Editors note: The following is an interview Andrew Korybko conduced with Summer Ahmed, a US based spokeswoman for the Southern Transitional Council which is pressing for the restoration of South Yemen based on its pre-1990 borders.
AK: Please briefly tell our audience about the origins of the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the cause of South Yemeni independence more generally.
SA: The Southern Transitional Council is the result of a decade long peaceful struggle by the Southern Movement (Al-Hirak) against the occupation of South Yemen and marginalization of the southern people by North Yemeni forces. The Southern Movement was established in 2007, it was an umbrella movement that advocated for rights and justice for the Southern people, and for a just solution to the unjust Yemen unity that stripped southerners of their jobs, land, and allocated southern resources to North Yemen. That was at the beginning, but instead of listening to and working with southerners to find a solution, the government in Sanaa used brutal tactics to try and suppress the movement, which led southerners to demand an end to Yemen Unity and to the return of South Yemen as an independent country with its pre-1990 borders.
The Southern Movement tried to create a council, a unifying political entity but faced lots of obsticles due to it being broken into several factions which had different ideas on how to achieve independence. It wasn’t until the devastating Houthi invasion of South Yemen in 2015 that galvanized Southern political and tribal leaders to establish a unified political entity to represent the south and its aspirations for independence.
Official work to establish the Southern Transitional Council started in mid 2016 while General Aiderous Al-Zubaidi (current president of the council) was Governor of Aden. In September 2016, Al-Zubaidi announced that a political entity will be established soon, but it didn’t come into fruition until May 2017, after Hirak leaders including Al-Zubaidi were sacked from their positions on April 27, 2016. Southerners viewed the removal of Southerner from government positions as a tactic to marginalize southerners once again. There was lots of anger, southerners marched in the streets and burned President Hadis pictures and demanded Hirak to take action. Hirak and tribal leaders which have been planning the council came together to form the Presidential leadership of the council and the Aden Historic Declaration was issued on May 4th, 2017 since then, the Southern Transitional Council has been the official representative and governing body of South Yemen and is moving quicker than ever to reverse the Yemen unity that only brought death and destruction to South Yemen.
AK: What exactly happened in late January that provoked the STC to seize power in Aden, and to what extent was it assisted by the UAE like has been alleged?
SA: Aden was liberated from Houthi forces in July 2015. President Hadi declared it the temporary capital of Yemen (which southerners reject because to them Aden is the eternal capital of South Yemen). Since its liberation, there are no rebuilding efforts by the government despite receiving billions from the Arab Coalition to do so. The government refuses to provide services such as electricity, water, and health, making life unbearable for the local population. Sewers are constantly overflowing and there are constant severe fuel shortages while southern oil is being looted by the government and private North Yemeni elites such as the Al-Ahmar family. Salaries are not paid on time and some haven’t received their salaries in over a year while government officials are getting paid on average monthly salaries of $30,000 and more. There’s widespread corruption that has basically crippled the “Legitimate Government”. The Southern Transitional Council demanded that President Hadi remove the corrupt government of Ahmed Bin Dagher and replace it with a technocratic government that will work to alleviate the suffering of the people.
Thousands of southerners arrived in Aden for mass protests against the corruption of PM Ahmed Bin Dagher’s government and to demand basic service.
Hadi refused to comply and instead on January 27, The Ministry of Interior issued a statement banning any gatherings or protests in Aden. That statement angered southerners because it was reminiscent of the statements the Saleh government use to issue before any Hirak event in Aden then use as pretext to kill southerners. It was in fact very much like the Saleh statements, because Hadi’s Presidential Guard used force against the peaceful protesters that had arrived in Aden to demand replacement of the government.
The Aden branch of Southern Resistance Forces (SRF) made up of the Security Belt and Aden Counter Terrorism Unit which are trained and funded by the UAE to fight the Houthis and AQAP, had vowed to protect the protesters, and warned that if force was used that they will retaliate. After all, those protesters are their families, friends and neighbors.
Rumor in the south is, because the Hadi government is completely disconnected and lacks knowledge of what’s really happening on the ground, that advisors were giving him the idea that he had great support in Aden and that the STC isn’t as popular as social media makes it look, and that by instigating this conflict, his forces will come out victorious and he will once and for all have full control of Aden. Really disconnected indeed, because what happened in Aden in late January exposed the lack of support Hadi has and the fragility of his trumped up forces, and proved that it’s the STC that has the support of the people and the ability to deliver.
Contrary to what mass media claims, UAE did not assist the STC in the conflict and it’s actually the UAE with Saudi Arabia who saved whatever’s left of the Hadi government in Aden. They negotiated an end to the standoff and negotiations are still on going in terms of replacing the government.
AK: How has the “cold peace” between the STC and the Hadi government been maintained in the month since, and what influence if any have the UAE and Saudi Arabia had in stabilizing the situation?
SA: So far the peace has held and negotiations led by UAE and Saudi Arabia are still ongoing to try and resolve the issue. Nothing tangible achieved yet, the SRF are still surrounding the Ma’shiq Palace, some government officials are still in there and others such as PM Bin Dagher have left to Saudi Arabia.
For southerners, those events are a point of no return, and they continue to move forward in the disengagement process from Yemen unity and plans for South Yemen independence. Because they believe that it’s only through autonomy and by southerners managing southern resources and institutions that people in the south can live in peace and dignity.
AK: What is the STC’s reaction to former South Yemeni President Ali Nasr Mohamad’s 8-point peace proposal last week in Russia and its suggestion for a two-region federal state instead of independence?
SA: There was no official reaction from the Southern Transitional Council. Some members of the STC and Southern National Assembly gave commentary about agreeing with former president Mohamed’s proposal on the need to end the war but acknowledged that the current de facto independence on the ground is way ahead of what President Mohamed is proposing.
As for the public they rejected the proposal calling it a step backward, and that the only two region federalism southerners will accept is one that leads to independence. Unfortunately, because president Mohamed didn’t denounce the Houthi invasion of South Yemen in 2015, and also gave an interview in which he said that Houthis were in the South to fight AQAP, left him with almost zero influence in the south and many view him as too cozy with the Houthis.
AK: The Yemeni Ambassador to Russia said in the middle of last month that his government “looks forward to enhancing [Russia’s] role in achieving peace in Yemen”, just weeks after Moscow offered in two separate suggestions to mediate between the Hadi government and the Houthis & STC.
How likely is it that the latter two will agree to this, what are the prospects that Russia could facilitate an Astana-like peace process, and overall how successful do you think that Moscow’s peacemaking efforts could be in brokering a political solution to the war?
SA: People of South Yemen welcome enhanced relations with Russia and for Russia to play a bigger role in brokering peace in Yemen. Yet, they’re very sceptical about the Houthis actually agreeing to peace. There’s really no faith in the Houthis, they only use peace negotiations to stall and regroup with no genuine intention to end the war. Houthis create and perpetuate war, because they only thrive in war, and war is more lucrative to them than peace, the six Saadah wars and the past three years have proven just that.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.