The First Wave Of COVID-19 Clusters Hits Yemen Days After Southern Transitional Council Declares Self-Rule In Southern Region

On April 25th, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) seized government buildings and the central bank in the southern port city of Aden. The separatist militant organization waved the flags of the former Southern Yemen and declared self-rule in the country’s southern districts. The move threatens to add a new dimension of conflict in Yemen, as the war-torn country braces for COVID-19. 

In a statement Sunday, former Aden Governor and leader of STC, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, said the aggression was made because the internationally recognized Hadi government was not upholding its end of a power-sharing agreement brokered by Saudi Arabia in Nov. 2019. The Riyadh agreement was an attempt to hold together a band of military forces organized by Saudi Arabia in 2015 to fight off Houthi forces in Northern Yemen. According to Al Jazeera, STC forces are the main source of fighters for the Saudi-led Arab coalition in Yemen but have been known to clash with the Hadi government in the past. 

In a press statement Thursday, STC cites grievances that the Hadi government has abandoned the southern people in the face of mass flooding and disease. 

“Civil servants’ salaries have gone unpaid and the government took systematic measures to deteriorate and close basic services such as drinking water and sanitation facilities throughout the South. Recently, electricity – the final straw – has been shut down on top of a long list of measures designed to subdue the people of the South. The situation became more acute after the April 21 deadly flash floods that devastated Aden, in addition to the threat posed by the Covid-19.”

Two days after declaring self-rule, STC enforced a mandatory shelter in place to help quell the spread of COVID-19, an upper respiratory infection caused by the novel Coronavirus that has spread worldwide killing 246,027 since November 2019. 

The first cluster of COVID-19 cases in Yemen was found in Aden on Wednesday. The NYT reports only two deaths from the infection. However, health officials warn that the recent flooding in Yemen will exacerbate an already rampant cholera outbreak, further stressing the deteriorating health care system’s ability to respond to COVID-19. According to the BBC, an estimated 10 million Yemenis are on the brink of famine, 20 million have no access to healthcare, and the 50% of medical facilities still functioning are desperately ill-prepared to deal with a pandemic.

The U.N. has pleaded with all facets of the Yemeni civil war to lay down their weapons in efforts to heed the spread of COVID-19, however, none of the players in Yemen’s multifaceted civil war have abided. Airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis increased by 30 percent last week, according to the Yemen Data Project, which monitors the war. The increase in fighting occurred despite a unilateral cease-fire declared by Saudi Arabia on April 9 said the NYT

What Saudi-backed forces anticipated to be a brief altercation with Houthis, has dragged on over five years, killing more than 100,000 people and eroding the government infrastructure of Yemen. Thus far U.N. peacekeeping efforts have primarily focused on brokering a deal between Houthis and the Hadi government leaving STC officials out of the negotiation process. This method has proven unsustainable as southern forces continue to feel their interests are not being represented by the Hadi government. 

STC is one of many separatists organizations active in the southern regions of Yemen. Separatist fighters call for the return of the former Southern Yemen which used to be its own country from 1967-1990 following the withdrawal of British Colonial forces. The leader of STC currently resides in the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) and up until recently, the U.A.E. provided financial backing to the STC. As a result, not all people in southern Yemen see the STC’s declaration of Statehood as legitimate. Ahmed Alwan, an Aden resident in his 50s, told Middle East Eye that “they are no longer satisfied to hear the mercenaries either in Saudi Arabia government or in the STC declaring new steps, we need them to work and improve the services instead of taking decisions.”

Up until 2017 most separatists forces were loyal to the Hadi government’s fight to loosen Houthi strongholds in the north. For two years the Hadi government and separatist forces co- governed in Aden – which became the interim-capital in Yemen after Houthis took Sanaa in 2015. However, in April 2017 Hadi accused Governor Zuaidi, of disloyalty and removed him from office, setting off a wave of protests and southern resistance in Aden. 

Fighting from all sides poses serious challenges to humanitarian organizations attempting to get supplies into the southern regions of Yemen. If STC wants its interests to be taken seriously by the international community they should abide by U.N. calls for a humanitarian ceasefire and cooperate with all efforts to get life-saving aid into Yemen. 

Isabel Cuddyer