Yemen: colonial echoes in the south

There is no doubt that southern Yemenis had a raw deal under President Ali Abdullah Saleh – though they were by no means alone in that. There is also no doubt that southern grievances and aspirations will have to be addressed in the forthcoming National Dialogue if Yemen's political transition is to have any hope of success.

In theory, Saleh's departure and replacement by a southern president, together with the National Dialogue, has given the south a once-in-a-generation opportunity for redress. What seems to be missing from this, though, is a politically realistic set of goals on the part of the south.

The southern separatist movement, al-Hirak, is engaged in one of the world's oddest "liberation" struggles: it seeks to re-establish a vanished state which was the accidental product of British and Turkish imperialism.

When the British withdrew from Aden in 1967, the southern part of Yemen became the Arab world's first (and last) Marxist state. The People's Democratic Republic of Yemen lasted until 1990 when it merged with President Saleh's northern state, the Yemen Arab Republic.

At the time, unification was a voluntary choice by the southern leadership, though circumstances probably pushed them into it – including an economic crisis and political disarray as communism collapsed in eastern Europe. Soon afterwards they began to have second thoughts and in 1994 fought a brief war of secession with the north, which they lost despite having Saudi support. Since then, many southerners have complained about northern "occupation" of the south.

The Southern Question (as it's known) was an obvious topic for discussion last week at the London conference on the future of Yemen.

One of the speakers, Thanos Petouris, gave a bizarre picture of contemporary southern political discourse in which the accepted historical narrative of the colonial period, and to some extent the socialist era too, has been turned on its head.

"The colonial past of the south is no longer being seen as a period of oppression, social injustice and political marginalisation as the rhetoric of the nationalist organisations would have it but it has been transformed in collective memory into a period of almost golden age proportions, the restoration of which is to be desired.

"Essentially, the political and ideological language of al-Hirak, in so far as it can be seen as a unitary organisation, appears to have been locked between two extremes. The almost unreserved glorification of an imaginary colonial golden age on the one hand, and the political resurrection of former southern leaders on the other."

He pointed out that three-quarters of the south's youthful population has no direct experience of the socialist period, let alone of British colonialism. [Many will also be unaware that Ali Salim al-Baidh, the inept politician who has now resurfaced at the head of al-Hirak, was the man who led the south into Saleh's arms in 1990.]

Meanwhile, according to Petouris, al-Hirak seems to be hopelessly out of touch:

"Whilst in the Sixties the nationalist movement was in direct connection to other Arab and Third World anti-colonial movements, the Hirak appears to be completely isolated from what has been going on in the rest of the Arab world, and also within the country itself. This has led to the movement's failure to mobilise larger segments of the southern population and, more importantly, to connect it to the youth uprising."

Another speaker, former diplomat Noel Brehony, began by noting that Yemen's independent southern state lasted for slightly less than 23 years and that unified Yemen has existed (so far) for roughly the same period of time – an intriguing fact, though perhaps not a particularly useful one. More interestingly, he pointed out that the south has not been ruled by an imam since the 18th century – a significant difference with the north where the imamate continued until 1962.

The young and politically inexperienced Marxists who took over from the British faced a terrible inheritance, Brehony said. They set up a centralised state modelled on the Soviet Union – totally different from the north – and were "pretty ruthless" about it, with not much regard for human rights. 

In comparison with the north, though, the PDRY did have its good points: good social services, rights for women, limited corruption and very little difference between the poor and the rich. It also made a valiant but failed attempt to reduce tribalism, treated Islam as a private matter not a state matter, and kept qat use under control.

By the early 1980s, the PDRY appeared to have a stronger and better organised state than in north, Brehony said. But in 1986 political quarrels led to civil war which more or less finished off the PDRY as an independent country. When the fighting stopped, 70% of the central committee were gone – dead, arrested or in exile – and this tipped the balance in the north's favour.

Aspirations of Yemeni unity were an essential part of the PDRY's rhetoric. "Every speech, every party document, every political meeting began with unity – this was their goal," Brehony said. "Unity was very central to the politics of the PDRY – though they didn't quite mean it."

Talking of unity without actually achieving it was one way of managing relations between north and south, while each side continued building its own separate state. However, there were some – notably socialists of northern origin – who really believed in unity and wanted to bring it about by spreading the PDRY's system to the north.

According to Brehony, the latter idea was also prevalent among the southern leadership around the time of unification: they believed that once the country was unified they could take control of the north through the ballot box.

(They were wrong about that, of course. Had they been right, we might now be seeing northerners demanding separation from the south. If unification and its aftermath holds a lesson for the National Dialogue, it's probably that everyone should stop trying to dominate everyone else.)

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 January 2013