Back in March, Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi announced a change in leadership at the Interior Ministry. Most Yemenis watched the appointment of Maj. Gen. Abdo Al-Tarab as Interior Minister with some degree of weary amusement, assuming that such a move was meant to benefit one faction or another rather the country itself. Disillusioned with politicians’ commitment to reform, most Yemenis long ago lost faith in the central government, having witnessed firsthand the ease with which their leaders put their own selfish interests before those of the nation, being more interested in furthering their careers than promoting the change the Yemeni nation has been yearning for.
But if the appointment of Yemen’s Interior Minister made few waves in March, the whirlwind of reforms he brought with him has propelled him to the top of Yemen’s most talked-about list, and his frankness in discussing the ministry’s problems has raised many eyebrows. Tarab’s first order of business was to run a full assessment of the country’s police force so as to identify the Yemeni security forces’ main weaknesses. At a time in Yemen’s history when the nation finds itself prey to dissident tribesmen and Islamist groups, security has become more than just a priority: it is a matter of institutional life or death. Plagued by the fallout from the Arab Spring, Yemen has yet to recover from the unraveling of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime. Its armed forces are in tatters, and it has a police force that is viewed with fear and disdain more than respect. Faced with such an insurmountable uphill battle, many quite plainly expected Tarab to go under quickly, yet he has made a surprising start to his career as a government minister.
In a recent interview, Tarab revealed the extent of Yemen’s security vacuum, shedding some much-needed light on one of the country’s dirty little secrets. He described the police force as employing “more thugs than policemen,” adding that several random inspections had revealed the magnitude of the force’s complacency and downright indifference toward their duties. According to the minister, night duty officers were found fast asleep when they were meant to oversee the capital’s security, stations failed to respond to calls for help by residents, and checkpoints failed to follow up on security warnings when vehicles were flagged as being high-risk.
In one particular instance, Tarab recalled how he sent clear instructions to all checkpoints in the capital, Sana’a, ordering his men to apprehend a specific vehicle—the make of the car as well as the number plate were given—and call for immediate back-up from the ministry when it was sighted. As it happened, the security alert was part of an exercise to test security alertness and response. Needless to say, the results did not meet Tarab’s expectations.
Once Tarab was satisfied that his ministry had circulated the test security alert, he himself set out to drive the vehicle, a taxi, across Sana’a, keen to determine just how efficient Yemen’s security apparatus would prove to be. Despite driving through several checkpoints, Tarab was neither stopped nor challenged by the police force, even though the ministry explicitly called for all men to be on the lookout for taxis.
Decrying poor morale, a myriad of bad habits and an astounding lack of discipline as well as a sense of duty, Tarab is adamant that far-reaching change is needed in order for Yemen police to become an emblem of law and order. At the ministry he says he makes sure he is one of the first to arrive in the morning, and once he reaches his office, no one, no matter what their rank or connections, is allowed into the ministry.
Now, high-ranking officers have been seen rushing to their office so as not to suffer both their minister’s wrath and docked pay.
Though only two months have passed since Tarab was first appointed, some change is already visible. Of course, much remains to be done in terms of training and discipline, but a new sense of pride animates the ministry. Yemenis say that alone is worth celebrating in a country that lacks national cohesion and identity.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.