By Anita Kassem
The 22nd anniversary of the unification of Yemen was welcomed with huge protests in the South, especially in Aden. Thousands of Southern Movement supporters have rallied, and not for the first time, to express their discontent with what they call the “Sana’a regime” and to demand secession. The Movement attributes the miseries of the south to the post-unification era (note: North and South Yemen were unified in 1990), the period when they were exploited and oppressed by the populated north.
Southern Movement gaining momentum since 2011
The Youth Uprising of 2011 in Yemen has, undoubtedly, represented a great chance for many political parties and currents to finally manifest their demands and ideologies. The Southern Movement was no exception. Despite the existence of the Movement since 2007, their activities and political weight have considerably escalated shortly after the uprising. More than two years after the Arab Spring, it could be surely said that the “street” in the southern governorates is reaching its “boiling point”: the civil disobedience is conducted twice a week, the intra-and inter-city roads get blocked by the Southern Movement supporters on a regular basis, and the South Yemen flags are hung and painted in every possible place. The daily realities in the southern governorates are so different from those in the north, that it could already be considered as a different country even without an actual political separation occurring.
Since they own many media outlets, the Southern Movement phenomenon has also occupied the headlines of local and international press and media, a motivating factor for the Movement supporters. However, the main development occurred with the advent of the National Dialogue Conference (NDC) in March 2013. The Southern Movement was ascribed 50% of the total seats in the Dialogue, a move depicting the extent of the importance of the Movement in transitional and future Yemen. These seats allocated to the Movement meant one thing for some people: the chances of Yemen being united or divided are equal.
But perhaps the greatest acknowledgment of the Southern Movement is the northern people themselves. The popular northern discourse, which is not majoritarian but is reaching non-negligible numbers, suggests that it if the South is determined for secession, then it would be wiser to give it the right of self-determination, a view which was also expressed publicly by one of the NDC members.
With this, the south-north relations and the demands of the Southern Movement towards the “Sana’a regime” are clear. But what about the south itself? How can we define the position of the Southern Movement in the southern context? Ironically, the issue becomes more complicated if we look at it through a “southern prism”.
Challenge of definition
Characterizing the Southern Movement is a first challenge. If we stop for a moment, away from the media hype, and ask ourselves what we know about the Southern Movement, certainly, the first answer popping will be that it is a group which demands separation from the north and the re-establishment of the pre-1990 borders, not neglecting the minority within the Southern Movement which advocates for a federal system. But does this answer suffice to credit the Movement as the representative body of the southern people? There is another row of questions posing itself, answers to which are essential in order to render the Southern Movement legitimate and credible enough to represent the 4 million southerners.
Challenge of leadership
Lost in the whirl of separation and unity is a central and determining question: what is the plan for a post-separation southern Yemen? Many of Southern Movement supporters claim that this will be seen after the south gains “independence” from the north. However, and apart from the economic question, the South is far from as homogenous as the Southern Movement claims; once the unifying factor of the Movement, the separation from the north, will disappear, the internal cracks will start to appear.
The fear of internal rivalries among the southerners themselves is reinforced by the absence of a clear leadership for the Southern Movement. As already mentioned earlier, the South is not homogenous in its political views, and it has already witnessed a horrendous civil war between the southern leaders themselves. Today, we still find that there are several leaders of the Southern Movement: Hassan Ba’oom, Ali Salem Al-Bidh, Tareq Al-Fadhli and so on. These various leaders of very different ideologies and backgrounds are a source of worry. The Southern Movement is divided into several “camps” according to the leader they support.
Even in such determining occasions as the NDC, the Southern Movement is lacking a clear stance. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Agreement (note: the transition deal that lead Saleh out of power and set up the NDC) clearly states that the outcomes of the transitional period should preserve the Yemeni unity. Therefore, the participation aim of the Southern Movement, once again, raises several questions. There are two possibilities that could be concluded from the participation of the Movement in the NDC: either there is a fraction of the Southern Movement that accepts unity under certain conditions, or they are challenging the clauses of the GCC Agreement. The answer to this question is still unknown.
Adding to that, the two rivals of the 1986 southern civil war, Salem Al-Bidh and Ali Nasser Mohammed, are still alive, and one could fear the tensions that might result from their return to Yemen. Admittedly, Ali Nasser Mohammed has stated that he would not pretend for power if secession happens, but will those words really prevail?
Trust is difficult to grant to people who have had very different stances throughout history. For instance, Tareq Al-Fadhli, who is considered today as one of the Southern Movement leaders, has started as an Arab fighter in Afghanistan, then fought on the side of the North in 1994 (note: civil war between the North and the South) and finally joined the Southern Movement very recently. Such southern personalities, who fought for the North in 1994 are not few, and this factor considerably undermines their legitimacy when claiming that they are fighting for the rights of the southerners. This puts the Southern people in front of one choice: trusting those who once before sold them out.
Monopolizing the South?
Perhaps, the first and foremost source of legitimacy for any group, ideology or political current is the number of its adherents and supporters. Till this day, there are no reliable statistics regarding the number of the Southern Movement supporters, even though media portrays the majority of southerners as their supporters. Therefore, it would be flawed to label the southerners as secessionists, since many of them are not (for a variety of reasons).
One of these southern but non-Southern Movement groups (they do not identify themselves as such), called “Aden for Adenis”, has appeared recently. Despite the fact that this group is still nascent, it is a clear indication that the Southern Movement is failing to represent the entirety of the southern people. “Aden for Adenis” is a group advocating the “independence” of Aden from the northern and, more interestingly, from the southern governorates. It uses the Aden protectorate flag used during the British colony and accuses the other southern governorates of destroying Aden after 1967, thus after the independence from Great Britain.
When few months ago, this group went out for a demonstration, the Southern Movement attacked its members. I am not discussing the credibility of this group in this piece, but rather the worrisome indicator that the Southern Movement might be suppressing other southern voices, something they have accused the “Sana’a regime” of doing.
Challenge of an expired doctrine
The Southern Movement supporters seem to rely on the past memories more than on future projections when posing their demands and grievances towards the north. One would always hear about those pre-unification years when there was free education for everyone, no unemployment, equal citizenship and no tribalism. These statements are very similar to those made by the older generation people who lived in the former Soviet republic. And this parallel is not a coincidence.
These were clearly the advantages and the “positive points” during the pre-unification period. But they have to be attributed to another entity that kept things under its control: the social rule and the Soviet Union at that time. Socialist system has granted these advantages to South Yemen, which was one of Soviet Union’s satellite countries, a system which is very unlikely to come back. The other positive outcome of the Socialist regime was that it was not based on the tribal relations. However, the non-tribalism myth did not last long. With the civil war of 1986, the tribalism traits have appeared very strongly. This conflict has perhaps started on ideological bases, but it has certainly continued and developed as a tribal and regional conflict. Therefore, the south is not very different from the north in its social structure, making another pillar of Southern Movement’s claims to fall.
Undoubtedly, the South has been marginalized during the unification period and this marginalization was largely reflected on Aden, the capital of South Yemen. But the South was not the only part of Yemen to be marginalized; other governorates such as Saada or Marib were neglected as well. But the question southerners are asking is whether the Southern Movement is fighting a corrupt regime or just fighting for secession with no guarantee for the future.
Anita Kassem is an Adeni student who is currently pursuing her master’s degree in International Security at Science Po in Paris. She recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Science Po.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect La Voix du Yémen’s editorial policy.Français
هذا المقال متوفر أيضا باللغة العربية