Hirak leader calls for beleaguered regime in Sana'a to accept south's self-determination demands
Source: The Guardian by Tom Finn in Aden, 12/11:2011
Leaders of a five-year secessionist movement in Yemen's restive south are threatening to overturn a 1990 unification deal and declare independence, amid growing frustration that their grievances are being overshadowed by the bloody power struggle raging in the country's northern capital Sana'a.
"We give the regime this ultimatum: either you acknowledge our legitimate demands to self-determination or you will soon find Yemen split once again into two countries," said General Nasser al-Taweel, a prominent leader of the Hirak, or southern secessionist movement.
Years of maltreatment and neglect at the hands of the Sana'a government had left many in Yemen's south querying the value of the 1990 merger between the then Marxist-led south and the tribal-dominated north.
Now, with President Ali Abdullah Saleh's armed forces battling renegade soldiers and tribal militias in Sana'a, the separatists are seizing the opportunity of a weakened central government to try to see through their claim to independence.
In the southern port city of Aden, a former British colony built in the dusty crevices of an extinct volcano, the Hirak, who for years bristled at the region's marginalisation under northern rule, have emerged from the shadows. Bus stops draped in the blue, red, and white flags of the former socialist republic of South Yemen and kitted out with amplifiers have been transformed into makeshift protest stages and podiums for the delivery of defiant "anti-unity" speeches.
In the suburbs, abandoned government buildings overlook alleys strewn with shattered paving slabs and heaps of smouldering rubbish, ominous reminders of the running street battles between separatist demonstrators and security forces that still haunt the city.
Even the hoarding showing the president outside the airport has not survived the Hirak's blitzkrieg. "Get out Ali, you dog, free the south!" is scrawled in thick red paint across the ruler's eyes.
Years of intimidation, floggings and midnight arrests by the regime's secret police had forced most of the Hirak's leadership abroad or underground. Now they move freely about the city,
organising weekly rallies and holding round-table discussions in coffee shops and restaurants.
"The regime is expending all its firepower on the north," said Mohammed Omar Ahmed Jubran, an elderly Hirak leader, addressing a group of youth activists in a ramshackle tea shop in downtown Aden. "We must seize this opportunity to regain our rights."
Though the south is home to only a fifth of Yemen's 22 million people, it generates the majority of the impoverished Arab country's wealth. Up to 80% of oil production comes from the south, along with its fisheries and Aden's port and refinery
But southerners claim they have lost out since unity both in terms of access to local power and jobs – the governors of all seven southern provinces are from the north – and as a result of systematic land grabs by well-connected northerners.
"How is that a northern sheikh can own a farm in the south that is bigger than Dubai, while an ordinary southern citizen cannot find 15 square metres to build a house on?" said Mohammed Al-Azaadi, a final year medical student at Aden university. "They have looted the foundations of our state. Now all we have left now is our blood."
Others lament the loss of the liberal culture that once pervaded Aden, blaming this on an infiltration of conservative Islam from the north.
Adeni women say they had better access to education and jobs before unity. Others voice bitterness over rigid dress codes imposed by Islamists who gained influence after the 1994 civil war.
"In the 80s women and men here reached greater equality than many parts of Europe," said Raqiya Homeidan, 66, an outspoken defender of women's rights and the first woman in the Arabian Peninsula to become a practising lawyer. "Now we've gone back a century." The advent of Egyptian-inspired protests in February saw flurries of co-operation between protesters in the north and south.
Both agreed to raise neither the Southern nor the Yemeni flag during demonstrations in order not to fracture opposition voices and undermine the immediate goal of regime change.
But euphoria has given way to disenchantment.
Many southerners are convinced that the Islamist-dominated opposition are more interested in its own political ambitions than addressing their popular grievances.
"They [the opposition] do not recognise our struggle as a political one. They speak about us as if we are an inconvenience not an independence movement," said Saleh Bin Farid Al-Awlaki, a prominent southern sheikh and wealthy businessman backing the secessionists.
But the south now has religious radicals of its own to contend with. Thousands of refugees have fled Islamist militants who have captured cities in the neighbouring province of Abyan.
Packed into the dingy classrooms of primary schools across Aden, they recall with terror the sight of the self-described "guardians of Islam" overrunning cities and plundering weapons factories after a swift retreat by army forces. But some accuse Saleh of deliberately fomenting conflict in Abyan in order to make the south seem unworthy of statehood.
The southern movement still lacks unity, strong leadership and international support, said Prof Abdul Faqih, a professor of politics at Sana'a University.
"But this problem is not about to go away. The southern issue is to Yemen what Palestine is to the Middle East: until it is addressed there can be no stability in the region."