Any unrest in south Yemen is often immediately linked to al Qaeda. This is not wholly without reason—for much of the past two years, local fighters affiliated with al Qaeda effectively controlled southern towns. But the anxiety over the current situation in the South ultimately has little to do with the infamous terrorist franchise. Rather, the real concern is that escalating regional tensions could turn into a civil war that splits Yemen apart.
Initially, most Yemenis hailed the 1990 unification of the South and North as a historic triumph. But tensions quickly emerged. Leaders from the South, formerly known as the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) attempted to secede in 1994. They were crushed, but their grievances continued to mount over the last 20 years, culminating in the 2007 birth of the Southern Movement, or al-Herak, a fractious group representing a number of factions aiming for the return of regional autonomy in the former PDRY. Herakis say that government crackdowns in the South have fueled the discontent, leading increasing numbers of southerners to call for complete secession. In 2011, the nationwide protests against Yemen’s longtime leader Ali Abdullah Saleh created a power vacuum that has allowed suppressed southern activists to emerge from underground. Graffiti of the PDRY flag now coats walls in Aden, and once-persecuted Herak leaders now operate with relative impunity.
When I arrived in Aden on February 24, the tensions were palpable. Three days before, a crackdown on a secessionist demonstration left four protesters dead. Listless youths wielding PDRY flags obstructed traffic in neighborhoods across the city and smoke from burning tires filled the sky. Government troops faced off with the seemingly disorganized demonstrators, firing in the air to disperse them. The cat-and-mouse game repeated itself every few hours. I circled around the city to meetings to meet with prominent secessionist leaders.
The hotel suite of Hassan Ba’om proved an unlikely refuge. Referred to as the “Godfather of the Southern Movement,” Ba’om’s past largely mirrors the past of the South itself. In the Sixties, he fought the British occupation; today, he heads the struggle against what he refers to as the “northern occupation” in Sanaa. After years of frequent imprisonment and unceasing persecution, Ba’om is arguably now the most popular man in south Yemen.
Interviewing him as I sat on a bed in the modest hotel room, it was easy to understand his rock star status. Ba’om’s resolute, gravely voice projects the comforting charisma of a true believer.
“We’re waging a just struggle,” he said. “And the whole of the world must comprehend that we’ll continue, peacefully, until victory.”
Ba’om is a rare unifying figure is the fractious Southern Movement. Herak leaders like to emphasize the “unity” of the southern people, but divisions are widespread. Loyalties often fall along regional and tribal lines. The memory of the south’s 1986 civil war persist on. Beyond that, many leaders diverge in terms of their strategies and goals. Ba’om wants complete secession and says that any talks with Sanaa must take place with that as a precursor. Others are more open to dialogue. Some say they’re aiming for a federal solution.
Still, the grievances of southerners seem to cross regional, political, and socioeconomic lines. Talking politics with my cab driver en route to a meeting, I posed the same questions that I was to later ask a prominent tribal leader and defected member of Parliament. He gave roughly the same answers.
High unemployment, economic stagnation, and dissatisfaction with the current political situation are common across Yemen, but southerners don’t believe that hardship is equally shared. Since unification, southerners say they have been subject to both political and cultural domination. After 1994, Southerners were widely purged from government positions; many say that this discrimination continues to this day. Others complain of the malicious influence of the comparatively conservative, tribal north, pointing to the erasure of gains in women’s rights and education made under socialist rule and the rising tide of more rigid brand of Islam.
Even as the latest burst of unrest fades out, it’s hard to believe that things are heading in a positive direction. So far, the Yemeni government has proven unable to address the root causes of southern grievances; still, a repeat of 1994 seems unlikely. Southern Movement leaders almost unanimously swear to be peaceful. Even if there were a willingness to wage armed struggle, the secessionists lack the means to wage war against the central government.
Some Herak leaders have cast February 21 as the dawning of the southern Intifada. But most of the residents of Aden lean towards more muted expectations.
“Its an incredible dangerous situation,” noted Tamam Bashraheel, publisher of Aden’s al-Ayyam newspaper, banned since 2009 for its willingness to cross lines on the southern issue. “It really seems that the people have exceeded the leaders [of the Southern Movement]: people have grown hopeless and angry and no one has any control.”