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.
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.