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Why southern Yemen is pushing for secession

With bleak housing blocks and rusty wrecks for taxis, south Yemen residents pushing for secession say they've been sidelined by the government.

By Michael HortonContributor / December 15, 2009

Anti-government protesters shout slogans as they carry a flag of former South Yemen during a rally in al-Malah December 7. The rally was organized by the Southern Movement, a group calling for the south of Yemen to secede from the north.

Stringer/Reuters

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Aden and Sanaa, Yemen

As Yemen struggles to quell Houthi rebels in the north, a secession movement gathering steam in the south threatens to deprive the central government of badly needed resources. While outside analysts have become increasingly concerned that the two conflicts are creating an unstable state where Al Qaeda could more freely operate, the chief domestic concern is more pressing: survival.

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“The south has all the resources and only one third of the population. We cannot allow them to secede,” said a member of the opposition party Islah in the capital, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak for the party. “Northerners will fight to keep Yemen together. They know it is a matter of survival.”

More than 70 percent of Yemen’s revenue comes from its oil exports. Studies by both the World Bank and the United Nations Development Fund predict a precipitous decline in Yemeni oil production over the next five years, raising the stakes for control of the dwindling supplies.

“Eighty percent of Yemen’s oil comes from the south but where does the money go? It goes to Sanaa,” the capital, said a member of the Yemeni Socialist Party in Aden who did not want to be named for fear of government reprisal. “The people of the south have not benefited from any of this wealth and now it is running out.”

So despite President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s calls for unity, many in southern Yemen are taking to the streets in protest. Fed up with high prices and an overall lack of development, they’re calling for secession less than two decades after joining with the north to create a unified Yemen. The result has been violent confrontations between protesters and government security forces – forces which Human Rights Watch lambasted in a Dec. 15 report for being too harsh.

For now, the Saleh government seems more committed to quelling protests than addressing southerners’ grievances.

'We haven't gained anything by unification'

Upon arriving in the southern port town of Aden from Sanaa, one immediately notices the differences: there are few new buildings and the taxis and cars are often little more than rusted wrecks – a stark contrast with the luxury cars and plethora of new shops and hotels one finds in Sanaa.

But despite the run-down appearances, everything from fish to building supplies costs far more here than in the more prosperous north.

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