As Yemen strives to move on, the South fights for independenceProtesters in the southern port city of Aden wave a flag from the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and carry a portrait of separatist Ahmed Darwish, a political prisoner who died in detention.As Yemen’s new President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi toils to rein his country back in from the brink of civil war by calling on its people to “build a new Yemen”, separatists in the South have turned a deaf ear, staging protests to demand they be allowed to secede from the North. According to our Observers, the South’s relentless drive for independence has in part punctured the ballooning hope that Yemen might finally have the chance to move past its turbulent past, after 33 years of autocratic rule under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.Supporters of the South’s separatist movement staged a march on February 29 in the port city of Aden, where protesters peacefully brandished flags from the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, a once autonomous state before reunification with the North in 1990. The demonstration was held in solidarity with a separatist camp in Aden’s Mansoura neighbourhood, which was brutally dismantled by the Yemeni army just days before. The operation to break up the camp lasted several hours and was punctuated by the bang of weapons fire, which left one person dead and three others injured.Separatist demonstration in Aden on February 29.A little more than a week before, Yemen’s presidential elections were marred by violence after members of the country’s Southern separatist movement attacked a number of polling stations in Aden, forcing several to close. The vote was highly criticised due to the fact that Saleh’s vice president, Hadi, was the sole candidate featured on the ballot.Tensions between the North and South have run high since reunification, boiling over into civil war in 1994. Although the North ultimately emerged as the victor, Yemen continues to be marked by internal strife and periodic violence. The South Yemen Movement, a civilian separatist group, was founded in 2007 with the goal of advancing the fight for independence through non-violent means.
“Some separatists thought that Saleh’s downfall would immediately result in the South’s independence”Shafii Al’abd is a member of the South Yemen Movement.The separatist movement that took hold in the region splintered during the popular uprising. One faction was drawn to the protest movement, adopting the exact same anti-government slogans used by Yemenis in the North. They held former President Ali Abdullah Saleh responsible for the civil war between the North and South in 1994. There were also some who also thought that Saleh’s downfall would immediately result in the South’s independence. But not all of the country’s young revolutionaries support the idea of an independent south. To the contrary, the majority are against secession and stick to rhetoric on ‘reform’.The other faction, which is larger and more radical, continued to demand their independence outside of Yemen’s popular uprising. Their refusal to join the anti-government protests was symptomatic of their abhorrence of anything connected with the North.Personally, I’m not necessarily for the idea of seceding, but I do think that people in the South have the right to self-determination. Last November, the movement’s most moderate party, which I belong to, met in Cairo to address the issue. We put forth that the conditions of reunification in 1990 be re-examined, and called for the formation of a federal state. At the end of five years, people in the South should be presented with a referendum on whether they are happy with their new status.To build support for these objectives, we’ve focused on mobilising youth who participated in anti-government protests [many of whom have refused to support political parties who joined the country’s Joint Meeting Party, an umbrella opposition group, and continue to stage anti-government protests], who are sympathetic to our cause, because we won’t be able to achieve our goals under Saleh’s system, which is still in place".
“The separatist movement does not represent those who live in the SouthMugahed is studying to become a pharmacist at the University of Aden.The South was where Yemen’s anti-government protest movement really kicked off. You have to remember that the first victim of the uprising against Saleh was in Aden. I was at the very first demonstration and I can tell you that there wasn’t a single flag representing the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen [pre-reunification South Yemen]. Of course there were separatists at the protests, but they’re demands were the same as those of the anti-government protesters – liberty, equality, justice… Six months later, leaders of Yemen’s Southern movement said that the protests were going nowhere, and abandoned the cause to resume calling for independence.Many in the South didn’t appreciate this sudden shift in attitude, and interpreted as a lack of direction. Not only have they distanced themselves from the support base here in Yemen, they are also financed by Yemenis living abroad - for example, in other Gulf countries, or in Britain or the United States. Even the owner of the separatist television station, Aden Live TV, is funded by expatriates. It leaves you with the impression that the movement is completely disconnected from the reality on the ground.I think that the leaders of the separatist movement are not representative of those who live in the South. It’s true that there are still people who are protesting for independence, but it’s their way of making sure that their voices are heard in the North. They’ve put their demands very high to make sure that they get something in the end. But when you speak with these people, they have no real, concrete political or economic ideas of what they’re going to do in the event that the region does gain independence.What’s more, Sanaa has recently named a new police chief and security chief in Aden who have shown a desire for change that many locals support. And, you can’t forget that Mansour Hadi is originally from the South, even if he is part of the system. Since his election, it’s no longer fair for opposition leaders to say that the South is not represented in government.There are certain towns in the South that are determined to fight for their independence, partly because they haven’t been able to forget the violence between the Syrian army and the separatist movement, in particular during 2007 [the year when the South Yemen Movement was founded]. There were also a number of military leaders who were ousted from power over their role in the civil war against the North in 1994. But I think that the majority of people in the South, especially in Aden, support the idea of redefining the terms of reunification to make it fairer rather than seceding from the North as a whole”.