Somalia’s inability to pay and even feed its soldiers threatens to undermine years of hard-won military gains against Islamist al Shabaab rebels, with corruption sapping morale and weakening the army in the war against the militants.
In the past two months the al Qaeda-aligned group has stormed an African Union (AU) peacekeeping base and recaptured several small towns from retreating Somali soldiers in Lower Shabelle region south of the capital, Mogadishu.
READ: Shabaab retake town in Somalia after AU forces quit
While no one expects the rebels to regain swathes of territory they lost since AU and Somali soldiers pushed them out of Mogadishu in 2011, there are fears that years of efforts to reform the army may come undone as unpaid soldiers defect, erect checkpoints to extract bribes, or lose the appetite to fight.
The non-payment of salaries, stretching up to six months for some troops, has strained relations between the government and foreign donors, such as the United States and European nations, who have invested billions of dollars to stabilise Somalia and stem the spread of radical Islam from the Horn of Africa.
“Commanding unpaid troops is a problem as your orders fall on deaf ears,” said Colonel Farah, a military commander in southern Somalia who says disgruntled soldiers have set up illegal checkpoints to shake down civilians.
“You cannot ask them to go with you to the front line. They say, ‘What are we dying for?’,” Farah told Reuters.
An unpublished report by a UN monitoring group seen by Reuters suggests corruption was one reason for non-payment of wages. In the report, the group accuses senior Somali military commanders of inflating troop numbers and embezzling funds bound for salaries.
The report was compiled for the UN Security Council and will not be published until member nations have reviewed it.
Somalia would investigate the charges laid out in the UN report, government spokesman Abdisalam Aato said. He added that looking after the army was the country’s “utmost priority”.
Any al Shabaab resurgence would unnerve neighbouring countries such as Kenya, where the group has staged mass attacks and killed hundreds as punishment for Kenya sending troops to Somalia as part of the AU force.
“Troop payments is one of the main issues which we keep bringing up with the government,” said one Western diplomat, who added several envoys have raised the issue with President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. “We are all seriously concerned.”
Mohamud last month replaced Somalia’s army chief and announced plans for “substantive security sector reforms”, vowing the welfare of the Somali National Army (SNA) would be his top priority.
Mohamud said the reforms would include efforts to use electronic payment systems for salary payments, rather than the sacks of millions of dollars collected from the central bank that top brass have used thus far.