Something decidedly ordinary happened in Yemen earlier this month: The government re-assigned various senior police, civil defense forces and coast guards from one province to another. In almost every other region of the world, such an announcement would barely be news, perhaps meriting only a notice in the official gazette.
Yet in this region, with its long-“serving” incumbents in various offices—whether elected or appointed—such an announcement is both unusual and welcome. It represents a step towards professionalizing and neutralizing the Yemeni Armed Forces, which the Yemeni Army and Security Working Group of the National Dialogue Committee has recommended.
Why is this such an important step for Yemen? Well, as they say, a rolling stone gathers no moss: if you move high-ranking officials around the country, they won’t have the time to form the kind of personal relationships that could lead to unprofessional decisions or corruption. While avoiding such improper behavior by government officials is generally important, it is especially so in those organs of state that wield power over ordinary people—like officers of the security forces.
This is hardly a new concept in the Middle East, either: under the Ottoman Empire, the janissaries (the elite corps of slave-soldiers and administrators who were the backbone of the empire) were sent to the far-flung corners of the state to administer it and collect revenue. As soon as they settled down and got married, they had to leave the service, for the simple reason that they had taken on commitments and loyalties beyond those they owed to the Caliph.
In Yemen, as in various other countries, military service is a path to both prestige and wealth. This latter often derives from a multitude of creative tricks and criminal measures. Sometimes these are external—such as turning a blind eye to (or, indeed, actively assisting with) smuggling contraband across borders.
There are other forms of military corruption in Yemen, too. These are more internal, such as the improper procurement of equipment at either massively inflated prices (a Yemeni variant of the infamous USD 600 toilet seat), or paid for but not delivered, or accepted at substandard quality. Then there are the ghost soldiers—troops who exist on paper, but not in real life, and whose salaries and allowances are taken by the officers. The ghost soldiers were embarrassingly obvious by their absence during the large-scale operations against Al-Qaeda in 2012, when major formations were shown to be mere shells of the combat power they were supposed to be able to muster.
It seems now that the various steps taken by Yemen’s President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, with the assistance of the Americans, to reorganize Yemen’s military and security services have done much to limit the impropriety. Procedural and technical measures are also being rolled out to reduce the possibility of corruption, such as using facial scanners and finger-printing recruits, although it will be a crucial test to see how long the machines that enable such identification are allowed to survive. Corrupt Yemenis (as with corrupt people anywhere) will easily find ways to work around such measures. The magnificent-sounding Supreme National Anti-Corruption Commission was set up to root out corruption, but is alleged merely to have become a closet in which skeletons are kept.
With this organizational restructuring and the accompanying use of identification technology, the chances of corruption are diminished. However, the main enabler of corruption is longevity of tenure and the kinds of relationships that can be built if senior officers are allowed to get too comfortable. By moving these officials on a regular basis they can, of course, bring fresh ideas to their new area—but they can also be used to shine a light on any overly comfortable practices. To ensure that this continues, the momentum for movement must survive the elections and become embedded as standard practice whichever party or tribe is in power.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.
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 or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.