ADEN, Yemen (Reuters) - Abdulrahman al-Wali, who teaches engineering at Yemen’s Aden University, starts his working day in a cramped room with no telephone or computer.
“This mess is my office,” he shrugged, gesturing at the seven desks and six chairs packed into the small space meant to accommodate 14 lecturers at the state-run institution.
“Nothing has been invested in this university for 20 years. Standards have dropped to high-school level,” he said.
Like many southerners, Wali complains of economic and social neglect, a charge the northern-dominated government denies.
Protests have become endemic in the south in the past couple of years, with violence frequently erupting between security forces and demonstrators, many of whom demand independence from President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s government in Sanaa.
Southern secessionism represents a potent threat for Saleh, already struggling with a Shi’ite revolt in the north and a resurgent al Qaeda network which drew world attention after it said it was behind a failed December 25 attack on a U.S. airliner.
Aden is Yemen’s biggest port and was once capital of a separate state in the south, home to most of the country’s vital oil and gas industry. Yet it has been decaying for years.
Roads are bumpy and paint is crumbling from buildings that mostly date from the era of British rule, which ended in 1967.
“Things are going toward an independent state, not because we want it, but because Sanaa is ignoring our suffering,” said Wali. He complained he had been detained by the authorities on three occasions, the last about six months ago after he launched a website that reported on anti-government demonstrations.
North and south Yemen united in 1990 under Saleh, who had been president of the north since 1978. The bumpy merger led to a brief 1994 civil war won by the north. Southerners say state jobs and resources have gone to the north ever since.
“The war has never stopped. It has continued without gunshots,” said Ayman Mohamed Nasser, publisher of al-Tariq newspaper, Aden’s last main independent daily after authorities banned al-Ayam over its coverage of separatist protests.
“I don’t want separatism, but I also don’t want to continue like now. I have dreams of a better life,” Nasser said.
With five colleagues, he produces a newspaper in three small rooms in a rundown building, often struggling against the odds.
A special court in Sanaa has filed charges against the paper for its coverage of the unrest and a second case is pending.
“We’re being accused of reporting about what is happening here. But you cannot ignore that people are angry,” Nasser said as he chewed qat, a mild narcotic leaf widely used in Yemen.
Keeping the lid on violence might prove difficult without concessions from Sanaa, moderate activists say.
“We tell our people not to resort to violence, but they just get angrier because the regime doesn’t even acknowledge there is a problem here,” said Yassin Saleh, a former southern diplomat.
President Saleh, an ally of the West in the fight against al Qaeda, has said he is open for dialogue with separatists if they renounce violence, but diplomats see no movement toward this.
“The protests have reached a stage where you have to offer more than words,” said a diplomat in Sanaa, adding that action rarely followed northern talk of sharing power and resources.
Rising poverty is a running sore throughout Yemen, but southerners say they were better off before unity in 1990.
Thanks to its once thriving port, Aden has always been more open than the rest of the conservative Muslim country.
Even though northern authorities have closed its brewery — the only one in the Arabian peninsula — some restaurants and beach clubs still serve alcohol, in contrast to the north.
There is even some nostalgia for British rule, which was violently resisted in its later years. Many of Aden’s schools, hospital and modern institutions were born in colonial times.
“What people really miss is the rule of law established by the British. Now we have a lawless and corrupt state ruled by tribes,” said Saleh, the diplomat, who went to a British school in Aden before becoming a senior member of the socialist party.
After independence, the south joined the socialist bloc and, with Soviet aid, set up a welfare state compared favorably by some with today’s Yemen, where the World Bank reckons 42 percent of 23 million people live below the poverty line of $2 a day.
The south’s economy stagnated and was staring at collapse after the Soviet Union fell in 1990, but people still recall the free health and education, state-fixed prices and scholarships for thousands of students in Moscow or communist eastern Europe.
Many in Aden speak foreign languages or have technical skills. Proud of their education, some refer derisively to northerners as Bedouin or “mutakhalifin” (backward people).
“After unification, the north occupied the south. Tribalism, which had been rooted out during socialism, was reinstated by the regime to consolidate power,” said Saleh, the ex-diplomat.
Wali said his graduates struggled to find jobs because state industries favor northern applicants who get hired by managers sent from Sanaa based on personal connections.
“Look at these buildings. They could collapse any time,” he said, pointing to drab residential buildings built in the colonial era, as he drove through the central Maala district.
Like others, Wali hopes Sanaa will face Western pressure to listen to southern grievances at a London conference on January 27 to coordinate counter-terrorism and aid efforts for Yemen.
“We don’t want violence, but we need a perspective to rule our own affairs,” he said. “We used to be an independent state. Now we feel we are occupied.”
Editing by Alistair Lyon