Germany’s Support to Security Sector Reform in Yemen: Focus on the Relationship between the Police and Civil Society

18 February 2020   ·   Mareike Transfeld

The security sector in Yemen is extremely fragmented. Germany’s support to security sector reform in the country requires a deeper understanding of command structures, political interests of local police forces and drivers of change. Germany and the EU should provide capacity building for the police forces and simultaneously incentivize them to cooperate with civil society initiatives.

Germany, along with its partners in the EU, is right to shift its focus in Yemen to local governance and community security. Across the country, Yemenis share the desire for functioning security institutions: In fact, according to a nationwide survey implemented by the Yemen Polling Center (YPC) in 2019, 44 percent of the Yemeni population wants only the police rather than tribes or local authorities to lead security provision. However, it is instrumental to consider local variations of police institutions, tribal structures, and authorities to tailor police reform to the needs of varying realities across Yemen.

The Yemeni state lacks the capacity to create a unified and effective police force. Civil war and foreign military intervention as well as pre-existing societal and political differences in Yemen have fragmented the state into several territories with competing and sometimes overlapping authorities and interests. To improve security on the community level, it is crucial to strengthen the police’s capacity to provide security and law enforcement for residents. Any project in support of the police must, however, consider the political and institutional changes that occurred as a consequence of state fragmentation. 

Different groups dominate and fragment the government’s security sector

In north-western Yemen, where Ansarallah (Houthi) forces pushed out the internationally recognized government (IRG) under President Abdu Rabu Mansour Hadi and established full control in 2015, police stations maintained their capacities as the old state structures stayed intact. Many police officers simply transitioned from the previous authority under President Hadi to another under Ansarallah. On the other hand, countless officers were replaced and marginalized due to their perceived lack of loyalty to the new order. 

Police officers across Ansarallah-controlled areas of Yemen believe the police have become weak and marginalized under the rule of Ansarallah, and that the “real” role of the police should be restored. In al-Hodeidah, in Yemen’s west, which has come under Ansarallah’s control in late 2014, police officers interviewed by YPC confirmed that while their old leadership has remained in place they can wield very little practical power given Ansarallah’s dominant position. 

The areas nominally under control of the internationally recognized government (IRG) are fragmented. In fact, different local authorities are now in charge of security. When Ansarallah took control of the police headquarters during the ground battles in south-western areas such as Taiz, al-Dhale, or Aden, local police abandoned their posts and policing collapsed. In 2017, the IRG began efforts to rebuild the security sector in these areas. Police headquarters were restored under the Ministry of Interior that answered to the IRG, rather than the Ansarallah Ministry in Sanaa. Nonetheless, even after areas were retaken by the IRG, the situation on the ground remains fragmented and the regular police forces are only one of several security actors. 

For example, in Taiz, the Islah-party dominates security structures but reports to the IRG Ministry of Interior to be perceived as a responsive state actor operating in the citizens’ interests. However, sheikhs and militias regularly interfere with the police’s efforts to provide security. In Aden, police officers receive their instructions from the Aden police chief, prominent leader of the Southern Transitional Council (STC), Shallal Shaye, rather than the IRG Ministry of Interior. The STC, established in 2017 and supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is the dominant force in the security sector in Aden, al-Dhale, and Lahj, with its members holding key positions in police and military. 

In contrast to these areas where police officers often complain about the interference of tribes, military forces or militias, in the northern tribal areas, such as Marib, tribes often cooperate with the police. In interviews with YPC, the IRG Ministry of Interior praised the partnership of the tribes with the police in Marib: According to the Ministry, the tribes fill security gaps that weak police structures are unable to fill while, at the same time, lending legitimacy to police institutions. 

Germany and the EU must consider local contexts and fragmentation in their SSR approaches

Germany and the EU, which both look back at a long history of supporting security related projects, must take the fragmentation of the security sector seriously. Supporting local ownership and drawing on existing political and social structure of the partner country are part of the German government’s approach to security sector reform (SSR). Police forces are always embedded in a political and social context. In the case of Yemen, any project targeting the police must be understood as piece and parcel of a complex institutional environment: For example, in Taiz, a project can strengthen state institutions under the IRG, but police support will also harden al-Islah’s grip on the city. In Aden, however, projects supporting the state under the IRG will be rejected, while localized projects hold the potential to deepen the STC’s penetration of the police. In Marib, police empowerment must be understood as part of a balancing act with tribes.

After the UN’s political mission in Yemen has shifted its focus to more local approaches, Germany and the EU have also begun to enhance their coordination in their long-standing security sector projects to better support community security. For example, they started mapping security actors. They should now further build on this momentum in two ways:

Firstly, to do justice to the do-no harm approach, which is part of Germany’s SSR strategy, in Yemen’s fragmented context, a deeper understanding of command structures, political interests of local police forces, and drivers of change within the complex institutional landscape should inform programming. Only then can donors avoid doing harm, stoking further conflict while improving political and practical outcomes of police support projects. 

Secondly, in an effort to pursue sustainable solutions, locally driven reform initiatives and building local expertise in SSR must be opened to include more Yemeni civil society organizations. More concretely, Germany and the EU can work towards police reform through supporting positive relationships between the police and local organizations. 

Incentivize the police to cooperate with civil society initiatives

Depending on the region, the progress of civil society initiatives in the security sector has advanced differently: For instance, in areas like Taiz and Hadhramout local police forces, who see themselves as part of the IRG, are open for cooperation with local organizations, whereas in areas under STC or Ansarallah influence, incentives for such projects must first be created. In general, the police has recognized that partnerships with local actors, such as neighbourhood authorities, sheikhs or the military, can strengthen their position and make their work more effective. Police will thus open up to cooperating with civil society if incentives are created by providing basic stationery and office equipment, which many local police stations lack. 

The German government’s SSR strategy underlines the importance of trust-based relationships with security forces in partner countries. In Yemen, partnerships between civil society and police will not only allow residents to better communicate their needs, but create an avenue for cooperation and capacity building. More concretely, police officers need most basic training starting from administrative abilities to complex investigative police skills; police want to learn ways to improve their interaction with the population, their treatment of suspects, and cooperation with partners. Police often even lack the knowledge of the laws which regulate their role and work. Germany and the EU should support Yemeni organizations to be able to create incentives for cooperation and provide such training to the police. 

Capacity Building and Training for the police seems difficult, but it is crucial

Opportunities for projects aiming at improving police performance are ample, which will by extension contribute to augmenting another strategic focus of Germany: the rule of law. Although the police is widely known as ineffective and corrupt, the majority of Yemenis expect the police to be the main security provider – and police officers across Yemen understand their role as being service providers. No doubt, the police in Yemen face a plethora of challenges, many of which Germany and its partners at the EU will not be able to solve immediately.

Police stations lack everything from office furniture to arms. In many parts of the country, police are equipped with fewer arms than the criminal gangs and armed groups they are supposed to subdue. Nevertheless, most police officers still report to work at their understaffed, badly equipped, and often damaged police stations. These challenges must not hinder much needed support for the police.

Security Sector Reform Zivilgesellschaft Yemen

Mareike Transfeld

Mareike Transfeld was the lead researcher in the Yemen Polling Center Project “Rebuilding Peace and Security” funded by the EU Delegation to Yemen. The research project examined the relationship between formal and informal security actors, and changes within the security sector since the beginning of the civil war in 2015. @projectyemen