Karen Dabrowska

Originally published: 15th June 2021

by Friends of South Yemen

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What’s happening in South Yemen?

In January when the new power sharing government began working from its offices in Aden, the people of South Yemen were hopeful that the internecine conflicts between the Southern Transitional Council (STC) and the Internationally Recognized Government (IRG) were finally over and a new era had begun.

Sadly this has not proved to be the case. The power sharing government, in which half of the ministers are from the South, did not deal with the grievances of the Southerners which date back to 1994 when the South was militarily defeated by the North in the war of secession.

Salaries of government employees and pensions, including those of army veterans, remain unpaid. Essential services such as water and electricity are working below par if at all and the government has not announced its political and economic programme.

On the economic front things are going from bad to worse. Yemen’s GDP in 2015 was $43 billion. In 2020 it was $21 billion, cut by more than half, while the population has grown from 25 million to 30 million. Yemen’s riyal hit a new record low at the beginning of June amid deadlocked diplomatic efforts to end the war and rising tensions between the IRG and the STC.

On 16 March demonstrators broke into the Maashiq Presidential Palace in Aden amid public anger over the lack of services, poor living conditions and depreciation of the currency. Saudi forces evacuated members of the cabinet, including Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed, to a military building situated near the palace grounds. Many of the protesters were carrying the flag of the PDRY (independent South Yemen 1967 – 1990).

These protests prompted the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs to condemn the “storming” of the Al-Maasheeq Palace in the "strongest terms", calling on the Yemeni government and the STC to an urgent meeting in Riyadh. The new government in Aden appealed to the Saudi-led coalition and the international community to swiftly support it economically to meet the "accumulated obligations". In a statement, the government stressed the need to "urgently support it before an economic collapse, whose effects will be significant at all levels.” Riyadh has repeatedly promised to provide support to the new parity government, in order to restore the deteriorating conditions of the people, improve their living standards, and make the government's efforts in this path successful. However, since the arrival of the new government in Aden, these promises have not been fulfilled, according to both government sources and the new governor Hamed Lamless who is also a member of the STC.

Meanwhile, a separate demonstration broke out in the eastern city of Sayoun in Hadramout province, after dozens of people stormed a government complex in protest against dire living conditions and continuous increases in prices. Forces affiliated with IRG fired shots in the air to disperse the crowds while protesters burned car tyres in the streets nearby. The STC condemned the government forces’ response to the protests.

In April the IRG relocated to Riyadh and later the same month the Prime Minister travelled back to Hadramaut and not Aden. The Saudis are reportedly calling on the leader of the STC, Aidaroos Al-Zubaidi, to return to Riyadh for talks about resolving the crisis but Al-Zubaidi has not left Aden and sent a group of negotiators to the talks. Al-Zubiadi, under pressure from his supporters, could not return to Riyadh as this would diminish his support base in the South. In the meantime the Emiratis have allowed STC leaders to return to the South after a long absence, which in itself is an indication that the UAE government realizes that the absence of STC leaders from Aden strengthens their rivals, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Zubaidi announced in a statement that the “restoration” of the Southern state is nearing, adding that the STC “opened all doors in front of the people’s cause and the extraction of the adversaries’ recognition of a fully sovereign independent federal state” that is based on the preunity border of 21 May 1990. The STC will refuse any unilateral decisions taken by the Yemeni government. According to STC sources, the Council joined the government in signing the Riyadh agreement to open a pathway for its goal of restoring the southern Yemeni state, and considers that the agreement with the government does not entail backing down from its main goal of the restoration of that state. In an act of defiance to the government and the Saudis, Al-Zubaidi appointed Shelal Ali Shai as head of the counter terrorism unit on 28 May 2021.

But the STC can’t have it both ways. Either it remains part of the IRG or it declares independence unilaterally. The STC did in fact declare self-rule in the areas under its control in April 2020 but rescinded the declaration on 29 July and agreed to adhere to the power sharing arrangement with the IRG outlined in the Riyadh Agreement signed in November 2019. The agreement has been honoured more in the breach than in adherence and the STC cannot make up its mind about whether or not it will abide by it. The main areas of contention are the disbanding of militias and their integration into the national army.

While the STC and IRG argue and resort to armed clashes when words fail them, peace talks aimed at ending the civil war now in its seventh year are going nowhere, clearly illustrating the UN’s scandalous catalogue of failures. The UN Envoy Martin Griffiths is making a last-ditch attempt to convince the Houthis to accept a UN-brokered peace plan and stop their assault on Marib. Griffiths called on the IRG and the Houthis to make bold concessions to end months of political deadlock and reach a peace agreement.

Yemen’s Information Minister, Moammar Al-Eryani, said that the latest Houthi attack in the Red Sea, foiled by the Arab coalition, shows that the rebels are still threatening international maritime traffic and breaching existing agreements.

Another worrying development is the deteriorating security situation in South Yemen. On 26 May Oxfam confirmed the death of its colleague Fathi Mahmoud Ali Salem Al-Zurigi in Aden after a shooting incident on Monday, 24 May. Fathi, a Yemeni citizen aged 42, was travelling with another Oxfam colleague and a contracted driver when they were caught in what appeared to be crossfire at a checkpoint in southern Yemen, travelling to Aden. The three men were taken to hospital where Fathi succumbed to his injuries.

The STC’s human rights record has been condemned by international and local human rights organizations. The New Arab reported that the STC has been blamed for a wave of kidnappings of military leaders in Aden. The STC has denied any involvement in these incidents.

A statement released by the self-styled Free Southern Resistance Council said the chairman of that council, Sheikh Muhammad Sheikh Al-Saeedi – known as Abu Osama – was kidnapped at the end of May in an attack involving two vehicles. The movement strongly condemned the kidnapping, pointing fingers at the STC. “We call on the security and local authorities in Aden to reveal the fate of Sheikh Abu Osama, and we in the Council of Free Resistance draw the attention of the international community and its humanitarian organisations to what is happening in Aden in terms of violation of all international conventions and treaties and moral and humanitarian values,” the statement posted to Facebook said.

After international pressure the STC released the journalist Adel al-Hasani, who was seized after he helped secure the release of two European journalists detained for about a week in mid-September in the Red Sea port city of Mocha.

The SAM Organization for Rights and Liberties, a Geneva-based NGO, said in a statement: “Southern Transitional Council militia are violating human rights on the island of Socotra since they took control of the island on June 19, 2020.”

In its report on Yemen for 2020 Amnesty International stated that all parties to the conflict continued to detain and torture hundreds of individuals targeted solely for their political, religious or professional affiliations or for their peaceful activism. Parties to the conflict have also targeted journalists and human rights defenders, many since 2016. Detainees were held in unofficial detention centres and in dangerous conditions. For example, in Aden, the STC held detainees in a tin building and an underground cellar in Al Jala camp. According to the organization Mwatana for Human Rights, at least 13 people were arbitrarily detained in Al Jala camp and 17 were tortured between May 2016 and April 2020.

Commenting about the current situation in Yemen, the Chairman of FOSY, Dr Abdul Galil Shaif, said the political climate is like a festering cesspool. The stalemate shows the need for a road map, such as the one published by FOSY in April, to end the war and foster development. Shaif emphasized: “It is unbelievable in these economic circumstances how the people of Yemen are surviving. We don't want charity. We need to be working on a reconstruction and economic development programme to build roads, bridges, ports, airports, schools, hospitals and power plants and improve our public services. The stronger and more developed our economy is and the more people’s lives improve the less likely they will be to fight and destroy the country. Less talk and more action is needed. Our leaders ought to realize it is harder to build than to destroy, easier to talk than to agree, and better to live in peace than be at war.”