A South Yemen separatists hold a rally in the southern port city of Mukalla in 2014. Image Credit: Saeed Al Batati/Gulf News

Al Mukalla: October 14 was an important day for south Yemen separatists as thousands streamed into a large parade area in the southern city of Aden, the base of the internationally recognised government, to restate their long-held demand — to break off from the north and create their own state of South Yemen.

“We want to keep our cause alive and kicking,” Ali Bathouab, a senior figure in the Southern Movement and known as Herak, a loose term for separatists, told Gulf News.

Disgruntled southerners took to the streets of major south Yemen cities in 2007 to vent their anger over what they see as inequality and marginalisation by the northerners.

The southerners say that, after a civil war between south and north Yemen in 1994, the victorious northerners discharged thousands of military and civilian public servants and took control of the south’s oil wealth. Since then, the southerners have carried out routine demonstrations repeating their demands.

To them, “regaining” their former state would bring back jobs and would enable them to take charge of their wealth.

Almost a decade later, Bathouab thinks that ongoing peaceful protests have yielded fruit and they are edging closer to their goal. “Before this war [against Al Houthis], the Herak [separatists] had played a critical role in mobilising the southerners against the Al Houthi invasion,” Ahmad Bamoulem, another senior separatist figure from the province of Hadramout told Gulf News.

“The southerners are in charge of all of their provinces now,” he said, adding that they have come a long way since 2007.

In early 2015, Iran-backed Al Houthis who took over the capital months earlier, came very close to invading the southern city of Aden, the capital of former South Yemen and a seat of power for the separatists.

When Al Houthis reached the edges of Aden in March, Saudi Arabia and allied Arab countries kicked off a massive aerial bombardment to push them back.

Bathouab said that Al Houthi opposition to southern separatists’ demands for years gave them reason to join the Saudi-led Arab coalition.

Five months later, the separatists, Islamists and other factions, with the coalition’s help, expelled Al Houthis from what was once the South Yemen state.

But as they celebrated victory, Al Qaida, which had been lurking in the shadows because of the security vacuum, sought to exploit the situation. The militants quickly overran many major cities threatening to torpedo the separatists’ dream of regaining their lost state. The separatists regrouped and launched a massive and coordinated military campaign to recapture their cities from Al Qaida.

Thanks to the coalition’s military help, the once-suppressed movement is now calling the shots in the south.

Governors, army commanders, security chiefs and thousands of low-ranking soldiers are separatists through and through. So, what is now stopping them from unilaterally declaring their state?

Bathouab and Bamoulem, who represent hardline separatist outfits that call for immediate independence from the unified Yemen, say that they have to overcome some hurdles to reach their goal.

The first obstacle is the presence of thousands of northern army troops in parts of Hadramout and Mahra. The coalition did not bomb these forces as they threw their weight behind President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

“We cannot declare a state while some parts of the south are still under occupation,” Bamoulem said.

Months of fighting in the south have destroyed all government bodies and basic infrastructure.

Bathouab thinks that the southerners should first rebuild these institutions and “prove to the world that they have the ability to run their future state”.

Critics argue that deep-rooted divisions are the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the southern separatists.

Despite wanting independence, southerners have largely failed to overcome their differences or come together to form a unified political entity to speak on their behalf.

A couple of months ago, the governor of Aden, Aidaroos Al Zubidi, called upon political factions in the south to create a unified front to promote their cause on the international arena.

Many leading figures hailed the call but have yet to agree on how to form the body.

Convinced that the southerners would waste time squabbling over who should be included and excluded from the new body, Bathouab suggests that Saudi Arabia should host a conference for southerners to help them form a joint body akin to the Syrian opposition meeting in December last year.

Haidar Al Attas, a veteran politician from the south and a former prime minister, warned that the southerners would lose an unprecedented and golden opportunity if they did not form a joint body to represent them in any future talks. “The south can only leave the unification after a political process and this could not happen unless the southerners have a joint political body,” he said in a televised interview in September.

Al Attas is a moderate separatist who believes in reviving the former south state through political arrangements with the north, a line of thinking that usually irks hardliners.

He also thinks that southerners should accept the outcome of National Dialogue Conference that divides the country into a federal state of six regions: two in the south and four in the north.

Bathouab responded: “We have rejected the conference’s agreements since it legitimises occupation, keeps us within their identity and divides the south.”

Mohammad Al Qubaty, the minister of tourism and a southern activist, warned that declaring a South Yemen state would lead to a head-on clash with the Saudi-led coalition.

“Any decision that does not take into consideration the regional and international powers’ interests is not be achievable,” he told Gulf News during his recent visit to Al Mukalla, capital of Hadramout province.

Al Qubaty thinks that the southerners can achieve their goal through engaging actively in the political process and by accepting the federal system, adding that the two regions in the south can come together and hold a plebiscite on independence.

“We did not let the coalition down when they came to the south, so we hope they will not let us down too,” Bathouab said.