Peace in Yemen is impossible without acknowledgement of southern Yemen’s calls for independence from the north, leaders of the United Arab Emirates-backed southern transitional council (STC) are due to tell British MPs and officials as they step up efforts to be involved in the peace talks.
The south of Yemen, briefly a communist state, was united with the north in 1990 and southern separatists were then beaten militarily when they tried to secede in 1994. Continued southern resentment at the north’s control of the country’s resources, including by the rebel Houthis, is a large undercurrent in the civil war.
The head of the 24-member STC, Maj Gen Aidarus al-Zoubaidi, told the Guardian that his movement represented the bulk of the people in the south, and had far greater control of the south’s eight governorates, including the port city of Aden, than the UN-recognised Yemen government.
“To ignore the will of the people is a recipe for only more instability,” al-Zoubaidi said. “The UN-recognised government has no influence in the south, its role is non-existent and, but for the support of the Saudi coalition, it would have entirely collapsed, plunging the country into complete chaos.”
He said the STC wants to hold a independently monitored referendum to secede from the north and restore the status quo before unification.
Speaking through an interpreter, al-Zoubaidi said: “It is not a case of a breakaway. It is two states that became one state, and one of the constituent parts wishes to revert to separation […] It was a unification imposed by two totalitarian regimes, and no one asked the will of the people.”
He added: “After the British left Aden in 1967, we in the south inherited a civil society with systems and structures. It was a diverse, tolerant, cosmopolitan, open society […] After the imposed unity, we faced a society ruled by tribalism, sectarianism, corruption and all the recipes of a failed society. There was a serious political and cultural collision between the south, a fully functioning state, and the north, which was based on tribalism. It was always going to lead to failure.”
Martin Griffiths, the UN special envoy for Yemen, has met leaders of the STC four times, al-Zoubaidi told the Guardian, but has been reluctant to agree to demands to be formally allowed into the talks at this stage. The task of trying to reconcile the UN-recognised Yemen-wide government and the Houthi forces in charge of the north is his immediate task.
The injection of Yemen’s status as a unified entity would only complicate what is proving to be an uphill negotiation, it is argued. Moreover Griffiths cannot be sure that the STC represents all the Southern governorates.
Al-Zoubaidi contended that part of Griffiths’ difficulty is that he is negotiating with a Yemen government that exists only in name. Al-Zoubaidi said, by contrast, “we exist on the ground and we are part of any solution”.
Al-Zoubaidi has led the STC since its formation in 2017 following his sacking by the Yemeni president, Abd Rabbu Mansur Hadi, as Aden’s governor on the grounds of disloyalty.
The STC seized control of Aden and has since then has consolidated its power in the south, building a base amongst elite families, tribal dignitaries and regional leaders.
Most of Yemen’s experts, such as the Sana’a centre thinktank, concur that that the issue of federation, or even secession, cannot be ignored in any final political settlement.
Proposals for federation prepared in 2014 by Hadi’s government helped trigger the current civil war since the plan suggested southern regions rich in resources might not need to share their wealth with the more populated north. The Houthis in particular feared being marginalised.
One issue remains: the extent to which the STC may be at the mercy of a double game by UAE security forces that effectively control the south. The UAE royal family helps the STC even though it also formally backs the Hadi government, the STC’s rival in the south.
On his links with the UAE, al-Zoubaidi said: “After the coup and the Houthi occupation of the south, the Arab coalition including the UAE intervened and we supported that because it was necessary. They have played a role in helping the reconstruction of the south. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”
Nevertheless, some question the wisdom of his links to the UAE, a foreign-occupying power with its own commercial interests and a scarred human rights record.
The UAE is interested in the oil fields in Shabwa, the country’s only gas liquefaction plant in Balhaf, the al-Shihr oil terminal, and most notably, seaports in southern Yemen, including Aden, Mocha and Mukalla.
The danger for the STC is that, in its enforced search for allies, it might find itself administered a nominally independent south, that is in fact run from Dubai. On the other hand, it seems unlikely peace will come if the STC’s aspirations are not addressed.