Yemen's southern problem

With the suspension of hostilities between the government and the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, this seems like a suitable moment for a brief update on the continuing separatist troubles in the south.

It is difficult to get an accurate picture because independent reporting of events in the south (as in the north) is severely restricted; most of the news comes from government sources. Nevertheless, several things are clear. 

The southern insurrection – or whatever is the right word to describe it – is not an all-out military conflict of the kind seen recently in the north. The broad picture is of street demonstrations, some of which pass off peacefully, some of which are prevented by the authorities, and some of which turn into riots. Alongside that, there are violent attacks on people and property but usually on a small scale.

Last Friday, for example, suspected separatist gunmenambushed and killed the director of criminal investigations in al-Dhali’. A soldier also died in the attack and three others, including two soldiers, were wounded.

On Tuesday night, a guard at al-Maflahi district court in Lahj province was shot dead by a gang in two cars. The official news agency accused Taher Tamah, a prominent secessionist leader. It said Tamah and another man, Sami Dayan, had formed armed groups “to cut roads and commit banditry, kidnap cars and loot public and private properties”. 

The interior ministry says at least 130 people, variously described as outlaws, rioters and destructive elements, have been arrested in three southern provinces (Hadhramout, Lahj and al-Dhali’) since the beginning of this month.

According to the ministry, “The arrested were involved in subversion including rioting and road cuts and banditry with the aim to disturb the public security and spread hatred among the people.” 

Those arrested include about 80 who were rounded up over a period of three days following a week of disturbances in al-Houta (Lahj province). According to officials and residents cited by Reuters, army positions came under fire and shops owned by northerners were burnt. Separatists also tried to block the road from Lahj to Aden. These are all fairly typical of the kind of separatist activity reported many times before.

Xinhua news agency also reported the arrest of at least 16 people late on Friday in various parts of the south in connection with “unauthorised protests”. They were said to have been carrying anti-government leaflets and banners, and some of them threw stones at security forces.

Those arrests followed a call from separatist leader Tariq al-Fadhli for an “uprising” last Saturday and were possibly meant to pre-empt it.

On Tuesday it was reported that citizens in al-Houta had handed over 600 tyres to the authorities. The tyres were allegedly “ready for burning by separatists to launch acts of riots and vandalism in the town”.

During the last year, Yemeni security forces killed 147 people in the south, according to a document posted on Jane Novak’s Armies of Libeation website. The document, compiled by Awad Ali Haidarah, names all the victims and briefly describes the circumstances of their death. Their ages range from 18 months to 70 years.

Although the insurrection in the south has a very different character from the Houthi war in the north, there are important similarities. In both cases, the underlying problem is marginalisation and in both cases the government is treating it as a security issue (even if the methods used are different). Depending on how they are applied, security measures can either contain it or exacerbate it. But in the end, as in the north, the southern problem can only be resolved through politics.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 February 2010.