Sam Mohammed

How To Do SMART Security Sector Reform in Yemen


June 2021

Against the backdrop of the current conflict in Yemen, a fine balance should be struck in approaches to security sector reform to ensure non-state actors who do not work in the interest of the people are not empowered, while at the same time ensuring that they are not excluded, to avoid further conflict. As Yemeni researcher Sam Mohammed argues, in essence local security structures that are currently providing security to communities in a constructive manner should be strengthened, regardless of wider political views about these structures.

Due to the prolonged absence of Yemen’s government as it continues to reside in Saudi Arabia, the security situation on the ground in Yemen has become increasingly complicated. In internationally recognized government (IRG) controlled areas, state security institutions have nominal control over security. In the South, the IRG struggles to regain control over its security institutions after losing ground to different local and international actors. In this setting, the Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces have become the actual providers of weak security services, services that are unstructured, chaotic, and random.

In the North, the state security institutions in Ansarullah-controlled areas are no longer acting impartially, but are politicized by Ansarullah’s informal structures, weaving through institutions that were built by former President Ali Abdullah Saleh over many years. Ansarullah has replaced most of the officers loyal to President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi’s government with its own and is not accountable to citizens and their needs. It has established new command structures to ensure it controls the police and provides security services on its own terms. The rationale behind these changes is to mitigate conflict arising from previous loyalties and to ensure unity of political views in all state institutions under its control.

With the absence of centralized state control over security, the security actors’ landscape has become a complex interplay of formal and informal security, military, and political structures. Security and justice provision for citizens by state security institutions and police is weak; in some areas, they have little to no presence at all.  This limited role has caused Yemeni citizens to lose faith in the state. That reform is needed is clear; but how can interventions be designed to fit such a barely comprehensible context without risk of further harm or empowering parties that may not adhere to human rights or do not share the interests of the communities?

Scholars debate three models of security sector reform (SSR): the monopoly, the hybrid, and the good enough. The first, and most rigid, is the conventional monopoly model, a top–down approach that requires state security institutions to monopolize the means of violence as a prerequisite for SSR. Yet, given the current fragmentation of Yemen’s security sector, as well as the influence of regional and international players on security actors, the monopoly model is not suitable in Yemen.

Conventional security sector reform in Yemen is not feasible

Despite the IRG’s efforts to restore command over areas previously taken over by Ansarullah and the Saleh forces in Al Dhale’, Aden, and Taiz in 2016, the security sector in these areas remains fragmented, and different informal actors are operating. Pursuing the monopoly model to support state security institutions in areas like Taiz, for example, would only strengthen the already-powerful Al Islah party and make it more difficult to control. In governorates such as Aden and Marib, supporting the IRG forces and police structures while excluding other security providers who are acknowledged by the community, including the STC forces, Salafist groups, and the tribal sheikhs, would drive a wedge between state and non-state actors. This could lead to more conflict in the future.

Security arrangements in the North are a very sensitive topic as Ansarullah consider security vital for ensuring control over its territories. Ansarullah utilized a supervisory approach, linking the leadership inner circle with local governance structures and assigning new loyalists to police and security institutions. These new assignments were a mitigation measure to enforce security and stabilization. In fact, the approach Ansarullah takes when providing security depends on different variables, including loyalty, interests, and the educational and cultural background of their supervisors positioned in the various institutions. Conventional SSR interventions in Ansarullah areas can lead to negative consequences if state institutions are supported directly. For example, providing security institutions under Ansarullah with in-kind support – weapons and ammunition – can be counterproductive as Ansarullah could use it to support their own military offensive.

What about a hybrid approach?

The hybrid approach is overly optimistic about the prospects of myriad non-state actors being able to provide security with limited interference from the state, in the form of collaboration and negotiations. Applying this model might seem ideal for Yemen, where non-state actors are already the de facto security providers in many areas. However, these informal security providers are, at the same time, the agents of insecurity, having contributed to the collapse of state security institutions. Thus, pursuing the hybrid model would further weaken state security institutions, along with citizens’ trust in state police. In many cases, these actors lack basic knowledge about security provision and how to deal with citizens’ security issues, and they do not share common security principles such as human rights and accountability. The actors’ loyalty to the state is not guaranteed; hence, handing over the safety and security of the population to them in a hybrid approach is risky. Given that state security institutions across the country would not be able to control the different local security actors across the country, this approach would further state fragmentation.

SMART macro-level security sector reform

Advocates of the good-enough or Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely (SMART) approach advocate interim stabilization measures to help shape security conditions for more conventional SSR interventions in later stages. On this basis, involving local actors in stimulating practices such as dialogue and addressing current security parties on the ground would buy time to revert to international norms views, including the role of law and state. Thus, instead of pursuing a one-size-fits-all approach, with a SMART approach any intervention would be tailored to the local (not national) context it intends to address.

There are already different initiatives in place which have been successful in bringing stability and security to their areas, and these can be strengthened utilizing this approach. For example, the role that tribal sheikhs in Marib are playing has been utilized smartly by the IRG: it has with the Marib governor established partnerships to provide security to local communities. In Yemen’s northern regions, Ansarullah has established effective relationships with tribes, working in collaboration to provide security to the population.

SMART macro-level SSR interventions could, to some extent, stabilize the security situation until international and national efforts reach agreement on the future of the state structure in Yemen. The partnerships between state and non-state actors in collaboration with civil society could then be integrated into state institutions. Eventually, a combination of state and non-state security actors would be providing security services to populations in different contexts.

However, it has to be acknowledged that Ansarullah has exploited vulnerabilities on the ground, such as poverty, to recruit uneducated and poor young men for the fronts. In addition, tribal reconciliation has been used as a cover to recruit the tribes to the Ansarullah cause. These tactics have also been used by the IRG. Therefore, the ostensible stability must be seen in light of the local context and the population’s needs.

Up-to-date research needed on security governance knowledge

Previous studies and plans for SSR in Yemen are outdated because of the 2015 conflict escalation. Applying the SMART model requires a comprehensive, neutral, and theory-based analysis of the different actors on the ground, mapping their command structures, interests, influences, and power relations in all of Yemen’s areas. This analysis is crucial to ensure that any SSR effort is context-based.

Civil society’s role is critical for building accountability; monitoring and overseeing the implementation of agreements; facilitating dialogue between state and non-state security sector actors; providing support to victims of violence; and providing training and awareness, alongside advocacy activities. The integration of women into the various security structures as well as other vital institutions, including customs, civil status authorities, immigration, airports, and land ports, is vital for the sustainability of security and peace. This integration could also ensure alignment with international laws, such as laws pertaining to prisoners’ rights since only women are best positioned to deal with female prisoners. Civil society’s role as a mediator and monitor could also be an essential element of security sector interventions in some areas.

Sam Mohammed* is a Yemeni security sector researcher.

*Sam Mohammed is a pseudonym.
This report was funded by German Federal Foreign Office.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Yemen Policy Center or its donors.

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