Yemen’s stability and security, and its future as a unitary state, are in jeopardy following recent violent demonstrations in the south, experts say.
In the past few days, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in the governorates of Lahj, al-Dhalei, Hadhramaut and Abyan, chanting anti-government slogans and calling for secession and the withdrawal of “the northern occupation”.
Some 18 people (*corrected figure) were killed in clashes between protestors and security forces, and a number of soldiers were killed when armed groups attacked security checkpoints.
The violent demonstrations were the worst in the south since late 2006.
Mohammed al-Daheri, a professor of politics at Sanaa University, said the protesters had initially demanded rights but were now calling for secession.
"If the situation remains unresolved, those who are calling for secession could find a sympathetic ear among the jobless and those who feel oppressed," he told IRIN.
The Yemen Arab Republic (north) and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (south) unified in 1990, to form the Republic of Yemen. But the unitary state was threatened when civil war broke out in 1994, with southern leaders calling for secession. Thousands were killed in fierce fighting which ended with the defeat of the southern leaders represented mainly by the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP).
Yemen’s 21 million people are among the poorest in the world and can ill-afford yet more instability: A devastating conflict in the northern governorate of Saada (2004-2008), could yet flare up again.
|If the situation remains unresolved, those who are calling for secession could find a sympathetic ear among the jobless and those who feel oppressed.|
Two key issues have kept southern grievances alive - land grabs by powerful officials from the north following the 1994 war, and the exclusion of southern civil and military officials from top government jobs.
Several hundred thousand southerners held protest rallies in March 2008 and there have been numerous other protests since 2006. The grievances, which are still valid today, include political murders and arbitrary detention, employment discrimination, exclusion from the political process, omnipresent military camps and checkpoints, and below sustenance pensions; more than 100,000 civil and military workers lost their livelihoods following the 1994 war.
Civil and military pensioners from the south started protests in 2006 demanding equal rights, but the government has refused to respond.
"If this political insensitivity continues, the country might be divided into many parts," al-Daheri said.
According to a 2008 report by the London-based think-tank Chatham House, underlying these separatist gestures was the perceived exclusion of southerners from northern patronage networks in business, politics and military.
Yemen's oil resources are in the south, but southerners complain that the Sanaa regime is hogging the profits, the report said.
The South Movement (SM), led by former disgruntled military officers from the south, is the main focus for those opposing the regime. It recently gained momentum after a number of southern sheikhs joined it.
Last month Sheikh Tareq al-Fadli, a prominent tribal leader in Abyan Governorate and a former ally of President Saleh, announced he was joining SM. He described northern leaders as “invaders of the earth and wealth”, and called for the internationalisation of the south’s case.
Since 2007, 25 protesters have been killed and over 150 injured, according to Member of Parliament Aydarous al-Naqib, head of the Yemen Socialist Party group in parliament.
Al-Naqib told IRIN the authorities were responsible for escalating the violence by using unnecessary force to quell “peaceful protests”.
Earlier this year 70 activists were detained in the south but protesters blocked the main highway until they were released, he said. The authorities should be wary of using force: "It will open fronts which it can't close. It will open the doors of hell," he said.
|If anything happens to unity, God forbid: The country won't be divided into two parts, as some might think, but into many… People would fight from house to house, and from window to window|
Jane Novak, a US-based analyst and expert on Yemeni affairs, told IRIN that over the last two years, SM had gained momentum whenever the state had violently quelled demonstrations.
She said the conflict in the south would probably follow the same pattern as the Saada conflict, where the state targeted a portion of the civilian population.
"The recent shelling of Radfan [a district in Lahj Governorate] galvanised many southerners and left them with a sense that the state is unwilling to address their grievances with anything but bullets," she said.
"Continued military assault and arbitrary attacks on southern protesters, journalists and activists will enflame sentiments and foster the separatist rationale. The state has not yet addressed the central issue, which is the monopoly of power by the northern elite."
The arbitrary arrests of protesters and the numerous injuries and deaths during the protests spurred more demonstrations, she added.
Nasser al-Khabji, one of the SM leaders, told IRIN that during the latest protests the military had bombed some areas, causing panic. "Around 200 families were displaced [in Lahj Governorate]… Life came to a standstill; students were not able to go to schools; shops were closed," he said.
The mobilisation of hundreds of southern pro-government civilians by the government against SM had aggravated the situation, he added.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh on 25 April issued a warning: "If anything happens to unity, God forbid: The country won't be divided into two parts, as some might think, but into many… People would fight from house to house, and from window to window…They have to learn a lesson from what had happened in Iraq and Somalia."
Parliamentary elections originally scheduled for 27 April 2009 were in February postponed for two years, following a long campaign by opposition groups to boycott them.
Yemen ranks 21 out of 60 countries in the Failed States Index 2008, published by the US-based online magazine Foreign Policy.