The collapse of the latest round of U.N.-sponsored peace talks on Yemen, which the Houthi movement, in control of much of the country’s north, failed to attend, comes at a time of escalating political instability and hardship. While most international attention is focused on the Saudi-led coalition’s siege of the critical Yemeni port of Hodeida, important developments in the south demand more attention.
The Southern Transitional Council (STC), the south’s de facto government, this month called for an uprising against the UAE- and Saudi-backed President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, blaming his cabinet for the famine throughout the country. Protests over economic conditions swept through the southern part of Yemen, as residents demanded the resignation of the prime minister, whom they accused of high-level corruption and embezzling state funds.
Early last week, Hadi conceded on that demand and fired the prime minister, also calling for an investigation of his role in the country’s economic problems. The rest of the 36-member cabinet remained.
How does this political turbulence matter for Yemen’s war and humanitarian catastrophe? Should the south secede, the Saudi-UAE coalition would face a major political crisis, which could strengthen the Houthis’ hand and undermine governance in the areas under their control. And it could exacerbate the already pressing humanitarian crisis and spread problems into areas that have thus far escaped the worst.
Why is southern Yemen protesting?
A wave of demonstrations in the south started in early September after the Yemeni riyal suddenly plummeted, exacerbating already difficult economic conditions. Angry demonstrators accused the now former prime minister’s “corrupt government” of pushing people to starvation.
The situation, intolerable since the start of the war, deteriorated sharply in 2016 after the government could not pay public-sector salaries. That left most southern Yemenis unable to purchase food or other essentials.
In the former southern capital, Aden, demonstrators launched “civil disobedience days,” halting traffic and keeping schools, shops and government offices closed. Those demonstrations spread rapidly to other regions in the south, prompting the governor of an oil-rich province to threaten a halt to oil shipments if the government refused to respond to the demonstrators’ demands. The value of the currency continued to plummet, and reports of famine began to spread.
Southern independence movement rising
The STC, the rival authority in the south, was formed in and has blamed the government for the collapse of the Yemeni economy. Since the war erupted in 2015, the entire south stood alongside Hadi, despite his government’s ongoing failure to ensure that international aid reaches people.
There is a long history to the push by southerners for independence. After North and South Yemen united in 1990, southerners quickly became disillusioned with the subsequent allocation of its resources and land to other parts of the country.
In 2007, dismissed southern officers formed al-Hirak, the Southern Movement, which gained broad support. Although organizationally weak and lacking formal leadership, the Southern Movement proved successful in inspiring southerners to support its call for independence.
The STC, with provincial representation and a national assembly that unifies the south, wants to reestablish the pre-1990 state and organize a rule that keeps generals, tribal sheikhs and men of religion out of politics. It also wants to bring women back into public roles.
This month, the STC managed to form a joint southern alliance backing the move to rebel against Hadi’s rule, with a call to remove the government’s “corrupt officials” and put locally trusted people in place.
With the announcement of the prime minister’s dismissal, the STC leadership backed away from its demand to cleanse the administration of Hadi’s representatives. That followed an appeal by the United Arab Emirates not to take radical moves against the internationally recognized regime. The STC competes with al-Hirak for southerners’ support, with al-Hirak being skeptical about the STC’s close relationship with the UAE.
The current protests are a continuation of developments from January, when fighting broke out between the army under the prime minister’s command and troops loyal to the STC following endemic power cuts that threatened to close hospitals. The demand then and now is the same: The government needs to be replaced by a competent, corruption-free cabinet.
When can we expect peace in Yemen?
Hadi and the Houthis reject southern participation in peace talks. Information leaked from U.N. circles hints progress has been made with the Houthis and their Iranian backers, while Hadi’s side stands in the way of a breakthrough.
Saudi Arabia has progressed with its long-sought plan to gain land access to the Indian Ocean for oil exports by building an oil pipeline through Yemen’s eastern province of al-Mahra. Constructing the pipeline was one of the key reasons it joined the war in 2015, and progress on it might mean the Saudi leadership is ready to withdraw from the war. With the country left in ruins, the question of how to solve the Yemeni conflict remains.
The call to resist corruption in the country’s leadership is widely supported in Yemen. But what we see in the south is actual state-building in the shadow of the war. Making an administration capable of serving the needs of vulnerable people is reconstruction at its best.
The international community feels estranged from the STC and its call for fair rule. What if the southern uprising is made to benefit the entire war-torn country? Such an approach would appeal to the Houthi movement, among others, and allow it to seek international recognition instead of reliance on Iran, should it seek to rule without outright violence. The key to progress in the stalled U.N. peace talks might lie in a direction where the international community is failing to look.
Susanne Dahlgren is a senior lecturer at the University of Tampere and has written on Yemen since the 1980s.