On Monday in Yemen’s eastern province of Hadramout, a bomb exploded outside a gathering of southern Yemeni leaders. The detonation was premature and there were no casualties.
Inside the meeting sat the target of the assassination attempt: Mohammed Ali Ahmed, a South Yemeni leader who returned to the country in March after 18 years of exile in Britain. Ahmed fled the country after South Yemen lost the 1994 Yemeni civil war. In a July 12 interview with Al-Monitor, Ahmed said “peaceful struggle” is the way for southern Yemenis to achieve their rights. But Ahmed did not forswear returning to violence to achieve his goals.
“We don’t believe in violence,” Ahmed sfaid, “but if doors are closed on our peaceful paths, no one can keep us away from our cause.”
Before, Ahmed was governor of Abyan province, which is today a flash point in the war between the Yemeni army and al-Qaeda. Ahmed took part in the 1986 power struggle and clashes between Socialist Party leaders — today regarded as one of the bloodiest periods in South Yemen's short history. Some even say Ahmed was, in effect, the president of South Yemen at that time. In addition to mobilizing tribes to fight against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Abyan, Ahmed is now working to regain what he calls “southern independence” from the north, which he calls the “sacrificial cow” state, because in North Yemen, cows are sacrificed to settle tribal disputes.
Each day, from morning to night, Ahmed’s house is packed with southerners from different social levels and groups. With a charismatic but enigmatic character, Ahmed speaks with a passion about liberating the south from the “occupiers and invaders.” Despite the fact that Ahmed lived in Britain for 18 years, he does not speak English, or even standard Fusha Arabic. He still speaks colloquial Yemeni Arabic in an Abyan accent. He is currently the most powerful southern leader inside Yemen.
Al-Monitor spoke to Mohammed Ali Ahmed at his home in Aden on July 12, 2012.
Al-Monitor: Mr. Ahmed, it looks that unity by force is the worst form of separation, but it also looks like southern leaders are leaning heavily on the international community to regain their independence, bearing in mind Yemen’s strategic complexity. What is your vision for gaining independence for South Yemen? What are your tools? Are you, as someone who supports federalism that leads to independence, hoping for a South Sudan scenario? Are you planning to be an armed movement?
Ahmed: Actually, peaceful struggle is our principal goal and we think it is the best tool by which to gain our independence. It is the tool our people have chosen for the southern movement. However, revolution has two types of goals: strategic and tactical. The strategic goal is to gain independence using different means: peaceful struggle, protests, demonstrations, etc. If it is necessary, it will turn into armed movement. This is only if we cannot achieve our goals through peaceful means. But southerners have chosen peacefulness up to now. However, if the nonviolent strategy fails, that will be something we cannot control. The reality and our people will make new choices.
Al-Monitor: You think you can achieve independence via armed resistance?
Ahmed: Anything is possible. Though [former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah] Saleh occupied the south with the military, he himself was not really controlling the south. [Southern leaders, like current president Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, helped Saleh in the war.] There might be some new circumstances that help us today or tomorrow, too. We don’t believe in violence, but if doors are closed on our peaceful paths, no one can keep us away from our cause.
Al-Monitor: Earlier this morning, you mentioned that “if peaceful tools don’t achieve our goals, we southerners are willing to ally with the devil to achieve our independence.”
Ahmed: Not now; each incident will have its own conversation.
Al-Monitor: It seems that the Arab Spring got rid of some of the old guard and brought youthful voices onto the scene. But that does not seem to be the case with Yemen’s southern movement. Since we met this morning, I have not seen any youths among your advisers or in your meetings.
Ahmed: We depend on youth as our main grass-roots support and as active participants at the same time. We consider youth as the number-one element in our struggle; women rank second. Even in distributing leadership positions and roles, we gave youth 10% and 10% to the women in our upcoming southern national conference.
Al-Monitor: How do you evaluate President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s role so far, particularly his handling of the southern issue?
Ahmed: Walahi [I swear], personally, I’m very happy because I think of him as a president who is helpful to the southern cause, even though he doesn’t have military or institutional support in the government, because they are loyal to the old regime and are not under his control. We consider him to be a southerner and we think it is his right to say his opinion about the southern issue even if he is a president.
Al-Monitor: Is there any coordination between you and former South Yemen president Ali Salim al-Biedh?
Ahmed: Yes, we have been in touch and he supports our work internally, and he has given his blessing for some of his followers and supporters to work with us. However, he has some reservations that our brothers in northern Yemen are coup experts and liars who do not stick to their words.
Al-Monitor: What about his relationship with Iran? Doesn’t his commitment to external powers distract or limit what you can and cannot do internally?
Ahmed: His connections with Iran are still political talks; I’m not totally sure about it. If all his possible doors are closed, then he has the right to cooperate with Iran to save his people. Iran is an important country to the Arabian Peninsula and to the international community. But honestly, we do not want to have a relationship with it, nor do we want it to have its hands in the southern issue due to its problems with the international and European community and with its surrounding Arab neighbors. That is because we have an ethical commitment toward our neighbors. We must stand in solidarity with them since they have land and border issues with Iran.
Al-Monitor: You enjoy powerful support in the south, but at the same time you enjoy a strong friendship with northern stakeholders, whom southern people look to as their enemies, including figures such as Hameed al-Ahmar and Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar.
Ahmed: Making everyone happy is impossible. If we are happy with someone in the regime, we are seen as part of it, which is not true. We don’t care about what is being said by others because we have confidence in ourselves, our nation and our supporters. The majority supports what we do and we are with this majority. At the same time, we will try to meet with the other actors in the south to choose one unified leadership that will have the authority and legitimacy to negotiate our independence.
Al-Monitor: In 1986, South Yemen comrades killed each other in a bloody battles, agreed to reunification without consulting their people and declared the 1994 Yemeni civil war that helped precipitate the current poor security situation in the south. You are isolating southern youths from decision making, you made problems with the neighboring countries like Oman ... All these things lead one wonder what makes you any different from the Sanaa regime.
Ahmed: Seen through international eyes, we are seen as no different from Saleh. But our people see it a different way. They are people who faced much from Saleh and his regime, which used all of their tools to create problems among southern leaders because they knew southern unity would end North Yemen’s chances in the south. And as you can see, it is clear that no matter how much the north fights amongst itself, the regime and opposition parties large and small all unite against the south.
Unfortunately, we southerners are not aware of this danger and so we are distracted from our goals. In addition to the international and regional interests, they run contrary to our interests now. We southerners are being punished because the south was ruled by a socialist party and the region’s power fears such parties.
Al-Monitor: Some fear that calling for southern independence is an introduction to further fragmentation. Recently, new groups are calling for a return to the [fragmented states of pre-united Yemen]. Some are also calling for a state of Southern Arabia, and so on. Are these fears of further fragmentation legitimate, bearing in mind that the south was independent for less than 30 years before it united with the north?
Ahmed: We shouldn’t have such conversations and demands now. First, we get back our southern state and then our people decide what they want; they are the decision makers. But at this moment, they are blocking the road with such calls and demands. Again, let's get back our state first, and then they can say whatever they want.