One country, or two?

Four members of the same family in a pick-up truck – a father, two sons and a son-in-law – were ambushed by gunmen in Radfan, southern Yemen, in the early hours of Friday while apparently on the way to open up their sweet shop. Three died immediately, the fourth was seriously wounded and raised the alarm. According to the official Saba news agency police are looking for a “wanted separatist” known as Ali Saif.

As readers may have noticed, I’m recording incidents in Yemen here, as they are reported, in the hope that over time this will build up into a clearer picture. It’s obvious that something is going on (beyond the “normal” levels of background violence found in a country where so many of the citizens are armed) but so far the international media have paid it scant attention.

Back in January, Prof Fred Halliday – a long-standing expert on Yemen – identified the country as one of the six main problemsfacing President Obama in the greater Middle East. He was right to highlight it, though I doubt there’s much that Obama can do: it’s basically a matter for the Yemenis to sort out among themselves. Earlier this month, Halliday gave a bleak but more detailed picture of the situation, saying that President Salih, the architect of Yemeni unity, “has also been the person who has done more than anyone else to destroy it”.

As always in Yemen, it’s advisable to keep an open mind about news reports – especially those from official sources. Friday’s killings do sound like a random separatist attack; they may be, but they might not.

The fact that southern separatists oppose Salih’s regime is no reason for anyone to sympathise with their separatism. Millions of Yemenis in other parts of the country feel the same way about Salih too. Tariq al-Fadli, who has nominated himself for leadership of the separatists, may be a smooth talker but he has a dodgy past. Check him out here and you’ll see what I mean.

The old southern state, which merged with northern Yemen in 1990, was a relic of British imperialism and there is no logical, ethnic or religious reason why it should re-emerge now. Anyone who doubts that should take a look at this article by Yemeni journalist Hassan al-Haifi. He concludes by saying that the struggle against oppression is “not a monopoly of our southern brothers” and suggests that if will be more effective “if all the victims of this injustice, north and south, work together to achieve the liberation of all Yemenis from the oppression that all of Yemen is facing currently. This is not just a southern issue; it is an issue that involves all of Yemen.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 July 2009