor is steadily spiraling out of control. The South is in a crisis of over-representation in sentiments and under-representation of reason, and if secession takes place, it will further unleash southern power struggles that are most likely to result in new regional insurgencies. National dialogue as it stands, is not capable of stemmin
g the influence of this violent fury in the South.
Sanaa must begin to seriously address secessionists’ concerns to avert a real crisis. The National Dialogue process is a step in the right direction, but more attention needs to be given to the voice of the street movement. Additional bold actions must be taken simultaneously to remedy some of the root causes of popular discontent and indignation. The government must also rapidly implement sound economic and political procedures that address the core grievances of the South, with the aid of donors. It is important that the international community engages in the South directly, through economic and diplomatic means in order to boost chances for reconciliation. Therefore, some interventions need to be Southern based through short and medium-term development and economic assistance to enable the achievement of quick results on the ground.
The Southerners should also learn from their own violent history, and attempt to find realistic solutions that could meet Sanaa halfway; as pinning their decline on "a dysfunctional unity" could deprive the Southerners from a golden opportunity to correct its path. Saving the South must become a top political priority of all involved, before Yemen splinters into more factions than it can handle.
Fatima Abo Alasrar is an independent Middle East policy analyst from Yemen and a former OSI International Policy Fellow.