South Yemen: Unification Dream Becomes Nightmare

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the south Yemenis thought that they had finally succeeded in achieving their old slogans that called for safeguarding the Yemeni revolution, unity, and democracy. (Photo: Ammar Yafei)

By: Jomana Farhat

Published Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Many south Yemenis have become disillusioned concerning the prospects of reunification. A look at their recent history explains why their dream has become a nightmare, with many recalling the north’s dismantling of the south.

Aden – Aden has a quiet, melancholic air these days.

Although clashes between protesters demanding secession from North Yemen and security forces have become less frequent, the appearance of calm belies the simmering crisis just beneath the surface.

Many are in a state of restless anticipation over the ultimate fate of what is known here as the “Southern Question.” While the southern Yemenis were once among the most fervent supporters of reunification, they have since become disillusioned.

When the unification of Yemen was declared in 1990, the south Yemenis thought that they had finally succeeded in achieving their old slogans that called for safeguarding the Yemeni revolution, unity, and democracy.

For a long time, school students in south Yemen chanted these slogans and sung the praises of unification. But the years that followed the reunification of Yemen were sufficient to turn this dream into a nightmare for most south Yemenis.

“Before unification, we were one people in two states, but after unification, we became two peoples in one state,” is a common refrain.

The fading sense of belonging to the Republic of Yemen as it stands can be felt on many levels. Today, if you talk to any individual from the south of Yemen, he would soon begin to list the grievances and the abuses brought about by 22 years of unification, comparing the brutality of the Yemeni state with that of Israel.

Many southerners assert with confidence that what Sana’a has perpetrated against the south and its people is worse even than what the Israeli occupation has done in Palestine. For this reason, the term “northern forces” is absent in the discourse of many southerners, who prefer to use the term “the occupation” instead.

Similarly, places in the south inhabited by northerners are called “settlements,” while people from the north are referred to by the derogatory term Dahbashi, a colloquial Yemeni word used to describe a naive person. Accumulated incidents over the years have sown resentment among southerners toward the people and government of the north, and paved the way for the flare-up of the Southern Question years ago.

Today, more than ever, various segments of the political spectrum in Yemen agree that the Southern Question started out chiefly as a human rights issue that snowballed over time because of Sana’a’s indifference toward it. Inevitably, it morphed into a political issue and a question of a lost identity that the southerners are now seeking to restore, but without agreeing on the shape of their new identity or the path they must tread to achieve their goal.

Some like to trace the roots of the Southern Question to a time before the unification agreement was signed, specifically to the transformations witnessed in the internal arenas of both the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen and the Yemen Arab Republic.

These, it is argued, had paved the way for Ali Salem al-Baid and Ali Abdullah Saleh to merge the two states, but without a careful study of whether coexistence between them was possible, or even a well-thought-out formula for unification that would ensure participation by both northerners and southerners in the administration of the new Republic of Yemen.

The repercussions of this rushed decision did not take long to appear, quickly emerging in the months that followed unification, when the first hints of the marginalization of the south began to surface. At the time, this sparked a huge dispute between the “two Alis,” Baid and Saleh.

The Document of Pledge and Agreement, signed in late 1993 in Jordan, attempted to put an end to these differences, but to no avail. Not long after that, a full-blown war erupted between the partners of unification after Baid announced the secession of the south from the Republic of Yemen on 21 May 1994.

The economic and political gains accrued by Saleh and his allies after unification, however, meant that they could not let the south slip from their hands under any circumstances. Civil war thus returned to Yemen.

The northern government, led by Saleh, defeated the southern secessionists on 7 July 1994, and imposed unity by force with the help of a group of southerners that had defected to its side. This ushered in one of the cruelest stages in the lives of south Yemenis, who were systematically excluded and marginalized.

Speaking to Al-Akhbar, Hussein al-Aqel, a university lecturer, said that the south was lured into a trap in the name of unification in order to eliminate the state structure and the institutions of the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen.

Aqel, who is the author of a book on the Southern Question and the abuses of the north in south Yemen, explained, “Baid was told a few months before unification that he could make any demands he wanted, which would then be met.”

Aqel said that this turned out to be an ambush for the southern side, citing the subsequent assassinations carried out against a number of southern leaders who moved to Sana’a immediately after reunification.

The belligerence of Sana’a escalated further in the wake of the 1994 war, and only a few years later, most of the wealth in the south fell in the hands of the elite in the north.

Aqel, who was imprisoned and tortured for conducting a precise study of the conditions of governmental and private institutions in the south in the aftermath of these events, explained how the south’s resources were systematically destroyed by the north.

For example, up to 46 governmental and public sector institutions and establishments were forcibly seized, including the Monetary Authority and the General Establishment for Flour Mills. Aqel also said that more than 28 state-owned factories were appropriated, including manufacturers of textiles, dairy products, and agricultural equipment.

But this did not stop with the public sector. About 11 mixed private-public and privately-owned production plants were also seized, in addition to around 33 state-owned farms with a total area of approximately 28,000 acres, scattered throughout the southern provinces. The 56,000 employees of these establishments were fired after the war of 1994.

Furthermore, 86 agricultural and service cooperatives were confiscated, in addition to properties owned by agricultural associations. Their members, who are estimated to number around 16,449, were in turn denied access. Similarly, the fishing fleet belonging to the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen was looted, having once been the second largest Arab fleet of its kind.

The army did not fare any better. To be sure, Sana’a disbanded the armed forces of the southern state, which were composed of 58 brigades and 14 battalions, and dismantled their capabilities for good measure.

Perhaps the most serious thing to happen in the aftermath of these practices is the fact that mandatory retirement was forced upon more than 467,649 out of 604,200 employees of the army, without giving them retirement benefits. This meant that a large number of the army staff became unemployed, and had to cope with difficult economic conditions as a result.

Aqel emphasized that these figures, which he tackles in more detail in his book, were taken from northern and not southern sources. He said it was important to make comparisons between what northerners owned in the south, and what southerners owned in the north, pointing out that individuals affiliated with the north of Yemen own up to 42 percent of the area of Aden.

He then cautioned against current plans to alter the demographic landscape in the south, particularly in Aden, and mentioned plans to build six new residential developments in the Aden area between 2025 and 2030, which would be settled by northerners – including Enma City located between the towns of Mansoura in the east and al-Shaab in the west.

This development, which is owned by a company controlled by the sons of Sheikh Abdullah Bin Hussein al-Ahmar, will contain 5,150 residential units. Meanwhile, Green City, which, according to Aqel, can accommodate only 1.4 million inhabitants, is expected to take in up to 3 million residents over the next ten years. Similar plans for large-scale real estate projects exist in other cities in the south of Yemen.

Concerning the oil industry, Aqel explained the shifts seen in this sector, and said that shortly after the reunification, there were two oil companies operating in south Yemen. After the 1994 war, the number rose to more than 30 firms.

These companies were mostly owned by northern figures, and were established under the direct orders of President Ali Abdullah Saleh at the time. More than 80 companies, which Aqel called “gangs,” then came into existence.

Aqel believes that the main cause of such practices stems primarily from the fact that the south, following the war, “was seen as a spoil that the elite in the north could do with as they pleased,” until the south ultimately became part of the north’s backyard.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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