Mohamed al-Iriani

Policing in a Fragmented State: Resilience of Local State Institutions in Taiz


March 2022

In a nationwide survey conducted by the Yemen Polling Center in 2019, 45 percent of Taiz residents stated that they would first inform the police in the event of a crime. About half of the respondents said they would feel safer if more police were available in the area.1 Although informal security providers, such as sheikhs and aqils, have an important part to play, the role of the police in community safety and peace should not be underestimated.2 Despite all the challenges police have faced as a result of the ongoing war, they have been resilient and able to continue offering  security services. The police routinely process small criminal cases and civil disputes. After district police record statements and produce the necessary reports, criminal cases are usually transferred to the criminal investigation department. Civil disputes, such as rent disagreements and petty crimes, are typically solved informally through mediation or transferred to the judiciary.

When the survey data was collected, in spring/summer 2019, district and subdistrict level police institutions in Taiz were in a dire state; many operated out of damaged or inadequate buildings, with little to no resources and no funding. Police station chiefs in eight Taiz districts, interviewed for this research, confirmed that there were no operating budgets for district and subdistrict-level police stations and salaries were paid only intermittently. Yet, officers at these police stations managed to continue their operations, if only at a rudimentary level. Twenty-nine percent of survey respondents stated that in Taiz the police were the first security actor to respond,3 indicating their resilience despite war-related shocks. Interviews with chiefs from eight district and subdistrict police stations4 between July and August 2021 revealed that police rely on a mixture of personal resourcefulness, social capital, and commercialization of services; in the case of the latter, meaning that public services are sold as private services. In fact, the research shows that pre-existing structures of corruption and social networks facilitated the sector’s resilience, allowing the institution to continue functioning despite state fragmentation.

Following the logic of conventional state-building and the liberal peacebuilding paradigm, this blurring of lines between formal and informal structures would usually be considered to render state institutions inefficient, requiring them to be rebuilt according to Weberian blueprints, in a technocratic manner.5 The research conducted for this study presents an opportunity to rethink approaches to state-building and peacebuilding, as it offers insights into local practices that need to be understood and considered when engaging in projects with local state institutions. The study therefore attempts to rethink state-building in the context of local resources and networks. Resilience practices adopted by local police, as described in the study, have been developed by other local state institutions; for instance, in the health sector hospitals fund their entire operations through the commercialization of their services. While some of the practices that have allowed the police to continue functioning hold the potential to pose a risk to community safety, police would not be able to continue operating without such strategies. If constructive strategies are re-framed as resilience, they may present an opportunity to rethink state–community relations and approaches to local governance, community safety, and accountability.

War destruction, looting, and lack of funding pose challenges to policing

During the Houthi incursion into the city of Taiz in 2015, the security sector collapsed, creating a security vacuum that was filled by informal security actors, specifically armed resistance groups that emerged to defend the city. Due to their alliance with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Houthis were able to take over the governorate-level security department, which meant that directives to the governorate’s police stations no longer came from the internationally recognized government (IRG), but from the Houthis. Police officers across the governorate consequently left their posts, leaving police stations unmanned and close to collapse. Many local policemen joined the fighting against the Houthis at the frontlines because unlike police salaries, which were no longer being paid, military salaries continued. Based on observations made at local police stations, researchers reported that a majority were damaged or looted during the war. One police station chief described how the government-owned police station building was impacted by the fighting: “There are no doors or windows; there are holes in the wall caused by rockets.”6

In July 2016, the IRG began to rebuild the security sector, with the reinstatement of the governorate-level security department being a major step.7 Further actions included reinstating salaries, recruiting troops to the various branches of the security sector, and integrating informal armed groups into the formal security apparatus. However, motivated by political survival rather than community security, the reconstruction of the police sector was approached in a top–down manner, with government efforts focusing on the governorate-level security departments, neglecting districts and subdistricts. As a consequence, police stations at the district and subdistrict level not only lack important resources (including vehicles and arms) but also lack infrastructure (including adequate buildings), finance, basic office furniture, and communication means (phones, faxes, or computers) and stationary.

One police chief explained, “There is no fixed operational budget; we rarely receive an operational budget. Only about once every ten months, which totals to the amount of one hundred thousand Yemeni riyals.”8 There have been dramatic changes in terms of the amount of money available to the national government; current budgeting procedures do not follow the Local Authority Law (2000) and exclude local institutions.9 Although financial procedures were never a strong suit of the Yemeni government, currently the complete lack of accountability has led to the near-complete drying up of funds before they reach local level institutions. All heads of local-level police stations in Taiz affirm that they do not receive an annual budget, despite the Ministry of Interior having a budget of approximately US$208 million per year.10 At the governorate level, while local authorities have been collecting taxes and transferring sums to the police sector, security experts describe the budget and its priorities to be mismanaged at all levels of government.11

Commercialization of security services

In the context of Yemen’s economic crisis and state fragmentation at the local level, the public sector has moved towards the commercialization of public services. Commercialization generally refers to the process of transforming a transaction into a commercial activity. Specifically, it means that a service provider seeks to cover most or all of its costs directly from the individual service user.12 For example, hospitals cover their operational expenses through raising prices for health services.13 With this transformation, the funding of state services has moved (partially) from the public sector to the community. The police sector has undergone a similar transition. Police stations request remuneration in return for the services they are required to provide by law, including the issuing of official documents or responding to cases reported by members of the community. The 2019 Yemen Polling survey found that 43 percent of civilians in Taiz who contacted the police to obtain official documents reported they had to pay a ‘bribe’. Remuneration requested by the police may come in direct cash payments or in the form of transportation or lunches. One police chief explained, “Why would we pay for transportation, lunch or any other expenses from our own pockets, these are the bare minimum requirements for us to process a case”.

Given the position of the police as a state institution, their officers are able to use the police’s legitimacy and monetize services they provide to the community, such as handling civil or criminal complaints and providing official documentation. In many respects, it is the petty corruption that traditionally existed within the police sector that allowed for the commercialization of services as a resilience strategy. There is a certain amount of sympathy for the police and acceptance of its corruption within the community.14 According to a 2019 Yemen Polling nationwide survey, 78 percent of Taiz residents believe the police would be less corrupt if they were paid more. Against this backdrop, police stations have developed ‘new’ services in an effort to mobilize revenue. For example, police offer their protection services similar to the way in which a private security company would to businessmen, sheikhs, or other financially comfortable people in return for payment. The few police stations that have police vehicles have been reported to offer these for rent to the private sector for certain periods.15 In fact, security experts from Taiz reported that in 2016 close to 20 ‘informal’ police stations, with staff identifying as state police, emerged in the governorate which were completely commercialized. While most of these stations have been shut down in the process of security sector re-establishment, some of them are still operating today.

Clearly there are serious risks associated with the state security services commercialization trend. While police officers explained that on the one hand the lack of police vehicles negatively impacts police performance, on the other hand police stations actively contribute to the lack of vehicles by renting them out for financial gain. Another risk is that the promise of financial profit motivates police to break the very laws they are supposed to enforce and adhere to in their own conduct. For instance, there have been reports of police stations arbitrarily imprisoning individuals or prolonging imprisonment of those who have already been ordered to be released by judicial institutions, all in return for payment.16

Pre-war social networks facilitate police operations

Local-level police stations have received support from their communities that helps to continue operations. Police have also received support from local businessmen. This support stems not only from businessmen actively protecting their vacant properties from illegal seizure but also from their goodwill as they are able to make these contributions at a time when tax collection is weak. For example, the business sector has provided utilities free of charge to multiple stations in Taiz; this includes electricity from private companies and water transported in water trucks from private wells. Taizi businessmen have also provided temporary buildings for police stations to operate from in place of those destroyed during the war. Police chiefs explained that water, electricity, and furniture are provided by businessmen and citizens that are supporting the police station. These types of arrangements between the local police and both the private sector and members of the community are common.

The community support helps the security sector continue functioning. Against this backdrop, the strong political loyalties within the sector along with the lack of budget from national-level institutions and the commercialization of public services has led to competition amongst public sector actors. On the one hand, there is a race to amass resources between the various political parties and their networks within the state institutions through rent-seeking, which is accelerated by a drive for survival. On the other hand, given the dominance of the Islah Party in state institutions within the city of Taiz – as most actors affiliated with other parties had been cast out of the city –  there is also competition within and amongst Islah-led institutions which often manifests between the different branches of the security sector. For instance, military brigades identified markets and roads as profitable locations and have since the beginning of the conflict erected checkpoints to informally collect taxes on goods.17 In these spaces, military actors have marginalized police, regardless of their respective mandates.18 Because military actors are more heavily armed compared with the police, the latter are unable to assert themselves when set against the military in public spaces, when the military intervenes in ongoing police work, and when there are incidents involving the military.

Personal investment and creativity

In the face of the tremendous gaps in resources and finance at the district and subdistrict police stations, personal investment and creativity in circumventing challenges are important factors that allowed the police sector to continue operating at the local level. Police station chiefs use personal finances and private resources not only to provide some basic resources (including fuel, stationary, office furniture, or electricity bills) but also to facilitate police work. For instance, there are efforts to protect police station archives. Two police chiefs stated that police station conditions were so poor that information could not be stored safely. One police chief takes important documents home to safeguard them, while another explained that “we don’t keep any files in the station; we rented a small room opposite the building for archiving. This room is rented for YR10,000 per month, and the rent is paid by the chief from his salary”.19

Beyond police chiefs, regular police officers also fund police resources out of their personal income. According to interviews, policemen split the cost of cleaning services between staff, use their own private mobile phones, and when a colleague at the station needs medical attention the team members all contribute. Taiz local police chiefs described the lack of vehicles and arms at the police stations as a major struggle, and as a result, the police have trouble responding to incidents. Thus, to remain mobile, police use personal vehicles and private transportation provided by civilians to reach crime scenes or patrol locations, and their own personal firearms to protect themselves.

The funding and resource gaps put police chiefs in a position where they need to creatively circumvent obstacles which might cause an existential challenge to the station. Due to the low number of arms in police possession, for instance, there are certain cases the police categorically does not deal with. This includes cases involving armed groups. In these cases, the district and subdistrict police stations transfer cases to the governorate-level security department or request reinforcements. In other cases, police stations have proactively sought support from civil society organizations and businesses through funding proposals. This was the case when police officers proposed to local civil society organizations to fund the installment of a security camera surveillance system in the city. The system was funded by several local organizations and is reported to have greatly improved security in Taiz. The police made additional income by asking the shops where cameras were installed to contribute US$100 to funding the system.20

From commercialization to taxation? Concerns on equity and legality

Police chiefs were reluctant to speak about the alternative sources of incomes which today help to sustain police operations. This is because the practices are understood within the community as forms of corruption. For instance, one police station chief explained: “We do not take money, only for transportation allowance for police personnel. Sometimes, we need to carry out a security mission or such, so we may take money as transportation allowance. We do not force or compel people to pay us money, but rather they give it voluntarily. However, there may be rare cases that a policeman blackmails a citizen or asks them for money in exchange for a security service, which may occur sometimes due to the lack of wages, salaries, and operational expenses, but in most cases the people voluntarily pay us.” Indeed, as mentioned before, representative surveys generally show a positive trend in responses from Yemenis when asked about the police; however, a discussion on this topic in a Kaleidoscope podcast episode21 provoked negative responses on social media, with the majority of the audience describing the police as corrupt, indicating that the negative feelings toward the police may be more prevalent in some social groups. While there is a greater variety of ‘commercial activity’ within the police sector, the practices differ from the pre-war period mainly in terms of the extent to which officers request compensation.

But where do we go from here? Yemen is unlikely to witness large-scale state-building projects in the future, neither during nor after the country’s current war. And at any rate, the liberal peacebuilding paradigm in general and conventional security sector reform approaches specifically have come under criticism. There is little evidence to suggest that conventional approaches to rebuilding police and security are actually successful. One of the responses to the criticism is the ‘local turn’ in the peacebuilding debate, which calls upon practitioners to unravel the unexplored, local, and everyday narratives, experiences, and struggles that are often hidden or overlooked by mainstream scholarly approaches and United Nations peacebuilding missions on the ground.22 In the same vein, Timothy Donais and Ahmet Barbak argue that in an effort to combine the desirable with the achievable outcomes of security sector reform, approaches must be grounded in local practices.23 Against a backdrop of old behaviors being unlikely to change in the framework of donor-funded projects, a pragmatic approach that is more likely to yield positive results should be considered.

The unusually generated income allows local police to continue operations by covering small expenses and even rents. From one end, commercialization of police services solves the problem of low/non-existent salaries, providing an incentive for police officers to continue working. On an institutional level, it provides an operating budget. Without these coping strategies, the police on the community level would cease to exist. Thus, these coping strategies in local-level police stations can lead to better security within communities at a time when the national-level government is weak and fragmented. Against this backdrop, the question arises whether these practices could be an opportunity to rethink accountability and community policing. For instance, the fact that Yemenis now pay for their security services, civil society is funding police projects, and multiple actors exist and are competing to provide the same security services as the police24 provides an opportunity that has been absent in Yemen: direct community engagement with the security sector. This opportunity allows Yemenis to demand more accountability from the police, as the police are now reliant on the community for survival and thus accountability can be mutually beneficial; but some experts believe that the current practices of private–public partnerships may lead to loyalties, with civilians and other generous benefactors expecting the public sector to repay the debt in the future. The current situation could be a starting point for community dialogue on state–community relations and community ownership.

Against this backdrop, resource mobilization needs to become more transparent, more systematic, and more just, while at the same time preventing practices that ultimately harm the community. While businesses and the government can foot the tab, the war-struck community cannot. The police should not transform into an institution that serves only the well-off, while those that cannot afford to pay police services are left without state security and justice provision. This situation may be resolved by standardizing the price of security services received by the public, such as has already occurred in the electricity sector in Taiz.25 Here, the local authority announced a unified tariff for both public and private electricity companies based on a calculation of the cost of providing the service, ultimately deeming extra charges by the private sector unlawful or corrupt.  Standardization of prices in combination with the establishment of a fund aimed at financing those unable to pay for security services could help create equal access to the services. At the same time, there is a fine line between the commercialization of public services which facilitate the continuation of police services, and corrupt practices which may harm public safety. Thus, any efforts at institutionalizing these resilience strategies must ensure that measures that may put the public at risk are curbed, while measures that increase security are enhanced.


Mohamed al-Iriani joined YPC as Research Fellow in 2020. He has worked as a research consultant on topics such as security and economic development and held various directing and consulting positions in organizational management, public relations, and marketing. In 2013, he co-founded Tayramana FM, the first independent, privately-owned FM radio station in Yemen.

Donor:
German Federal Foreign Office
Editors:
Mareike Transfeld
Copy editors:
Jatinder Padda
Translators:
Fatima Saleh (Arabic)
Image:
Taiz, Yemen. January 22, 2019. A mortar shell fired by Houthis on the agricultural road in the center of Taiz, killing one woman, wounding 11 others, and destroying a car. Credit: Anas Alhajj.
REFERENCES:
  1. Yemen Polling Center nationwide representative survey, April–July 2019.[]
  2. Sultan Maged, Muqbil, Mareike “Formalizing the Informal”. Yemen Policy Center (YPC), “Kaleidoscope: Policing in A Fragmented State,” YPC, December 22, 2021. https://www.yemenpolicy.org/policing-in-a-fragmented-state/[]
  3. Yemen Polling Center nationwide representative survey, April–July 2019.[]
  4. This paper is based on fieldwork qualitative research conducted from July to August 2021 in Taiz. The study used purposive sampling through which structured interviews were conducted with eight heads of local police, followed by a follow-up forum with six participants, including chiefs of police, security experts, and law and human rights experts. The background of the participants ranges from research-based expertise to on-the-ground involvement with the police sector in Taiz.[]
  5. Seth D. Kaplan “Rethinking state building: fixing fragile states”, The Broker, October 2009. https://www.thebrokeronline.eu/rethinking-state-building-d25/[]
  6. Maged Sultan, Mareike Transfeld and Kamal Muqbil, “Formalizing the Informal. State and Non-State Security Providers in Government-Controlled Taiz City”, Yemen Polling Center, July 2019. https://www.yemenpolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/ICSP_EU_FinalTaizReport2019July19.pdf; Mareike Transfeld, Hakim Noman, Kamal Muqbil, and Shaima Bin Othman, Rule of Law Institutions Assessment: Police, First Responders, Prosecutors and Courts in Aden, Taiz, Lahj and Shabwa (Sana’a: Yemen Polling Center, 2020), 42-44[]
  7. Mareike Transfeld, Hakim Noman, Kamal Muqbil, and Shaima Bin Othman, “Rule of Law Institutions Assessment: Police, First Responders, Prosecutors and Courts in Aden, Taiz, Lahj and Shabwa”, Sana’a: Yemen Polling Center, 2020. 42-44[]
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  24. MEE correspondent, “Taiz descends into turf wars as rebels clash over power and money”، 23 June, 2016. https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/taiz-descends-turf-wars-rebels-clash-over-power-and-money[]
  25. Yemen Shabab, “Taiz Governor orders the review of electricity prices and cancelation monthly subscriptions”, 3 Jan,2022. “https://yemenshabab.net/locales/72632[]
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