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Commentary STC Talks with Baoum Could Shift Alliances in Southern Yemen

اقرأ المحتوى باللغة العربية

Hassan Baoum’s calls for independence, first for Yemen and later for southern Yemen, date to the early 1960s, at times landing him in jail or exile. His 2017 demand that Arab coalition countries fighting the armed Houthi movement end their “foreign occupation” of the south was perceived as so extreme by the coalition-backed Yemeni government that it prolonged his exile and ensured his southern separatist group remained frozen out of the country’s power structures. Despite this, Baoum’s political and popular presence has not faded, and the replacement of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi with a presidential council in April hastened a thaw that is altering southern political dynamics.

Baoum, who has lived in Muscat since 2015, is expected to return soon to Aden, where an alliance is being forged between the two most popular southern groups demanding secession: the politically powerful Southern Transitional Council (STC) and Baoum’s popular branch of the Southern Movement (Hirak), the Supreme Council of the Revolutionary Movement the Liberation and Independence of the South.

Hadi’s exit from the political scene elevated the status of the STC, creating an opening to explore such alliances. The STC is influential in government and its leader, Aiderous al-Zubaidi, serves on the Presidential Leadership Council. Al-Zubaidi already has succeeded in attracting military and security units loyal to former President Hadi in Abyan governorate. A Yemeni army brigade there announced it had joined the “Southern Armed Forces” led by Al-Zubaidi. Other government security and military forces have recently engaged in joint operations with STC forces, such as the current campaign to force Al-Qaeda out of the Wadi Omayran region of Abyan. Such growing power has forced unarmed groups aspiring to play any political role in the south to consider some sort of rapprochement with the STC. At the same time, it has fueled their concern about losing their own unique political and organizational identities in the process — of melting into the STC structure.

In recent years, Baoum’s son and head of the Supreme Council’s political bureau, Fadi Baoum, has become the Hirak faction’s de facto leader. He also has served as the link between his father and the southern masses, moving adeptly through the Supreme Council’s heartland of Hadramawt and Al-Mahra governorates on back roads he has secretly traveled since security forces began pursuing him during President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule. Hassan Baoum’s return to Aden is not expected to mean a more active day-to-day role for the elder Baoum, who is 80 years old and fondly referred to as the Nelson Mandela of the south by Hirak activists. Rather, party insiders speak of planning a celebration of his return that also will essentially be a retirement ceremony.

Fadi Baoum is engaged in the extensive alliance talks in Aden with Al-Zubaidi and senior STC official Ahmed bin Breik. The final form of any STC-Supreme Council alliance will be considered carefully by leaders of other southern groups as they decide whether to make similar pilgrimages to Al-Tawahi district, the STC’s military and political base in Aden.

In order to take full advantage of this opportunity, the STC has established a team, led by Saleh Mohsen, to begin reaching out to southern groups inside Yemen. The STC’s main dialogue team, which has functioned outside Yemen since mid-2021 and held initial discussions with Fadi Baoum, is led by Ahmed bin Farid; it promotes dialogue with southern actors abroad. Besides Baoum’s group, the two teams are engaging with other southern political actors in Cairo and Aden, including Fouad Rashid, head of the Supreme Council of the Revolutionary Movement (another Hirak faction), Yassin Makkawi, who led the Hirak representatives that participated in the 2013-14 National Dialogue Conference, and Ahmed al-Essi, a Yemeni business tycoon and chairman of the Southern National Coalition. They are seeking a “national pact” that affirms the demand for southern independence and lays out the initial features of this independent state.

Today, it appears up to the STC to ensure that calls for dialogue develop into a serious and sustainable track that leads to power-sharing. Any dialogue also should build consensus on a general negotiating framework for the ‘Cause of the people of the South’, stipulated in the outcomes of the 2022 Riyadh consultations before delving into discussion on recreation of an independent southern state.

As for the steadily growing power of the STC, the negative repercussions of this double-edged sword can be mitigated by meaningfully involving other southern groups in decision-making. Doing so would ensure that it would take a strategic rather than tactical stance towards dialogue and partnership. The STC and other active forces can also benefit from experience and impartiality of international mediators involved in Track II peace efforts, who have already worked in depth on the Southern file, and can be entrusted with some tasks like facilitating dialogue.

The STC is trying to pursue a “zero-problems” policy with the southern groups. For the STC, rapprochement with other southern powers would strengthen its claim of representing the south. Unifying southern voices would enhance the STC’s political position before a negotiating team is formed to represent the internationally backed Yemeni government in any future peace talks and would allow the STC leadership to devote full attention to its political battles in the eastern governorates of Hadramawt and Al-Mahra against the Islah party. Other southern groups largely welcome working out their differences and the prospect of gaining a voice in political and peace settlement decisions, but they may not rush to rapprochement with the STC– as Hassan and Fadi Baoum have – if the outcome of their power arrangement remains “zero gains.”

This analysis is part of a series of publications produced by the Sana’a Center and funded by the government of the Kingdom of The Netherlands. The series explores issues within economic, political and environmental themes, aiming to inform discussion and policymaking related to Yemen that foster sustainable peace. Views expressed within should not be construed as representing the Sana’a Center or the Dutch government.