Thursday, 13 January 2011

North-south problems strain Yemen union

Source: Financial Times, 13/01/2011

In Yemen’s tattered port city of Aden, poverty and youth unemployment are feeding political resentment and stoking a growing secessionist movement, as southerners look nostalgically to the time when they had their own republic.

The Socialist party-ruled People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south voluntarily unified with North Yemen in 1990, but tensions resulted in a civil war in 1994, after which the north emerged as the dominant partner.

“1994 was a struggle between two cultures, and the south lost everything,” says Murad Alhalmie, a Socialist official in Aden who works on unemployment issues.

Many Yemen observers consider the anger and secessionist sentiment now erupting in the south to be a greater threat to the country’s stability than its better publicised struggle with al-Qaeda, and the deteriorating economy is making the tension worse.

Unemployment, particularly among the young, is soaring. Even the government statistics office in Aden puts it at nearly 40 per cent among men aged 20 to 24.

Although youth unemployment is a problem across the country, as the corruption-hampered economy struggles to generate jobs for a rapidly growing population, it resonates with political grievances in the south, rooted in a very different sense of identity.

“These [economic] problems exist everywhere. . . The south is not different,” says Jalal Yaqoub, the deputy finance minister. “But people in the south are looking back to an economic model where the state provided everything.”

Under the socialist system, the state provided employment for much of the population, as well as relatively good education services and food subsidies.

In theory, the private sector should have come in to fill the gap after 1994 but, as in the rest of Yemen, corruption, the poor investment climate and scarce resources have prevented it from flourishing.

Not only does high unemployment create instability, pushing young people into crime and extremism, it also fuels resentment of northerners (derogatively known as dahabisha – people who promote their own interests), whom many southerners blame directly for their unemployment.

“It’s more difficult for me [to get a government job] as a Yemeni man from the south,” says one unemployed accounting graduate who did not want to give his name. Southerners are noticeably more afraid of repercussions from giving media interviews than people in the north. “Even the governor doesn’t have power compared to people from the north,” he adds.

Analysts say there is some legitimacy to the frequent complaint that the few government jobs that exist are often taken up by better-connected northerners. Another widely held belief is that the south has lost out on investment and development opportunities because the central government had no interest in promoting a strong, prosperous south, in spite of being happy to take advantage of its significant petroleum resources.

However, Abdo Seif, from the United Nations Development Programme in the capital, Sana’a, says the lack of significant economic activity in the south is symptomatic of the problems plaguing the country as a whole, rather than the result of deliberate discrimination. “What can politicians do if the economy is not growing?” he asks.

Whether politically motivated or not, the worsening situation in the south feeds a palpable sense of grievance against Sana’a, which secessionists – and al-Qaeda – are able to exploit.
Since the birth in 2007 of the Southern Movement, a disparate alliance that initially sought more rights for southerners and now calls for secession, demonstrations, clashes with security forces and crackdowns have become more frequent.

A notice board in Mr Alhalmie’s office building is covered with photographs of southerners believed to have been killed by security forces. Outside Aden, graffiti showing the flag of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen can be seen.

“It’s not a question of unemployment, it’s a question of corruption and unequal citizenship,” says Afra Hariri, a human rights activist. “Hunger and corruption will certainly produce an explosion.”

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