Who Is Causing the Blackouts in Yemen?

Beyond offering an outlet, the attacks on the electrical grid have a decent track record of getting results; as some see it, the whole thing is almost a sort of game. Tribesmen commit acts of sabotage with the goal of being offered incentives...

As the Arab Spring hit Yemen in 2011, urban Yemenis called for an end to Ali Abdullah Saleh’s three-decade reign in power. They also saw the end of their reliable access to electricity.  The situation bottomed out in late summer, as 23 hour long power cuts during Ramadan left fatigued Yemenis struggling to negotiate dimly lit iftar meals at night. Improvements sharply sped up when Saleh’s successor, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, took office.

Nevertheless, this week finds Sana thrown back into the darkness.

In 2011, there was a widespread rumor that the power outages weren’t accidental. Conspiracy theorists were vindicated last May when, following Saleh’s flight to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, Sanaa saw its first full day of power in weeks. The blackouts returned, of course, and soon were worse than ever. In those literal and metaphorical dark days, it wasn’t hard to imagine the embattled leader was the one behind the power cuts; the minarets of Saleh’s monumental Mosque, lit by a self-contained generator system, seemed to loom over the city, as if he was giving us all the finger. Months after Saleh left power, the Minister of Electricity was still blaming him for acts of sabotage. For their part, Saleh’s political allies have often made similar accusations against their opponents. Honestly, I wouldn’t be shocked if both sides were guilty.

Regardless, “tribal sabotage,” the official excuse usually given, however vague, is generally true. Access to electricity in Sanaa is largely dependent on a power plant in the province of Mareb, an underdeveloped part of the country seen by many Yemenis  the way the entire country of Yemen is viewed by Saudi and Emiratis. The other provinces the power lines pass through before they reach Sanaa—most notably, Nehm—have similar reputations. By this point, some parts of Yemen are basically synonymous with attacks on power lines. In the midst of one week of blackouts, I remember witnessing a friend of mine, who hails from an upper middle class family, snipe a sheikh he was hosting at his home as the power cut out yet again.

“When are you going to get your people to stop attacking our power lines?” my friend asked. The sheikh laughed awkwardly in response, giving off a sense of vulnerability belied by the half-dozen armed guards sitting across the room from us.

Of course, it’s unfair to blame sheikhs or certain tribes; when it comes down to it, there’s a wide gulf between the well-heeled sheikhs and the guys who are actually attacking the power lines.

The act of sabotaging Yemen’s electricity infrastructure is remarkably easy. Apparently, all it takes to cut off electricity in Sanaa is lobbing a heavy chain at an unprotected power line. A decent number of attacks are complicated enough to need a bit more equipment, effort and manpower, but most barely require any effort at all.

On some level, the attacks can be seen as legitimate manifestations of class rage. The power lines carry electricity through impoverished tribal areas that lack electricity themselves. At times, the sabotage seems nearly poetic, reminding those in the capital of the plight of their fellow citizens, forcing them to acknowledge parts of the country that are often ignored.

“As much as I hate them, a part of me appreciates the blackouts,” a friend who grew up in an impoverished village southwest of Sanaa once told me. “[The saboteurs] show people in Sanaa how the rest of Yemen lives.”

General discontent is not the only force motivating the tribal saboteurs. Many of the infrastructure attacks are reactions to specific events: some still trace acts of sabotage to lingering anger over the death of Mareb’s former deputy governor Jabir al-Shabwani, a well-respected tribal leader who was killed in 2010 airstrike ostensibly meant to target members of Al Qaeda. The assassination prompted members of his tribe to direct their grief at nearby power lines and oil pipelines. Beyond offering an outlet, the attacks on the electrical grid have a decent track record of getting results; as some see it, the whole thing is almost a sort of game. Tribesmen commit acts of sabotage with the goal of being offered incentives (financial or otherwise) to refrain from doing so in the future.   

It’s not hard to see why many Yemenis cast the phenomenon as a vicious cycle. Most politicians and tribal leaders I’ve discussed the issue with credit improvements in the electricity situation to cooperation between tribal elites and the government.

But outside of allegations that some sheikhs are colluding with attackers for their own purposes, “persuading” tribesmen not to attack power lines only serves to encourage further attacks. The steps needed to ameliorate the conditions that encourage acts of sabotage—combating rural unemployment and illiteracy, guaranteeing access to basic services and effective governance—are as easy to name as they are difficult to actualize. Public shaming of apprehended saboteurs was attempted at one point—though I have to wonder how many of those being shamed were aware of it. 

December marked the last time that the army was dispatched to Mareb to prevent attacks. It was a substantial offensive, where a number of tribesmen and soldiers—including one of my neighbors—were killed in the fighting. Even if they admitted that it was a far from ideal strategy, many I spoke to defended the government’s actions as a necessary act of deterrence, an effective show of strength.

“What the army did in Mareb was about sending a message,” one security official told me last week, making an argument that, at least at the time, didn’t seem wholly unreasonable. “I’d be shocked if anyone dares to attack the power lines again.”

Two days later, some tribesmen in Mareb did.