Apart from constant power outages, a mercurial National Dialogue in the capital, and the unpredictable threat of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Yemen appears relatively settled in its usual state of dysfunctional normalcy. Yet just a day before the country’s national celebrations of North-South unification, hundreds of thousands arrived in Aden from all corners of the South calling for independence. The protests, which were organized by the secessionist movement al-Hirak, began on the morning of May 21 and lasted until midnight. Needless to say, Yemeni national television did not broadcast or announce the event. The only foreign correspondent covering the protests was a reporter for a Russian television channel.
At a time of high democratic rhetoric brought to the region by the Arab Spring, not much has changed for the South of Yemen. An alarming crackdown on freedom of expression by the transitional government since President Ali Abdullah Saleh was ousted in 2011 shows no sign of easing any time soon. In March 2012, the offices of Al Jazeera and al-Arabiya were raided, with bureau chiefs interrogated over the coverage of southern unrest. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported on its website that Fathi bin Lazrek, editor-in-chief of Aden al-Ghad, received an anonymous death threat on May 7. The message urged him to stop his reporting on the South or risk having his newspaper’s premises burnt down — with him inside.
Despite its current state of general disorganization, the transitional government has become quite creative in its suppression of national movements. Rather than outright confrontation, it engages a variety of ploys to isolate movements from international attention, fearing that more “traditional” tactics of using force might garner unwarranted attention and sympathy for such groups. The new policy involves media blackouts of events combined with the intimidation of reporters, preventing them from visiting the South. Checkpoints in Lahj and Abyan have also been fortified with central security officers in an attempt to stop protesters reaching Aden. Some of these officers exchanged gunfire with protesters the day before the May 21 demonstrations.
The scenario is worryingly reminiscent of the 2003 Houthi rebellion in the North, where an uprising, for ideological and political reason, took hold of the city of Sada'a, igniting a war that cost thousands of lives. Rather than having a calming effect, information blackouts in Sada'a galvanized many people in Yemen against Houthis while intensifying their feelings of alienation, prompting the movement to seek alliances with aggressive regional actors and thus further exacerbating conflict. It is disconcerting that the transitional government expects the same tactics used ten years ago to yield different results vis-à-vis the southern movement today.
The dominant chants during the demonstration in Aden were not the kind that Sanaa would like to hear: “No to dialogue, no to negotiations — We are an independent Southern nation!” But in reality, southerners do not need to chant it out loud to make it true: There is no trace of government in the South. Aden may boast some central security and military police at checkpoints, but places like Lahj, Yafa'a, al-Dhala'a and Abyan have no real government presence beyond governorates offices and bill pay service centers. Even police offices are deserted in the majority of these areas. The situation in the South today is a far cry from its former position of prosperity two decades ago.
While it is understandable that government officials are concerned about the influence of secessionist voices, their deliberate intimidation of domestic and international journalists is unacceptable. Someinternational non-governmental organizations operating in the South are careful not to voice opinions on sensitive “internal affairs” issues for fear of retribution from the government.
But who, exactly, is acting on behalf of the “government” now? The current government is comprised of a loose coalition of individuals with divergent political and economic interests, most often unilaterally pushing their own party agendas. Nevertheless, it is no secret that the main drivers of official public policy within the current transitional government are a mélange of Islah party affiliates desperately seeking to strengthen their grip on the South along with disgruntled former security forces long accustomed to employing intimidation and repression to enforce their will. The majority of the southerners refer to this largely unsavory association as the “Tribal Militia of Government.”
Assassination campaigns are intensifying, such as the sophisticated murder of former southern air force officers that took place on May 8 in Daba village in Lahj. The three brigadiers — Talal bin Shihab, Mohsen al-Bagdadi and Nasser Abdullah — were killed in cold blood, and the event was falsely pinned on AQAP initially before local pressure mounted for an investigation. The pervasiveness of human rights violations in the South and lack of response from the international community has led the majority of southerners to believe that they have been completely abandoned in their struggle.
As far as the international community is concerned, secession is an extremely unappealing prospect. Yemen is potentially threatened by an unstable Somalia to its left, a peculiar interest from Iran in both the Houthis and Hirak, and an al-Qaeda recurring presence. At this stage in Yemen's political development, no one is in a position to turn their back on the National Dialogue process that started in March. The international community is furthermore not inclined to spend resources outside the capital on a precarious southern gambit.
Regardless of al-Hirak's secessionist logic, a population that feels disenfranchised is not in anyone's interest. The South is angry and impatient about the lack of visibility and the politicization of their desire for independence. That the government is discussing the southern cause in the capital, yet unable to take notice of the political dynamics in Aden, raises doubts on the legitimacy and purpose of the National Dialogue.
Furthermore, the violations that occurred in the South during the time of transition by security forces and small elites have further inflamed al-Hirak and encouraged the movement to seek alliances with external forces and anachronistic leaders. The government's ambivalence toward the South has helped in opening up the space for spoilers, mainly the former southern president Ali Salem al-Beidh, who is intent on achieving his objectives for secession through any and all possible means.
Some officials in the capital contend that the current southern crisis is driven by a selfish desire of southerners to keep their resources to themselves, implying that secession is a product of greed and opportunity. Sanaa, however, is not maintaining its firm grip on the South out of sheer benevolence either: Oil and gas resources exported from the South have been the backbone of the Yemeni economy for more than 20 years. The government of Yemen understands too well that the southern region has a strong potential for further untapped extractive resources. A disunited Yemen, therefore, would primarily impact the capital and its periphery, which has long been the primary beneficiary of the country’s wealth.
Meanwhile, the tally of southern grievances steadily increases. The government of Yemen needs to deal with movements seeking to control the South, and investigate allegations of human rights violations. The international community should also resist the temptation to ignore al-Hirak to appease Sanaa, which is likely to encourage the government to sidestep the opposition, thereby pushing al-Hirak to align with forces of aggression. They must acknowledge the possibility that Yemen may not be the successful Arab Spring model as once envisioned by its leaders. The current political inertia in the South is bound to break, with dangerous consequences. Official censorship and repression will backfire against the capital, and lead Yemen toward the bleak path of conflict that it is trying to avoid.
Fatima Abo al-Asrar is an independent Middle East policy analyst from Yemen and a former OSI International Policy fellow. Pamela Kilpadi, a doctoral researcher with the University of Bristol School for Policy Studies, contributed to this article.