The sacking of Aden governor Aidarous al-Zubaidi by the Saudi-based Yemeni president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi has triggered a mass mobilisation in the port city. Mirfat Sulaiman reports on how struggles for social justice are interwoven with the call for an independent South Yemen.
On 21 May, Khormaksar Square in central Aden was packed with tens of thousands of men, women and children who had travelled from across South Yemen. Despite the extreme heat, they celebrated with music and dance. Chants of “We support the Transitional Council of the South” and “Our aim is independence” rang across the square. The following day, 22 May, saw many people engaged in acts of civil disobedience, such as closing roads, followed by a candle-lit protest in the evening.
The huge protests followed weeks of mobilisation by supporters of Aden’s governor, Aidarous al-Zubaidi, who was sacked by President Hadi on 27 April. Hadi, who is based in the Saudi capital Riyadh, reportedly sees Al-Zubaidi as too close to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) which is a powerful military player in Yemen’s civil war. The sacking of Al-Zubaidi has also exposed once again the historic rifts between North and South Yemen. His supporters rallied on 4 May, raising the slogan: “No regions. We all are with the leader Aidarous al-Zubaidi and the drive for independence.” Protesters travelled from as far as Hadramaut which is 400 miles away from Aden to join the rally. On 5 May, Al-Zubaidi announced the establishment of the ‘Southern Political Transitional Council’, a move widely seen as strengthening calls for the independence of South Yemen.
A week later the names of the council members were announced, including representatives from different districts among them women and young people. According to local journalist Saeed al-Batati, the names include the governors of Hadramout, Shabwa, Lahj, and Socotra, in addition to leading separatist figures and tribal leaders. President Hadi and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have condemned the council’s formation.
The formation of the Transitional Council is a major blow to Hadi’s shaky authority. He became interim President of Yemen in 2012 in an election where he was the only candidate, which was boycotted by the Southern independence movement. In 2015 the Saudi Arabia-led coalition began its bombing campaign in support of Hadi’s Presidency and against Houthi forces, which captured the capital city Sanaa in September 2014.
In alliance with the former Yemeni president Ali Abdallah Saleh, Houthi forces invaded South Yemen, besieging Aden before being defeated by Saudi and UAE forces, with fighters from the Southern independence movement and local people playing a key role in driving them out of the city.
The retreat of Houthi forces has exposed the frustration of ordinary people in the South with Hadi’s corrupt regime. The city of Aden in particular has witnessed a wave of protests over issues such as power cuts, water supplies and other poor services. Over the past few months the city has seen workers’ strikes and walkouts, marches, protests and civil disobedience (such as road blocks). These strikes and protests often intersect with Southern nationalist demands, fuelling calls for independence. Power cuts are a key issue for people in the city. Aden is equatorial in climate with high humidity and temperatures become difficult to bear without electric cooling.
There have also been protests over delays to pension payments, resulting in queues lasting through the night until the next day. One retired man was found dead waiting in a queue, which upset the city. There is also anger about the neglect of young wounded men who took part in defending the city and anger at unemployment and the rising prices for basic food.
Majed Aazan, a trade unionist at Aden’s Water Department told Middle East Solidarity that after a successful strike, tax office workers “won all their demands of unpaid wages, the workers celebrated their victory and sacked the corrupt manager and walked her out of the building chanting ‘leave’”. He told us that the Department of Water workers had called off their strike because of the fear of the return of the old corrupt management. A new manager has since been appointed by Al-Zubaidi. “He stopped a lot of mischief and made a much simpler way to work. He cut the running cost of the diesel for the water pumps from around 600,000 riyal (£1870) by one third: we don’t know where the rest of the money used to go! He stopped a lot of unaccounted spending,” Majed said.
In January 2017 oil refinery workers started an open-ended strike demanding November and December 2016’s wages they had not received after the Central Bank refused to release the funds to pay them.
The strike brought the city to a standstill. Workers stopped all production and pumping of petrol and diesel, affecting the electricity supply as well as transport. A staff member at the refinery told Middle East Solidarity, “in December 2016 the union called for strike action for our unpaid wages. Aden’s Security Director General Shalaal came down to us and took our trade union reps to Aden’s Governor Aidarous Al-Zubaidi’s house. The reps explained to them that we hadn’t received two months of our wages, that is why we were on strike. They showed understanding and promised to sort it out, but they could not do so without direct intervention from president Hadi”.
January’s strike followed many spontaneous walkouts over the course of 2016 to apply pressure on bosses for unpaid wages. The strikes called for the payment of six months unpaid wages and they won all their demands. However, many workers have still not received their wages for March-July 2015, when Aden was under attack by forces allied to ousted president Saleh and the Houthi movement.
School pupils and university students have also been staging walkouts. In January this year, lecturers and students jointly rejected the sacking of the new principal of the Aden University Faculty of Education, Dr Mohammed Al-Fakeerh. There have also been protests by Engineering students. Mohammed Maagam on behalf of the Faculty of Engineering students union told us: “In our meeting as representatives of all the departments of the university we agreed on number of points-the first and foremost being that the University most provide an electric generator. We will give them two weeks, failing that we’ll call for a student walkout”.
Such protests and walkouts are a reaction to deep rooted corruption that was inherited from Saleh’s regime and continued throughout Hadi’s rule unchanged. They also build on networks of civil resistance established by the Southern independence movement Al-Harak since 2007.
Support for Al-Zubaidi and Shalaal within Aden has also been boosted by the fact that both were leading figures in the defence operation during 2015 war and are well respected by local people.
Many activists Middle East Solidarity spoke to in Aden had high hopes that the Transitional Political Council will change things for the better for ordinary people in South Yemen. But this will mean deepening and continuing struggles from below, rather than relying on leaders such as Al-Zubaidi to deliver change from above, or seeking support from the Gulf states whose military interventions have devastated Yemen.