Kaleidoscope: Policing in a fragmented state

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Mareike: In a survey conducted in 2019 by the Yemen Polling Center on security perceptions and police work in Yemen, nearly half of Yemenis indicated that the police should be the actor to have authority over security provision in their areas. This is true both for Yemenis living under the Houthi de-facto authority, as well as Yemenis from other territories, where of course it is predominantly the internationally recognized government, the Southern Transitional Council, and the Islah-party that are in control of the security sector. 

Amidst this state fragmentation, it is currently not the case that the police are the one authority charged with security, however. And this is not necessarily new, there has always been a plethora of actors involved in the formal and informal security sector, including military, paramilitary, intelligence, but also sheikhs or community figures. 

Throughout YPC’s research on the security sector, we have learned that security institutions in many ways have become weaker in the course of the conflict, but in other ways they have also become stronger. So this is what we want to talk about today. 
I am Mareike Transfeld, the co-founder and director of the Yemen Policy Center, and I am here today with Mohamed al-Iriani, one of our research fellows, to discuss these questions. In the previous Arabic episode of this podcast, he spoke with Kamal Muqbil, the Research Director of the Yemen Polling Center, and Rasha Abdulkafi, the former commander of the women’s battalion in the 35th Armored Brigade.

So Mohamed, the police appear quite popular. Is that so? I mean, what does policing actually look like, for the police to be so popular? How do people experience policing in their everyday lives and how do local level police stations manage to continue to operate given the fragmentation of the state?

Mohamed: Yes, in many ways the police are very present and in some ways popular. In the survey you referenced, we also learned that 50 percent of Yemenis say the police are the first security actor to respond to incidents, and it is possible that if we were to repeat the survey today, this number could be even higher, which is definitely a positive trend.

As for the question of what the police actually do, the institution provides the community with basic security, its primary function is to keep the peace. Sometimes, they provide mediation services for civil disputes such as unpaid rent, and at other times (this is usually the priority) they enforce criminal law in cases such as theft and assault through the collection of evidence, write up of incident reports, and arresting perpetrators. In regards to preventing and solving such crimes, the police have been quite successful.

What kind of services do the police provide? What kind of cases do the police deal with, and what cases do the police not deal with?

But, there are many types of cases where the police itself is powerless and cannot intervene. Such cases include disputes over land grabbing and infractions of the military, and other armed groups. And that is because compared to other actors, military or militias, the police are relatively powerless. The police often do not have the type of resources necessary to intervene in cases that the military would get involved in. This situation has become worse as there is really a type of competition amongst armed groups and elements within the security sector to be the main authority within security provision. The police just don’t have the position to challenge other armed actors.

So connected with this, the police are only popular when compared to the military and other armed groups. Kamal had an interesting answer for the question of police popularity.

Kamal: The popularity of the police in the surveys expresses the community’s desire to have a functioning state. In light of the fragmentation that is taking place, the presence of uncontrolled groups, and the proliferation of weapons, people believe that the police are the best option, especially in cities where individuals find themselves unprotected and confronted by armed groups. In the rural areas people may be protected by tribes. These survey results may not reflect what actually exists momentarily, as much as it is a reflection of what people hope and aspire to.

Mohamed: Adding to this, the police are of course widely perceived as corrupt and also seen as part of the very problematic and politicized security sector which has lost much trust within the community. This was underlined by Rasha in our podcast.

Rasha: In fact, Yemenis have lost confidence in the police, and I mean here in places controlled by the internationally recognized government. Policemen are often the ones who commit crimes, but they are at the same time the ones who appear to be solving them.

The politicization of the security apparatus has raised concerns regarding the security sector as a whole. The apparatus moves according to the whims of the military leaders who belong to the dominant political party.

Before the war, there was a state presence, even if it was weak. The security apparatus in general was rather neutral and closer to communities. Despite its leaders having political loyalties pre-war, these loyalties remained taboo and had to be kept secret, in contrast, they dominate the whole sector now.

Mohamed: A major difference with regards to the politicization before 2011 and now is that before the upheavals, there was really only one dominant party within the security sector, and that was President Ali Abdullah Saleh and his General People’s Congress, and other political orientations were kept aside. Especially the security sector, which was only to serve the regime. We all know that the various branches of the security sector were led by members of the Saleh family.

Today we have a fragmentation of the state and a fragmentation of political power, political loyalties are today in the open, with different parts of the security sector being controlled by different political parties or groups. And there is competition amongst these groups.

The competition that the police is part of the problem when it comes to performance. Of course the police sector has undergone dramatic changes in the course of the conflict, and the way it operates is markedly different from the time before the conflict.

Mareike: All of this is very fascinating. So for people outside of Yemen, especially westerners, it appears to be really difficult to grasp what these security institutions are like, how they are functioning. Often westerners appear to apply a very Weberian understanding of state institutions, which obviously cannot be applied here. At the same time, the popular imaginations of what a failed state is, also do not apply. We are not in a situation of absolute chaos and lawlessness, there are institutions which are operating, police officers in uniform are going to work and are dealing with cases brought to them by the community. Could you, Mohamed, explain a bit how these institutions manage to function and what the context is like?

Mohamed: Yeah sure. In areas of southwest Yemen that witnessed direct confrontations between the Houthis and local resistance groups or the army under the internationally recognized government, the police sector temporarily collapsed. Police officers left the stations, some leaving their positions to escape the fighting, others joined resistance groups or joined the Houthis.

What is important to understand is that In many of these locations, especially higher ranking officials were part of the network of former president Saleh, which put them at odds with the local resistance movements which sought to defend the cities from the Houthi incursion. An example of this would be the chief of police in Aden at the time, Abdulhafiz Saqqaf. Later he served under the Houthis in Ibb.

In this time, many police stations were destroyed and nearly all of them were looted. In Taiz, the building of the security department, which is the highest police authority in the governorate, was occupied by militias. But this really hit district level police hard as they already had little resources to begin with. Once the internationally recognized government regained control over these areas, began to rebuild the police sector. The focus here was mainly on the governorate level security department. Nominally, it would then be the responsibility of the security department to rebuild the district level, and this occurred only on a rudimentary level. In the end, the governorate level budget is low, and is often withheld from the district level police.

Mareike: So if there are no operational budgets, how is it that policemen at the district level continue to go to work and that the police continue to operate?

Mohamed: Before talking about how the police manage to operate, I want to highlight some of the challenges police are dealing with.

First, as we mentioned earlier, salaries were not paid regularly and the operational budgets approved by the Ministry of Interior were far from sufficient. Currently, police personnel have not received their salaries for nine months. So how could a policeman perform his job in light of this situation? To add, The small operational budgets are delivered at intervals, for example, every three months. This leads to a lack of logistical equipment, and overall difficulties for the stations to provide services they are mandated to provide.

This means that many police stations at the district level do not have cars, they do not have phones, and many lack basic office furniture. I mean, the very rudimentary equipment needed to operate any kind of office is often absent. From research we conducted together with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, we learned that police stations mostly lack the equipment and knowledge to keep a log and archive of their activities. And researchers of Yemen Polling visited the police stations and saw for themselves the desolate state that some of these stations are in, with some being located in partially destroyed buildings and simply not having the space to accommodate even the officers who work at the station.

On top of that, a very small percentage of the police are armed, especially in areas under the internationally recognized government. How can the policemen carry out their duties in the face of informal armed groups, and in the face of weapon proliferation in communities? It is a paradox, the state that usually has a monopoly on the use of legitimate force is not adequately armed, while informal armed groups have an abundance of weapons. Some police stations have more than 30 officers, and only 3 or 4 of them are armed.

So in our present research, which is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office, we were guided by exactly that question: what keeps the officers going, why are the police still operating?

I mean on a very basic level the police appear to believe in their mission statement, regardless of the governorate, police officers believe that it is their duty to work for the community and to keep the community safe. This surely is a motivational factor. But of course the uniform and the position also gives the police officers some legitimacy and puts the police officers in a position to gather the resources necessary to operate the police station. Buildings, water, and electricity, for example, are provided by businessmen. We also found that some police stations are operating from abandoned hotels without having to pay rent.

If it was not for the role played by the community, the police would not be operating to the degree it is at today. The local community, and this includes civilians and the private sector, have contributed in many ways to support the sector. For example, the private sector for electricity provided the electricity service to several police stations without any financial compensation. There are also those who provided temporary buildings in place of the stations that were completely destroyed during the war.

Many civilians lent their cars and in some cases paid sums of money to cover the cost of transportation and the daily expenses of the policemen who took charge of their case. Despite the danger that exists from these relations…the directors of police stations emphasized that this assistance by people is voluntary, but, as already pointed out by Kamal, this of course holds many risks. Here is what Kamal had to say, for instance:

Kamal: Of course, it is not possible to rely on the role of society in helping the police to overcome the challenges that we have mentioned, especially with regard to services and material matters. It is true that the current efforts may reflect society’s yearning for the presence of a strong and effective police sector, but I do not expect this situation to continue. And it would not be good if it did continue. The police should not become a hostage in the hands of those who provide them with aid.

Mohamed: The police sector pretty much is selling itself out to the highest bidders. Most of the time those with political loyalties will have the most financial resources, as pointed out by Rasha.

Rasha: The political and economic challenges constituted a major obstacle in the way of security and police work in the liberated areas, through direct intervention by political party leaders in their work and through appointments of their leaders. Moreover, any leader affiliated with a particular party has greater financial support for him and his station, this In addition to the interruption of salaries, has exacerbated the challenges by limiting police personnel, impeding their ability to work or even commute to crime scenes, especially with the lack of security vehicles in some police stations.

Mareike: This support from the community of course also attests to the fact that the community wants the police to be a dominant actor. But the risks associated with this are clear. What would need to be done to ensure more independent sources of funding?

Mohamed: Well, it doesn’t look like we can expect proper operational budgets to be coming from the top down given the economic crisis and the situation of the government. In light of this, what really needs to happen is a systematic and transparent tax collection by local authorities. We are already seeing that all sorts of local institutions are collecting fees for services that used to be free of charge or the prices for services have gone up.

The community understands this as a form of corruption and that people are making illicit profits. At the same time, we already have actors of the security sector imposing all sorts of taxes on markets and transportation of goods, these taxes are collected at checkpoints. Because of these potential revenue sources, we see that different branches of the security sector are competing against each other and interfering in each other’s work.

The police of course are the weakest link. This tax collection needs to be done in a systematic and transparent manner. But again, the question is how the unarmed authorities can impose this on the armed actors. This again may be related to the loyalties within the institutions.

Mareike: I would imagine that a police funded through taxes in this way could also feel much more accountable to the community. This really has been a fascinating discussion. There is so much more to say, but we are at the end of our podcast. Of course, Mohamed, you have a paper coming out about this soon. I am very much looking forward to it. Thank you for the conversation, and thanks again for bringing in Kamal and Rasha on this important topic.

*This is a non-verbatim transcript.

German Federal Foreign Office
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