As Yemen crisis grows, south separatists see opportunity
ADEN | Wed Oct 26, 2011 10:08am EDT
(Reuters) - Under a blazing sun, Yemeni men sling rifles across their backs
and drag burning tires to block streets plastered with graffiti: "Death to
unity ... the southern revolution is coming."
With security visibly weakened in the nine months since mass protests
erupted against President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 33-year rule, many in the
southern seaport of Aden openly question the benefit of maintaining unity
with the north.
"In Aden, we weren't used to seeing such sights. Gunmen? Burning tires? We
were a civilized society," said a 28-year-old hotel worker who identified
himself only as Feras.
"The northerners are bringing all their problems to us, and the south is
suffering ... It's time for some change. Maybe secession really is the best
Aden's alleyways are now awash in paintings of the blue, red, black and
white flags of the former socialist republic of South
> Yemen, whose memory the government had
long suppressed -- images of the flag were a rarity in Aden even a few
A port on the Gulf of Aden, a strategic waterway through which some 3
million barrels of oil pass daily, Aden was the capital of South Yemen until
unification with the north in 1990.
Despite efforts by moderates to tone down separatist rhetoric, hard-line
leaders of a five-year-old secession movement say their time is nigh.
As unrest grows, Aden is lost in a power vacuum. Sporadic gun battles break
out, youths block roads in civil disobedience and bomb attacks blamed on al
Qaeda frequently rock the city.
"Our moment is getting closer... We're expecting instability to grow and
security to further deteriorate," said Qassim Jibran, of the separatist
group called the Peaceful Southern Movement. "We're watching to pick the
Wealthy Gulf states and Western powers have sought to stabilize Yemen for
fear of turmoil spilling into neighboring oil giant
> Saudi Arabia. But a deal to
ease Saleh from power has stalled even as challenges to his government grow.
Crushing poverty is spreading and fighting between opposition forces and
loyalist troops has budded into proxy wars across Yemen. In recent months,
emboldened Islamist militants linked to al Qaeda have seized several cities
in the south.
Locals report that armed separatist groups are taking over bits of major
highways in more remote areas in the south.
Jibran, a former ambassador for South Yemen who has been imprisoned twice
for separatist activities, said "all means" may eventually be used to try to
push for secession.
"We seek peaceful change. But there may bloodshed if the two nations cannot
go back to what they were."
SOUTH QUESTIONS PROTESTS
Saleh's forces crushed a southern attempt to break free from unity in 1994.
Many southerners feel power is in the hands of northern elites who usurp
their resources. They say Yemen's diminishing oil wealth is in the south but
owned by northerners, and complain they get only token representation in
Southerners also lament the loss of an open culture that once permeated the
south, and blame this on their conservative northern neighbors. Cinemas are
now closed in this craggy mountain city lapped by sapphire waters. Wide
avenues crumble along with Yemen's disintegrating economy.
"See this road? It was one of the most beautiful streets in the Arab world
-- now look at us," said one elderly man, hobbling down a graying Aden
boulevard recently blocked by broken cement blocks and burned-out cars.
The Sanaa government says Yemen's unity is a red line, arguing that southern
complaints about unemployment, poverty, land right violations and poor
services are shared by the north.
Any attempt by the south to secede would probably lead to violent northern
resistance and perhaps another civil war, according to a recent
International Crisis Group report.
"Yemen's upheaval presents a rare opportunity to redefine its flawed and
failed political compact," said ICG's Group's Middle East and North Africa
Program Director, Robert Malley.
"At the same time, it has considerably raised the price of inaction. If
nothing is done soon to peacefully address both national and Southern
deep-seated grievances, a darker and more ominous chapter could yet be
Hopes for economic opportunity and greater regional autonomy quickly pushed
southerners into the arms of the anti-Saleh movement in January. Aden
suffered the first fatalities of those protests when security forces fired
But optimism for the protests has slowly ebbed as suspicion grows that the
opposition is more intent on settling political scores in the north than
addressing southern grievances.
Over the summer, 23 southerners backed out of a national transitional
council for the opposition, citing frustrations that southern concerns were
left out of the group's agenda.
"I sympathize with the protesters, but I don't think they really think about
our problems. The revolution in Sanaa has become a northern revolution,"
said Majed, who has struggled to find a job in Aden for seven years, a
condition he blames on economic mismanagement by the north.
"As for us, the only solution is secession."
Not everyone agrees: "It's a bad idea. It's too late, Yemen has been united
politically and economically. It's risky to turn back time," said Sumaya, a
21-year-old university student.
"It's shameful to try to flee now while young people across the country are
dying for freedom. I hope we can stay united."
Moderate southerners say the opposition must pay more attention to the south
as it negotiates with the government for a power transition. Some southern
politicians propose a federal post-Saleh state that gives the south more
"Without some innovative ideas it will get harder to keep people convinced
of the idea of unity," said Ali Mohammed Ahmed a former parliamentarian and
southern leader based in Sanaa.
His colleague Taha Alwan, a professor at Aden University's school of
commerce, says many southerners are skeptical the north, a society dominated
by tribal loyalties, can develop the civil state southerners say their
former country once fostered.
"You feel they will need more work to create that kind of state. Why not let
the south, which is closer to that model, have autonomy for itself?" he
Southerners are divided, but separatism is gaining momentum as hopes fade
that answers to their grievances will emerge from Saleh's government or its
opponents in Sanaa, Alwan said.
"I don't believe people really want secession. But it will be the last
(Additional reporting by Dhuyazen Mukhashaf; Editing by
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Received on Sat Nov 05 2011 - 11:40:28 EDT