The Southern Question and Islamic State

By Dr Judith Brown, who worked as a humanitarian aid worker in Yemen, and later undertook a PhD at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, Exeter, which was inspired by her personal witness to the suffering of Yemenis, hidden from British audiences by a disinterested media.

Aden; strategic position of Gulf of Aden; Ariel view of Crater, Aden.
Aden; strategic position of Gulf of Aden; Ariel view of Crater, Aden.

yemenmap aden3

In the space of five years between 1962-7, both North Yemen (geographically west Yemen) and South Yemen/PDRY (geographically east Yemen) shook themselves free of the entities that had long been ruling and dominating them.  In the case of the South, a 150 year British occupation, and in the North from tight control by despotic Imams, the aristocracy of the Bakil tribe originating from the north-west corner of Yemen.

The British controlled Aden and its hinterland.  Aden had been an international port for centuries before the British arrived, located at an important crossroads between Asia, Africa and Europe.  It was a cosmopolitan city, educated – and not tribal, as over the centuries Yemenis who lived there had forgotten their tribal links. Included in the Adeni hinterland was the city of Taiz.  Because of the difficulty of fighting mountain tribes, the British drew their line of control between Taiz and Aden, and by default southern Taiz became part of the North.

The large desert area to the east of Aden, known as Hadramaut, was never successfully controlled by the British, although it was divided from North Yemen by the British occupiers. In consequence, the tribes in Hadramaut were fairly independent, with occasional incursions and punishments by British troops when they were seen to be getting too confident or demanding.  But the British occupation of Aden became untenable, and they suddenly left in 1967 with no formal handover.  This left a power vacuum; after bloody struggles the communists prevailed. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the South saw its best option as reunification with North Yemen, this being the popular will of the people of both countries.

South Yemen had good cards to play, and it rushed into the union with the North too quickly, not ensuring safeguards for the South with its smaller population. It had a superior system of governance, education and health, and importantly, unlike the North, it had oil. As a communist state, South Yemen had nationalised all private property, and the prior owners were promised they could have their property returned or compensation after reunification. However, President Saleh of the North ruled united Yemen and he and his cronies grabbed all the Southern assets for themselves, and controlled oil reserves. Moreover, he refused to pay pensions that were due to Southerners. Even as late as 2000, frequently I saw newspaper reports of yet another land grab by Northern warlords and tribesmen, who took land from its rightful Southern owners if they fancied it, the corrupt court system doing nothing to protect the dispossessed.

In 1994, aware of the poor deal they had struck, the South tried to pull up the drawbridge and reclaim their own country.  Saleh was weakened by reactions to his stance on the Iraq War, and the South thought they could win a fight for independence.  But Saleh had control over a group of hardened fighters, the returned mujahedeen from Afghanistan, many from the tribes in the North, including the Bakils. They were told that communist Southerners were not really Muslims, and the situation was likened to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in order to motivate them to fight. In six weeks, the civil war was over, the South forced to succumb to Northern domination.

The Constitution was changed, taking out many of the protections agreed during unity negotiations. Southerners remained resentful, and Saleh unleashed his secret weapon to control them; the beginnings of a movement that became known as Al Qaeda. These groups became particularly active in areas around Aden, and between the mountains of the west and the deserts of the east.  Gradually, the educated and industrious people of the South were forced to become more conservative by their Northern controllers.

Their frustration lead to the re-emergence of the secessionist movement in the 2000’s, called Al-Hiraq, which was predictably dealt with in a heavy handed way by Saleh. In the Arab Spring, I was in the South when the uprising began; the army had a very conspicuous presence.  The first death of a protester of the Yemen Arab Spring, killed by government forces, was in Aden; followed by three more killed close to the house in Mansoura where I was staying; we heard the bedlam and smelled the caudate as we sheltered indoors.

After the uprising and ousting of Saleh, a Yemen Dialogue Conference was meant to solve outstanding issues, but the Southern Question was not adequately addressed; the Southern secessionists and Northern Houthis – originating from the Bakil tribe – were dissatisfied with the outcome.  The Houthis took control of the North and moved towards Aden; the Adeni people were determined not to succumb and set out to resist.  Young men of Al Hiraq took up arms, but whether or not they were joined by Al Qaeda fighters is a much contested issue. Fighters from the Islah party, aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood and with strong links to Saudi, are believed to have recently joined the Southern resistance; it is further claimed they carry Israeli weapons. This sounds worryingly like the beginning of a Da’esh franchise.

As they moved south, the Houthis used the same phrases as in the 1994 civil war; the people of Aden were not proper Muslims, they would kill them and burn their homes. Ordinary Adenis were trapped and fearful; they initially welcomed the opportunistic Saudi bombing as it was the only external assistance on offer. This made the Houthis more aggressive. House by house, the Houthis entered, looted, and sometimes killed or burned down property. Outside were snipers; my friend was forced to leave her home due to the proximity of Saudi bombs, only to be shot at by Houthi snipers as she drove away, four bullets entering her car; she escaped to Hadramaut, which is under Al Qaeda control.  She is a tiny, middle aged doctor, with no military or political interests whatsoever, who has lost all due to war.  Like so many people.

The Houthis should do more to win hearts and minds. They are still brutally controlling the south west population, for example limiting food movement, already in short supply due to Saudi tactics. They have crushed Lahj, and control Aden and Taiz.  They are being led and funded by the dictator ex-President Saleh, who for decades had plundered the South for his own financial gain.  My fear is for a new frontier of the Islamic State in south west Yemen, controlling oil as it passes through the Gulf of Aden to Europe. Stopping the war is becoming more urgent. The Yemeni people must unite, and in a country which has been dominated by tribal politics and despotism for all too long, they have to use their Yemeni generosity to forgive, shape a new Yemen together, and free themselves from their painful past.  Most Yemenis do not support the Houthis, Al Hiraq, Al Qaeda, Islah militias, Saudi Arabia, or Da’esh, and never have. Simply, they have always wanted peace.

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