Yemen struggles to keep the lights on amid frequent power line sabotage

Local tribesmen who feel ignored by Yemen's central government frequently attack power lines, plunging the country into darkness and undermining public trust in their leaders.

By , Correspondent

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    Houses are seen in the old city of Sanaa, Yemen, May 30. Local tribesmen who feel ignored by Yemen's central government frequently attack power lines and plunge Sanaa and other cities into 20-plus-hour blackouts.
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Arguably, the most hated man in Yemen today is not a corrupt businessman or controversial politician, but a once-unknown sheikh named Mohamed Kalfoot.

The sheikh is certainly not the only man to blame. But the tribal leader, depicted by government statements as the self-interested key ringleader of a sabotage-ring in the central province of Mareb, has become so synonymous with attacks on power lines that even Yemeni newspapers have come to refer to saboteurs and their supporters as "kalafeet" or "kalfoots." The power line attacks often plunge Sanaa and other cities into 20-plus-hour blackouts.

Power cuts in Sanaa were once largely limited to hour-long rolling blackouts. But as the central government’s already fragile hold on much of the country unraveled amid the 2011 uprising against former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the government proved unable or perhaps unwilling to prevent power line sabotage. The country experienced months of near-constant power cuts. 

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In the year and a half since Saleh left power – replaced by his longtime deputy, Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi – the situation has stabilized, comparatively, and violence has decreased. Yet near-weekly bouts of sabotage continue to plunge the capital into darkness, erasing any illusion of a return to normalcy. 

The power issues have cost the Yemeni economy billions of dollars, forcing businesses and homeowners to rely on gas-powered generators or go without electricity.

Mr. Kalfoot's infamy has also spawned a parody Twitter account and satirical calls for him to run for president. But popular anger over the seemingly unending blackouts extends beyond Kalfoot and his ilk. As hundreds of Yemenis marched to the Ministry of Electricity on June 5 to protest the power cuts, their anger was focused on politicians in Sanaa.

The largely middle class demonstrators formed only a modest crowd, but their protest was the clearest manifestation yet of declining faith in the Yemeni government's inability to rule, illustrated by its failure to stop the power cuts. 

The sabotage has been concentrated in specific areas of Mareb, the site of Yemen’s main power plant, and the district of Nihm. Sanaa’s hand in both areas has long been weak, and local tribesmen have long used their proximity to the electricity infrastructure to express their anger at the government.

Many locals say the sabotage is retribution for a series of diverse, often years- old grievances – such as the government’s inability to assuage anger after the deaths of local civilians in military actions or failure to rectify a flawed legal judgment -- combined with a general dearth of basic services.

The attacks on power lines are essentially a desperate cry for attention. But many Yemenis, including government officials, say there’s more at play.

“This has nothing to with the province being marginalized,” said Intisar al-Qadhi, a political activist and daughter of a politician and tribal leader in Mareb. “The cutting of the power lines is rooted in political motives.”

Such claims date back to 2011, when Saleh and his opponents traded blame for the blackouts. Since Mr. Hadi took office, his allies have blamed power line attacks on political forces seeking to disrupt Yemen’s political transition. A June 11 United Nations Security Council report effectively said the same thing, specifically calling for those behind the sabotage to be brought to justice.

But for Yemenis who care more about keeping the lights on than who is in government, blame ultimately lies with a government that remains unable to stop them, regardless of who is behind the sabotage.

“The ministers of electricity and the interior have been in their positions long enough that they have no one to blame but themselves,” said a former minister, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic. “How can you say a government that can barely guarantee its capital electricity anything other than a failure?”

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