Movement for South Yemen Secession Braves the Odds
By: Jomana Farhat
Published Monday, October 15, 2012
Amid much publicized infighting among leaders of southern secession groups, not to mention waves of assassination attempts – some successful – leaders are still confident of achieving their goals.
Differences over Yemen’s southern question are no longer only between supporters of federalism and self-determination on the one side and supporters of secession on the other. Over the past few weeks, divergent views have emerged among the supporters of disengagement from northern Yemen.
Differences as such prompted Hassan Baoum, a prominent leader in the South Yemen Movement – a broad coalition of groups united by the common goal of secession from the North – to convene the First National Conference of the Supreme Council of the Peaceful Movement to Liberate the South, against the wishes of former Yemeni Vice President Ali Salem al-Baid, and several other leaders of the movement’s Supreme Council.
Yet, despite these developments, Nasser al-Khabji, member of the Supreme National Council for the Liberation and Independence of the South, confidently asserted to Al-Akhbar that the restoration of the southern state was an ineluctable matter.
Citing his confidence in the popular will and attitude, Khabji, who is also the president of the South Yemen Movement council in the Lahij province, did not assign great significance to proposals for federalism and self-determination, and even for participation in dialogue – unless as part of northern-southern talks – preferring instead to focus on the imminent restoration of the southern state, as he put it.
The Southern Movement leader also spoke about efforts to mobilize individuals who believe in the southern cause, in the sense that there is an occupation in place and resistance that stands up to it, as he said. But Khabji clarified that resistance does not necessarily have to be armed, and gave the example of the efforts for economic resistance that have been recently gaining ground.
Concerning solutions to the southern question, Khabji believes that it is not ordinary people who should propose answers, but politicians. This, to the president of the South Yemen Movement council in Lahij, however, does not mean at all that independence of the South can be compromised.
Proceeding from this view, Khabji explained that insisting on Ali Salem al-Baid’s legitimacy stemmed primarily from the desire to safeguard the southern cause, since it was Baid who had signed the reunification agreement, and since it was him who then subsequently declared disengagement from the North. According to Khabji, in the event that the former Yemeni vice president backs down on his demand for secession, those who support disengagement would find themselves in a difficult position.
If Baid’s position changes in any way, Khabji warned, then many supporters of secession would be firm and would not stand idly by, as they are fully capable of pursuing other choices. He went on to say that if this happens, things could quickly get out of control and take a different turn, particularly since the situation in the south of Yemen at present would definitely allow for this eventuality.
He also cautioned that factions, not necessarily of the Southern Movement, may pursue armed struggle for their own ends, in which case “the cost of a solution would be hefty, unlike now," Khabji said, adding that “this is something that the politicians in the North, as well as international and regional forces, must pay heed to.”
When it comes to politicians and the differences plaguing the various factions of the separatist Southern Movement, Khabji did not seem to harbor any concerns about recent developments. On the contrary, he stressed that every day that passed went to reinforce the southern cause.
Khabji argued that the way these differences are portrayed and exaggerated, suggests to some that the Southern Movement is in grave danger. He said, “Those of us who are closely involved in the movement realize that [these differences] are not very serious, especially since there are many shortcomings in the organization of the movement, which is not a political party as much as it is a grassroots popular movement.”
The secessionist leader, who rejects claims about disputes among the components that make up his movement, prefers to say instead that there are divergent views concerning organizational and administrative issues. He also denied the existence of two distinct wings within the pro-disengagement bloc – one tied to Saudi Arabia, and another to Iran.
Nevertheless, this did not stop him from stating that “there is a plot against the Supreme Council of the movement,” citing the extensive Arab coverage of the dispute between Baoum and Baid, while no similar attention seems to be given to any southern conferences or events.
In the context of the southern question, Khabji pointed out that Saudi Arabia wants to engage in crisis management rather than crisis resolution. Maintaining that Saudi Arabia does not want to have a democratic state on its borders, he called on the Kingdom to return to the stance adopted by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in Riyadh in 1994, which held that unity between the North and the South could only happen by mutual consent.
Regarding the relationship between Baid and Iran, Nasser al-Khabji said, “It is our right to have relations with any side that reaches out to the southerners – except Israel – if this side wants to support the cause without conditions.” He then stressed that the rapprochement with Iran did not hurt the southern question, since the main backing is the popular will.
The southern leader surmised that outside actors would take action once they feel that their interests are at stake, and said that the Southern Movement had ways to make these actors feel anxious for their interests. He also maintained that the Gulf countries must be the ones to reach out to the southerners, and not vice versa.
In this vein, Khabji revealed that a large part of the support Baoum has comes from Yemeni businessmen in Saudi Arabia, who want to counter what they believe is Iranian support for his opponents.
The best and only way to overcome the various differences among the factions that make up the Southern Movement, Khabji said, was dialogue. He also ruled out any violence, especially since the movement advocated reconciliation and tolerance.
This, however, did not stop him from admitting that senior leaders of the movement continue to squabble with one another. Khabji called on these leaders not to repeat the mistakes of the past, especially when there were many actors who wait for such disputes in order to highlight and exploit them.
To Khabji, the most important issue is that today there is agreement in the South over what he called “a legitimate cause versus an occupation, where the only disputes are over what the best solution is,” stressing that those calling for secession are the majority.
He also said that those demanding federalism “are a minority, mostly party leaders who now hold interests in the North, and believe that disengagement would harm these interests.” For this reason, Khabji argues that reassurances need to be given to federalists.
He said, “True, we are in a revolution today, but soon enough, there will be a state, and those who lead the revolution will not necessarily be the ones to lead the state.”
He also addressed the concerns some have that disengagement would mean a revival of the one-party rule of the old People's Democratic Republic of Yemen, and said that the totalitarian regime would never return.
Meanwhile, Ali Haitham al-Gharib, head of the Political Bureau of the Supreme Council of the Southern Movement, spoke about the importance of the National Conference of the Supreme Council of the Southern Movement, which was recently held by Baoum and boycotted by Baid, describing it as a “major event for the southern cause.”
Gharib was dismissed from the movement’s Supreme Council following the conference. But he downplays this since, in time of revolutions, no one can be excluded or marginalized, as he puts it. Gharib proclaimed that the conference was meant to “strengthen the relationship between the legitimate president Ali Salem al-Baid and leader Hassan Baoum and other factions within the movement, and not to undermine Baid.”
For this reason, the southern activist refuses to say that the conference was counterproductive – since a dispute, rather than rapprochement, had since ensued with Baid. According to Gharib, the adverse results appeared only in the media, which highlighted the dispute over the timing of the conference from a standpoint that served the occupation, as he said.
Gharib pointed out that Baid did not reject the conference, but expressed some concerns, and said that the former vice president promised to study the request submitted to him, which called on him to adopt the results of the conference.
Having confirmed that Baid did not take a negative attitude towards the conference, as was rumored, he revealed that some powerful – yet not very popular – individuals surrounding Baid wanted to sow discord between the latter and Baoum.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.