Letter From Sana’a: On State Failure's Door

The Link Between Governance and Security in Yemen

Courtesy Reuters

The inner courtyard of the traffic-police headquarters in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, resembles an open-air market. Across the sprawling yard, drivers haggle with men in uniform, and money changes hands in exchange for registrations and authorizations. Offices in the two buildings that frame the courtyard are used for more complicated business, such as issuing certifications that only the director general can provide. One afternoon, a Yemeni businessman stood on a balcony overlooking the yard. “This is the problem,” he told me. “I had to bribe the police five times just to report a theft from my car. It is everyone for himself,” he said, scurrying off toward a senior officer, a smuggled bottle of Johnny Walker Black in his briefcase.

Similar scenes showing a lack of state authority and of alternative power structures are found across the city. One morning, I visited the interior ministry and spoke to a senior military officer who was busy on the phone trying to prevent the escalation of a land dispute in Aden that had already left two of his cousins dead. As he explained, although the land issue was being tried in court, the deaths had to be resolved between the families. He was trying to persuade the police to confiscate the feuding families’ arms and to negotiate a deal that would compensate his family for the deaths. “This is madness,” he told me in between phone calls.

In this landscape of competing political and tribal authorities, where officials leverage their individual authority to supplement their meager incomes, interest groups fill the voids. They exploit a situation in which President Ali Abdullah Saleh is able to extend his rule over parts of the country only through the proxy of favored tribal leaders. These groups buy the loyalty of segments of the population and manipulate local domestic conflicts to their perceived interests. For example, they emphasize the fact that the tribes in the resource-rich provinces do not share in the benefits of the country’

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