Yemen’s security sector, much like the country’s political system, has historically reflected the niche interests of its ruling elite, thriving on a system of patronage and corruption.
The sector has also been used to promote personal political agendas, most significantly that of the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. But the lack of independent government control over the state’s security forces, which are now being used to advance the narrow interests of Saleh and the Houthis, are exacerbating the conflict currently taking place in the country.
Security sector reform in Yemen is a long-term project, which has not yet had the time to develop there, or around which a consensus has been built. Historically, corruption has been rampant, particularly through the use of “ghost soldiers,” soldiers who do not actually exist and whose salaries were used to line the pockets of unit commanders. Some estimates note that up to one-third of soldiers existed on paper only.
There was also a lack of democratic oversight and civilian control of these forces, and units such as the Central Security Forces and the Counterterrorism Unit reported directly to the president, who would often use them in order to advance his own interests.
Other problems included a lack of professionalism and a unified command structure, a lack of separation between security agencies and political interests, and the use of the security forces to squash political dissent, as occurred during the 2011 protests.
In response to the unrest in 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council established a Committee on Military Affairs for Achieving Security that same year. Subsequent United Nations Security Council resolutions, including Security Council resolution 2014 (2011), called on the government to end the attacks against civilians by the security forces. Resolution 2051 (2012) emphasized restructuring the security and armed forces under a unified leadership, and reforming how senior appointments were made to the security sector and armed forces.
The National Dialogue Conference, which commenced its meetings in March 2013, also created a working group dedicated to clarifying the role of security institutions within the state. Together, these measures emphasized a shift toward security policies that would be laid out by democratic leadership and would work in the interests of the population at large.
A number of important steps were also taken by President Abed Rabbou Mansour Hadi to realign security institutions with transitional concerns. In April 2012, 20 of Saleh’s relatives were removed from senior security-sector positions in a move to transfer the security leadership to democratic, as opposed to family, control.
In August 2012, the Republican Guard was reduced and a new military unit, the Presidential Protective Forces, was formed from reassigned units of the Republican Guard that had been commanded by relatives of Saleh. The Presidential Protection Forces came under the direct jurisdiction of the presidency, and its establishment transferred a unit away from Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar and Saleh’s son Ahmad – which helped to further minimize personal political control.
In December 2012, both the Republican Guard and the 1st Armored Division (Firqa) led by Ali Mohsen were fully disbanded so that forces could instead be organized on a regional basis. The Central Security Forces was renamed the Special Security Forces to try to distance itself from the previous unit, which had been controversial. An Inspector General’s Office was also established to address human rights, corruption and police violations within the Interior Ministry.
However, renaming these institutions and replacing their top leaders did not ultimately transfer the loyalty and trust of troops as well as the midlevel leadership to the newly elected government. The security forces continue to be used to promote the narrow political interests of the ousted regime and its partners.
Far-reaching security sector reform – emphasizing civilian interests, policymaking control and oversight, the disengagement of security forces from personal political agendas and the professionalization of forces – is integral to a lasting solution to Yemen’s current crisis. The draft constitution that was released in February 2015 provides a recognized framework from which to start. Few other options exist for a country that is today mired in an ongoing and bloody conflict.
Joana Cook is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London and is editor-in-chief of its peer-reviewed blog and journal, Strife. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 04, 2015, on page 7.