Only in Yemen: Children as traffic police! [Archives:2006/917/Reportage]

January 2 2006

By: Hakim Almasmari
[email protected]

As Yemen desperately tries to instill the importance of law in the eyes of its citizens, the government seems to head in the opposite direction. Problems and disorganization in all government institutions form the core of this ongoing dilemma.

A major concern of Yemenis living in large cities is problems faced when dealing with traffic police, as police domination and oppression against poor Yemenis occurs daily. Blackmailing citizens for money is common and widespread. If citizens do not cooperate, they risk receiving imaginary fines totaling three days' hard-earned salary. Such threats and behavior worry many Yemenis.

Recently, at one of the capital's busiest traffic posts at the intersection of Zubairy and Hadda streets, instead of traffic police, a child under age 10 stood directing traffic. During the incident, there was no sign of any traffic police to stop the child from taking control, as all on-duty police were at least 50 meters away from the post, some chewing qat while others laughed and mingled on neighboring streets. Minutes later, after the child got bored of his part-time job, he stepped down and headed home.

When asked to comment on the reason why he took over the traffic post, the young child said, “It was really fun. Sometimes the drivers looked at me and praised my work. I want to do it again.” He seemed nervous at first, but opened up as our conversation continued. “When I grow up, I will show them how to stick to their job and take responsibility,” he added, proud of what he'd done.

At the capital's main intersections, like the one mentioned above, between five and 10 traffic police are on duty throughout the day, giving them full opportunity to leave their posts when necessary. Many locals, including myself, were shocked at this scenario. I took the accompanying photo to prove such a case, clearly showing the intersection and traffic jammed at the height of Sana'a rush hour.

A growing phenomenon is this country is feared more when the government and its employees, who really are in charge of enforcing law, are the first to disobey such laws. The government is given no importance whatsoever, as people have lost hope in change.

“The people fighting corruption in this country are the cause and core of corruption in Yemen. They act as if they are above the law,” said Salim Abdul Basit, a worried Yemeni seeking positive change. “Only in Yemen will you notice that laws and regulations have no meaning,” he added.

Traffic police regularly tend to leave their posts for long periods and, in some cases, don't attend their posts all day long. Between afternoon and evening, some even are observed chewing qat on a side street curb, away from their traffic responsibilities.

“After Asr (midday) prayer, the number of traffic police decreases so much. Why would they stay if they already collected their qat money in the morning from poor bus drivers?” Nagi Al-Sabahi said. “Should we import traffic police from foreign countries like we did when we hired street sweepers from Ethiopia, teachers from Sudan and Egypt and nurses from India? This is ridiculous,” he added, angry at Yemen's overall situation.

There is no government employee discipline against such a socially destructive phenomenon, as no real sensor is present to watch them. Yemenis are greatly concerned about non-stop daily corruption not just among traffic police, but in many – if not all – government institutions.

“Look at all our neighboring countries. Look at Saudi Arabia, for instance. Traffic police there have more respect and fear in the eyes of the people because they themselves respect and fear the law,” Al-Sabahi added.

While countries worldwide strive for success, Yemen still is lost in an ongoing fairytale. Citizens tend to believe that improvement is noticeable and change is on its way, while only backward steps are visible in reality.

After unification, the government promised a life full of opportunities and chances, but since then, only poverty has expanded its wings to different areas, while corruption has spread like never before. Yemen is rated one of the most corrupt countries by Transparency International and one of the poorest according to the United Nations Annual Report. Change is possible, but requires more than a miracle.

“If this is what government employees are doing, then I have lost all hope in change,” said Taher Ba-Mutaa, who has sought change and reform in Yemen for more than 30 years. “We can live with poverty, for that is destined by God, but we cannot live with corruption,” he concluded.