Tensions Flare in South Yemen
Demonstrations and armed conflict in southern Yemen are heightening fears of growing instability in the impoverished nation, already battling an insurgency in the North.
Yemen has experienced marked instability since September’s 2006 presidential election. In the northern Sa’ada province, about 60,000 soldiers have been embroiled in a guerrilla war with about 2000 Zaidi Shi’a rebels since January. Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting and military bombing, and many are without shelter, food, water, and medical care.
On May 22, Yemen marked the 17th anniversary of the 1990 unification of the Arab Republic (YAR, North Yemen) and the People’s Democratic Republic (PDRY, South Yemen). In the south of Yemen, the day was greeted by public demonstrations demanding negotiations between north and south under the auspices of the U.N. Protesters marched in Lahj, Aden and Abyan raising black flags. A large rally held in Mukalla drew participants from neighboring cities. Security forces detained the leader of a protest in Shabwa and opened fire over the heads of the marchers in Dhalie.
Protests have been ongoing as thousands of demonstrators in al-Dhalie returned to the streets on June 3 and, “denounced the repeated violations and abuse practiced against citizens in the province,” the opposition weekly “al-Sahwa” reported. On June 4th, forcibly retired southern soldiers held a demonstration in Aden.
Armed conflict broke out in al-Mahfed as hundreds of forcibly retired soldiers blockaded a main highway between Shabwa and Abyan governorates. Yemeni security forces have been unable to regain control of the area, and fighting, although sporadic, has been ongoing. The prospect of continuing unrest and growing violence looms as the underlying grievances of southerners, dating back to the civil war, have been unaddressed for years.
The 1990 unification of Yemen brought together 2 million southerners with 12 million northerners in a democratically structured power sharing arrangement. However, since Yemen’s 1994 civil war, the country is ruled by a cabal of northern military and tribal elite that deploys the terminology of “democracy” while excluding authentic popular political participation.
With corruption rampant and overt, the government has been dubbed “a kleptocracy.” As northern hegemony took hold, the south was ravaged. Assets, land, jobs and natural resources were illegally appropriated and state resources withheld.
After the 1994 civil war, several hundred thousand southern and eastern military and civil employees were illegally discharged from their positions. Their pensions are at less than a sustenance level. Poverty in all of Yemen is pervasive; however some southerners believe that poverty in the south is by design. The pensioners, sometimes called the “stay at home party,” have through the years sought to address their grievances through demonstrations, sit-ins and judicial remedies, to no avail.
Rather uniformly, regime officials and the state controlled media have denounced those addressing the inequitable outcome of unity as “separatists” seeking to undermine the state. In May the defense minister accused protesting pensioners of seeking secession. Another common official response to southern grievances is to wield the term “apostates” as the former PDRY was a socialist state. Excluding the pensioners and southerners from the political system and denying them political redress for legitimate grievances has only served to heighten tensions.
Beyond the pensioners’ specific concerns, southern residents have denounced other regime practices, only to be rebuffed by authorities. Among the foremost of these is the consistent, widespread and blatant land theft by northern elites, targeting both public and private properties. Homes, parks, and even a cemetery have been overtaken by armed gangs supported by “influential persons.” Another irritant is the substantial intrusive military presence and network of checkpoints in the south. Areas of perceived systematic discrimination include withholding employment and educational opportunities, exclusion from effective political participation and a lack of basic services. The history of the PDRY has been erased, some oppositionists claim. The exiled southern opposition group, Tajaden, claims U.N. Security Council resolutions 931 and 924 issued during the civil war have been violated, and thus, south Yemen is under illegal occupation by the north.
Unlike the northern Zaidi rebels, the southern protesters are expressing grievances quite familiar beyond the south. In recent months, unexplained prices hikes have hit basic commodities. With half of Yemenis living in poverty, higher prices translate into persistent daily hunger for a substantial number of citizens. President Saleh’s electoral campaign promises of economic reform and political inclusion have not materialized as any such reform would undermine the ruling elite. Popular concern throughout Yemen is focused on wide scale poverty, unemployment and illiteracy, the growing influence of fundamentalists, and the lack of clean water, electricity and health care.
The Yemeni government manipulates the terminology, processes and institutions of democracy in order to prolong and legitimize an authoritarian rule. Democratic institutions and practices provide a method of preventing pluralism by managing opposition, criticism and discontent. However, once any group gains sufficient traction to demand actual power sharing, the democratic practices fall to the wayside.
In response to burgeoning national frustration, a war in the north and protests in the south, the Yemeni government further restricted civil rights. In recent months the regime has narrowed the limits of free speech; opposition websites are blocked, mobile text news services have been suspended, journalists beaten and arrested, and new newspaper licenses denied. Opposition political activity and activists have been stifled by assaults and threats. One political party was disbanded and others may meet a similar fate.
The protests in south Yemen and the regime’s dismissive and violent response indicate that the text and intention of Yemen’s unity agreement between north and south Yemen have been breached to the detriment of southerners and the benefit of a corrupt oligarchy. However, in failing to consider, include or support the general population during governmental policy making, the state has also breeched the more fundamental premise of “democracy” that underpins the overall legitimacy of the state.