Today, November 30, marks the 46th anniversary of the independence of the southern part of Yemen from Britain.
Following my recent visit to Aden, I was touched by a story in the media reporting that I would be attending the unveiling of the cleaned and refurbished statue of Queen Victoria which sits in the Victoria Gardens in Aden. Sadly, the story is not true, but it was a reminder of the warm feelings that many in Aden have towards the British – and that many British have towards Yemen.
But I think it is a sign, too, that we tend to idealise the past, and to some extent the future also. I see three trends in the National Dialogue Conference that has been unfolding not far from this Embassy in Sana’a:
– an older generation, mainly from the south, who remember good times, good business, and order and modernity in the days of the British, and those from the north who can remember when life was hard and simple, but safe;
– a middle generation who have lived through revolution and the turbulent years of the two republics, some prospering and some not but who remember too well the coups and counter-coups, and the bloody conflicts between north and south before and after unity;
– and a younger generation full of ideals and hope, many aware of the opportunities that were wasted in the past and who desperately want to ensure that Yemen’s natural riches are managed to give them a safe and secure future.
It is a time for Yemenis to reflect on whether they made the best use of the opportunities that their republics, born in the 1960s, offered. And likewise a time to consider very carefully which challenge is greater: to make the union work better, or to cut through all the structural ties – economic, social and institutional – in the knowledge that those broken ties will leave enormous voids.
Neither path is easy. We would be fooling ourselves to think that either of them will lead quickly to a brighter and better future. We need to see the stability that will allow the economy to develop, major improvement in the quality of health services and education, the development and maintenance of infrastructure, and provision of security and justice, whichever path is taken. There is no instant solution, and it will be hard and sometimes painful work. There are injustices and grievances felt by the south – many of which President Hadi is trying, in difficult circumstances, to address. The UN Trust Fund, with $350 million for pensions to the south, is a prime example – although quick disbursal will be essential.
To be frank, I have been a little disheartened by some of the debates going on in the National Dialogue that seem sometimes to lose sight of these pressing priorities for basic services, dignity and self-respect. I know from my conversations with Yemenis in Sanaa, Aden, Taizz and Ibb that many, especially the young, feel the same way. My personal view is that Yemenis will be stronger if they address these issues together.
Let us all hope that this anniversary gives everyone an opportunity to focus on what really matters.