Somalia's government is losing its soldiers

Unpaid Somali soldiers defecting, some to al Qaida offshoot

May 16, 2010 12:44
Relatives and friends carry one of the dead, after

somalia bomb 311. (photo credit: AP)


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They are fighting one of the most fervent, successful and rapidly expanding Islamist militias in the world. The government they are fighting for controls an increasingly limited portion of the country's territory. Their political and military leaders are clearly siphoning huge personal profits off international assistance packages meant to aid the military and country at large. Their camps are ghastly, they are provided with no healthcare, and often have to live off international food aid to avoid malnutrition. They are rarely paid their $100 a month salary. They face the real threat of being shot, blown up, tortured or hung on a daily basis.

Despite US training and tens of millions of dollars given to Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) each year, a number of Somali analysts say soldiers fighting for Somalia's transitional government are deserting and some are joining A-Shabab, a loose association of militant Islamist groups with growing links to al Qaida, whose anti-government insurgency is increasingly successful.

"There is simply no loyalty to the state," Dr. Jack Kalpakian, an expert on Somalia and international security at Al-Akhawayn University told The Media Line. "One of the most effective weapons anyone has in Somalia is cash, so you can get soldiers to turn by simply offering to pay their salary. $100 a month is not chump change in Somalia, and certainly some of the money is getting siphoned off," he said. "What's to stop a soldier from taking $100 a month from the transitional government and then getting another $40 or $50 from A-Shabab and fighting as it pleases him."

The Somali transitional army is funded by the Somali government and international donors. The U.S. and other international donors are currently funding the salaries of over 5,000 Somali soldiers, leaving the rest of the army's 10,000 soldiers to be paid by the highly inefficient and stretched transitional government. According to Associated Press, the U.S. spent $6.8 million to train almost 2,100 Somali soldiers in Djibouti and Uganda over the past year, but almost half of them deserted the army after they were not paid their $100 a month salary. Some are understood to have joined the ranks of A-Shabab. A joint U.S. and EU training program for 2,000 new Somali soldiers is set to begin in Uganda next month.

Somali transitional government officials contacted for this article refused to comment.

Bashir Goth, a Somali analyst and the former editor of Awdal News, said that one of the reasons the transitional government is unable to pay its soldiers is corruption. "You have to remember most of the transitional government officials are people from the diaspora, who were unemployed in their host countries," he told The Media Line. "Their sole aim of joining the government is to earn as much money as they can. Everyone knows that former transitional government members, including the former Prime Minister Ali Mohammed Ghedi, a veterinary teacher before he became prime minister, now owns an expensive property in Nairobi."

Goth argued that low military salaries and the fear of abandonment were also contributing factors to the high levels of military defections. "The second reason is that the transitional government military is poorly paid, while A- Shabab pays better," he said. "We have to also remember that the transitional government military lacks proper mission and purpose. They don't know whether they are fighting for the country or for a government that will run away tomorrow and leave them to face the wrath of the Islamists alone. It happened before... There are also many Islamists in the transitional government military who could be playing a double game. Also, clanism plays a great role in Somali politics," Goth added. "The transitional government soldier will not fight against those in the opposition from his tribe, both for tribal loyalty and for fear of reprisal by the clan on his family."

Dr Theodore Karasik, the Director for Research and Development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, pointed to a misplaced Western approach to military training.   "Western-style military training may work in the long run, but in the interim you will have desertions because tribe and clan trumps military allegiance to the transitional government," he told The Media Line. "This is a tribal based society that is highly divided, so to bring foreign military values into Somalia doesn't necessarily fit. You have to take into consideration how that society is made up."

EJ Hogendoorn, the International Crises Group's Horn of Africa Project Director, warned against assuming that large numbers of Somali soldiers are defecting to A-Shabab. "Basically, most of these allegations are true, but while a few of them are joining A-Shabab, it's not in large numbers," he told The Media Line. "Normally, if government soldiers defect to A-Shabab, they parade them in front of the media. In reality most of them are probably just returning to their clan militias or civilian life, if you can call it that. "

Hogendoorn said that the principle problem was corruption, not a scarcity of funding to provide for the soldiers' salaries. "The problem is not that the funding is not available, the problem is that the transitional government lacks the capacity and capability to monitor where those forces are and whether or not they are getting paid," he said. "You could give the transitional government $12 million dollars and say pay 10,000 soldiers $100 a month for the next year, but you could not be sure that the money would ever end up in the hands of those forces, or even if it did, whether those forces would continue to fight for the transitional government. So international donors are quite nervous about giving more money to the transitional government security structure."

Ahmed Egal, a Somali businessman and the CEO of AOST Inc, agreed, arguing it is a mistake to hold the transitional government up to the standards of a traditional government.  "Firstly you have to understand that the transitional government is not a 'government' in any sense of the word that is usually applied to such an entity," he told The Media Line. "It does not control any territory, run and administer any state bureaucracy or rule over any population. It is, in fact, maintained in a few blocks of Mogadishu around Villa Somalia (the Presidential Palace) by 4,500 Ugandan and Rwandan troops. Secondly, the funds provided to the transitional government by international donors is appropriated by the president and his cabinet - they get the first bite - then doled out to their supporters in the so-called parliament - they get the second bite - then to the lobbyists and influence peddlers that the transitional government keeps on retainer around the world," Egal said. "The police and military come a very distant fourth in this list of priorities, since they are not essential to the survival and continued existence of the transitional government."

Somalia has not had a functioning government since the 1991 ouster of Mohamed Siad Barre. The ensuing years have seen a chaotic system of rival clans controlling various parts of the capital. A Western-backed Transitional Federal Government was set up in 2004, but Mogadishu remained under the control of a coalition of sharia courts known as the Islamic Courts Union.

Originally the militant wing of the Islamic Courts Union, A-Shabab began an insurgency in late 2006 with assassinations and suicide bombings targeting aid workers and transitional government officials. The group has since made significant gains and now controls much of southern Somalia and parts of the capital Mogadishu.

Western governments fear that Somalia's instability may provide a safe haven for international terrorist groups. A-Shabab members have cited links with al Qaida, although the affiliation is believed to be minimal. The group has several thousand fighters divided into regional units which are thought to operate somewhat independently of one another. The US has launched selected air attacks against A-Shabab leaders thought to have ties to al Qaida, but analysts say this has only increased their support among Somalis.

The Western-backed Ethiopian military invaded Somalia in 2007, but many analysts believe this too augmented A-Shabab's military campaign against the transitional government. The Ethiopians withdrew in January of last year, after over 16 months of A-Shabab attacks on its forces.

A former schoolteacher, the new president of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, is a moderate supportive of Sharia law who seeks to integrate A-Shabab fighters into the transitional government's forces. His overtures have to date been rejected and the government has largely failed to contain A-Shabab's expansion. The transitional government's new military chief was until less than a year ago the assistant manager at a McDonald’s in Germany.

The Somali National Security Force was meant to have 8,000 soldiers trained and in the field by now. The UN estimates that as of November 2009 less than 3,000 soldiers were on the government payroll. There are reports that there are another 5,000 to 10,000 fighters from government-aligned militias operating in Mogadishu.

The transitional government is preparing a major military 'surge' to retake the capital Mogadishu but Somali analysts are highly sceptical of the surge's potential for success.

"There is no effective military resistance to the jihadists in Somalia except for the AMISOM [African Union Mission for Somalia] troops and a much smaller transitional government contingent charged with securing Villa Somalia and its immediate environs," said Egal. "You have to understand that the much vaunted 'surge' that the transitional government is supposed to be mounting against the jihadists is a fiction that has been concocted for foreign consumption in order to secure weaponry and continued political, financial and military support."

"Most of the $40 million worth of arms that the U.S. gave to the transitional government last year has been sold to, or captured by, the jihadists," he claimed. "I can personally assure you that there will be no 'surge' against the jihadists mounted by the transitional government soon or at any time in the future. Whenever we hear this canard stated by the transitional government or its international supporters/donors, we (Somali commentators/journalists/analysts etc.) break out into gales of laughter, and more and more well informed foreign observers of Somalia are starting to join us."

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