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.

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.

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.

“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.

“Why is it that fish caught 10 kilometers [six miles] from here cost more than the fish trucked to Sanaa?” asks resident Mohammad Nahass, pointing to fish stacked on a piece of cardboard in Aden’s fish market.

Many throughout southern Yemen are asking the same question. They see little value in their 1990 unification with the north – a move that was precipitated by the fall of the Soviet Union. As a result of the USSR’s collapse, the Peoples’ Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) – the only Marxist state in the Arabian Peninsula – lost its primary source of economic support and was forced to join North Yemen in a newly united Republic of Yemen, under the leadership of President Saleh, who has remained in power for 15 years.

“Most of what we have is what the British built when they were here. We haven’t gained anything from unification,” says a former colonel in the PDRY army, voicing a common sentiment as he waves his hand towards a row of bleak buildings. “I would rather have had the British here for 400 years than be ruled by Saleh and the Sanhan [President Saleh’s tribe].”

The south has in fact already tried to secede once since unification, which resulted in a civil war in 1994. The colonel says that after the war, officers such as himself were thrown out of the army and the civilian government was destroyed – leaving little role for the region’s formerly prominent players.

“Now everyone who has any power is a northerner,” he says. “The young people here have no chance to find decent jobs because they don’t have the tribal connections required to get them."

The colonel’s grievances with the north are heard across Aden, in tea shops and at daily qat sessions where many Adenis gather to chew the mildly intoxicating leaves of the qat tree.

'God willing, we will not have to rebuild again'

The front steps of the al-Aydarus mosque in Aden are stacked with men waiting out the mid-afternoon sun. They are reluctant to talk, but an elderly man who gives his name as Ibrahim stands up and ushers a visitor into the mosque. He points to recently completed repairs after the mosque was partially destroyed by conservative tribesmen during the 1994 civil war. “God willing, we will not have to rebuild again,” he says.

But most Yemenis in the south do not share Ibrahim’s guarded optimism.

“There will be war when the money runs out,” says the retired colonel. As he hands a coin to a Somali beggar, he continues, “President Saleh is a clever man – he knows how to play the tribes off one another, but this takes money. Money for the sheikhs, money for the army, it is endless. The people here will wait until he is weak enough and then they will strike.”

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