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Yemen’s southern separatists’ untimely ultimatum

For more than two decades, southern independence in Yemen looked as elusive an outcome as a truly united country. But, in the past six months, the southern independence drive has become emboldened. This week, the Southern Transitional Council vowed to overthrow the internationally recognized government and declared a state of emergency in Aden, the capital of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen between 1970 and 1990. The government has been nominally based in the southern port city since 2015.
The southern separatists issued a statement accusing the government of rampant corruption and waging a misinformation campaign against the southern leaders using state funds. It gave President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi a one-week deadline to dissolve the government of Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr.
The Southern Transitional Council was formed in May 2017 and is headed by Aidarus Al-Zubaidi, a former governor of Aden province who was removed from office by Hadi the previous month. Former Minister of State Hani bin Braik, who leads an armed group of a few thousand men responsible for security in the southern provinces, and several provincial governors are also members. 
The council’s stated goals are as ambitious and defiant as it gets: To push for independence, manage the southern provinces, and represent them domestically and internationally. Former president of South Yemen Ali Salim Al-Beidh praised the formation of the transitional council as a “great step” toward independence. 
Although the council pledged to work with the Arab coalition against Iranian expansionism in Yemen and the region, and to cooperate with international partners in the fight against terrorism, the GCC was quick to reject the new body and stress its support for Yemen’s unity. Still, the potential significance of the council’s formation, apparently with members representing all southern provinces, did not go underestimated by GCC officials and Al-Zubaidi was quickly invited to Riyadh for talks.
Following the formation of the council, massive crowds waving southern flags and chanting “independence is our goal” became a familiar scene in Aden. These were the biggest pro-independence demonstrations in years. 
Emboldened Southern Transitional Council demands government’s removal, but is most likely just testing the waters rather than being ready to rush towards independence.
Dr. Manuel Almeida 
The southerners’ grievances and many of their demands date back to the unification of Yemen in 1990. Tensions over the troubled union resulted in a civil war in 1994, which was won by northern forces (including Islamist and tribal militias) led by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. The three-month war may have been short, but it had a lasting impact. Political power was concentrated in Sanaa, southern civil servants and military men were dismissed, lands appropriated and the revenues of oil and gas exploration in the south were monopolized by Saleh. 
The storming of Aden in 2015 by the military alliance of pro-Saleh security and military forces and the radical Houthi militias revived the ghosts of northern oppression. Yet this time the stakes were higher, as attested by the scale of destruction left behind in Aden and the southern provinces by the pro-Saleh forces and Houthi militias. This contributed to uniting the ranks of southern separatists and opened the door to the rise of a younger generation of activists, thus boosting a movement that often seemed moribund. 
Since its inception in 2007, separatist movement Al-Hirak Al-Janoubi was plagued by disunity and disorganization. In 2014, with chaos and conflict engulfing the country, divisions between two factions — one led by Al-Beidh and the other by Hassan Baoum — were most likely behind the movement’s failure to declare the south’s independence. The previous year, during celebrations on the anniversary of independence from British rule, different armed factions clashed.
It remains unclear whether the independence movement is representative of the ambitions of all southerners. The destructive conflict and the unrealizable ambitions of the Saleh-Houthi alliance have accelerated Yemen’s fragmentation, but the fault lines are not necessarily defined by the old north-south border. 
Other provinces across Yemen, including Marib, Taiz and Hadhramaut, seem to share with southern separatists an aversion to being ruled by the General People’s Congress from Sanaa, which explains the popularity of the federation proposal. But, while during the political transition process that followed Saleh’s departure, southern separatists supported a two-region federation with an eye on returning to two independent states, representatives of other southern provinces revealed a preference for a multi-region federation.
There are also questions about the timing of the southern council’s announcement earlier this week. It came on the same day that the government released its first state budget in three years, following a $2 billion deposit from Saudi Arabia into the central bank. And it took place while the fight to push back the Houthi militias, in which southern fighters are participating, is at a critical stage following Saleh’s death. 
Southern separatist leaders have previously expressed their desire not to rush into independence before they have a grip on resources and institutions. Either they feel that moment has come or, more likely, they are testing the waters and increasing their leverage for future negotiations with the Arab coalition and other concerned parties.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science 
Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida