Southern Yemenis protest Yemeni central government, 2007-2009

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Timing
Time Period:  
May
2007
to
April
2009
Location and Goals
Country: 
Yemen
Goals: 
Equality with citizens of North Yemen

Greater local decision-making power

Control over the South's economic resources

An end to corruption

 

Yemen is a country of over 20 million people located in West Asia, at the intersection of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. After a history of being one country it experienced three centuries of separation into North and South, most recently divided between the Ottoman and British empires early in the 20th century.

The country finally united again in 1990, when the north and south merged and became the Republic of Yemen. The parliament of each former nation elected the new president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, as it formed the new government.

However, the north and south developed differences about how rapidly the two should integrate and what the terms were for power-sharing. The conflict came to a head in 1994 in the outbreak of a civil war which was won by the north, headed by Ali Abdullah Saleh who pledged to protect political democracy.

By the mid-2000s, however, large numbers of citizens came to doubt that Saleh would give up tight control of the treasury and of governance. The doubt was particularly strong in the south of the country. Individual opposition groups wrote letters and held marches in the time leading up to the initiation of the Southern Movement. Each nonviolent action received a harsh response from the regime, facing public scandals, arrests, and occasionally death.

The Southern Movement began in 2007, catalyzed by former southern military officers forced into early retirement. The officers demanded higher pensions. Their leader, Nasir Ali al-Nuba, urged a nonviolent campaign using the tactic of sit-ins. The veterans hoped to use nonviolent action to solve the problems created in the unification of North and South Yemen.

The unification created several issues for the South such as economic grievances, concerns over access to political power, and issues of national identity. At the time the campaign’s goals mainly focused on: equality with citizens in the nation’s North, jobs, greater local decision-making power, and more control over the South’s economic resources, including Yemen’s largest oil field atal-Maseela.

Once the protests began, the president moved further toward fulfilling his promise of decentralization. The government also tried to show its concern about the situation in the South by asking the Southern governorates and local councils to provide a list of their demands so that discussions could be held.

The Southern Movement took action in al-Mukalla and other cities throughout the South with sit-ins, strikes, and nonviolent demonstrations. Fearing the spread of opposition, the regime ordered that al-Nuba be arrested along with a few of his colleagues.

Despite the repression the campaign continued to grow. Starting with a few hundred protesters at the initial demonstrations, the crowds soon grew to thousands and eventually hundreds of thousands of supporters.

On 14 October 2007 security forces shot and killed four young demonstrators. The incident occurred on the anniversary of the 1963 killing by British colonial soldiers of seven Yemenis, on exactly the same streets. The reminder of repression during the revolutionary struggles of the past led to massive anti-government protests across the south.

The funeral for the four did not take place until December. As the campaign continued, security forces killed and injured dozens of activists campaigning throughout the South.

In May 2008, Saleh suddenly allowed the indirect election of provincial governors by members of the powerless local councils. But because ordinary citizens were barred from voting, this half-measure failed to placate supporters of the Southern Movement.

The participants at early sit-ins held signs that demanded “equal citizenship” and increased powers of local government, but by the end of 2008 the movement radicalized and protesters demanded “Southern independence” and secession. Consequently, at rallies in 2009, demonstrators began waving the flag of the former South Yemen, which had not been used publicly since the war in 1994.

However, the campaign’s character altered in early April 2009 when Sheikh Tareq al-Fadhli, a former southern ally of Saleh’s, joined the Southern Movement. Al-Fadhli’s participation was significant because leaders of the movement both inside and outside the country welcomed him.

After al-Fadhi joined the campaign it became much more belligerent and militaristic. For example, in contrast to the campaign’s earlier nonviolent action, al-Fadhli appeared at public rallies in his hometown with a holstered pistol and heavily armed bodyguards.

The next month al-Qaeda’s leader in Yemen, Nasser al-Wahayshi, also declared al-Qaeda’s support for the Southern Movement. Although leaders of the movement tried to reject association with al-Qaeda – especially after al-Qaeda was held responsible for killing large numbers of women and children in a village in late 2009 – al-Qaeda still remained active in South Yemen.

While much of the movement's leadership attempted to separate themselves from violent tactics, al-Qaeda’s influence had an impact in reducing the previous level of support from the people. The nonviolent campaign fizzled out.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Day, Stephen. "The Political Challenge of Yemen's Southern Movement." Yemen: On The Brink (2010). Print.

Stracke, Nicole, and Mohammed S. Haidar. "The Southern Movement in Yemen." (2010). Web.