Published by The Media Line:
Crouching behind sandbags, Abdullahi Abdi eyeballed Somali rebels in a nearby trench, his finger on the trigger of his assault rifle and contemplated selling his weapon and deserting.
“I do fight on daily basis and no one gives me and my frontline mates any priority,” Abdi complained. “Even, sometimes my daily food is not brought here. We are in trouble and no one cares.”
Abdi said he joined the army of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government (TFG) last year after defecting from the Hizbul Islam rebel groups because he thought he’d earn more pay fighting for them. But now he is bitter because he left behind his wife and three children who depend on his earnings but hasn’t been paid about $100 a month as promised.
“I was thinking that I would be taken care of. But I was dreaming. There is nothing here but fighting and not getting paid. It’s just a game of chance to survive and fight for these careless people,” the tall soldier said before suddenly ducking and firing at the rebels.
Fighting against fervent Islamic militants, Somali troops have been making rampant defections to the rebel groups committed to overthrowing the Western backed government. With political and military leaders clearly siphoning huge personal profits off international assistance meant for the military and country at large, government troops are left is dire straits with many hawking their weapons and even joining the rebels.
Loyalty is cheap and some are joining Al-Shabab, a loose association of militant Islamist groups with growing links to al Qaida, whose anti-government insurgency is increasingly successful. Al-Shabab wants to turn Somalia into a strict Islamic state, and some of its members want to export violence to neighboring countries in East Africa. Fearing this, the international community, mainly the United States, has pumped in more than $6.8 million to train and equip the TFG forces.
Foreign money funds 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, almost 2,100 Somali soldiers were trained 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
“It’s true that many of our soldiers defect when they return home from the overseas trainings,” Yusuf Dhumal, Somalia’s former military commander told The Media Line.
“This happened because of the government’s ineffectiveness and not working in the interests of the Somali people.”
Disgruntled soldiers sell their government-issued arms to the rebels for about $800 and defect. Others remain loyal to Al-Shabab but enlist in the TFG to make extra money.
“You can’t remain unpaid for nothing, so you have to work for any group giving you money regardless what’s happening around you,” one Somalia soldier, who asked not to be identified, told The Media Line.
Another confided said he intended to secretly share information with Al-Shabab after he couldn’t get certain his rights from the government.
“We as soldiers who die for nothing. Even the leaders are not honest in restoring peace so what about us soldiers?” he said.
Cash is one of the most effective weapons in Somalia.
Demoralized, most government soldiers make a hasty retreat in the face of swift rebel assaults.
“If you lose hope and enthusiasm your role in any institution will disappear” Hassan Ghelle, a senior Somali commander, told The Media Line. “The reason our soldiers retreat from the battlefields and give territory to the rebels is because of lack of payments and life guarantees. They left behind families and children who are waiting only for them and their life is so bad.”
In the meantime, Somali government mainly relies on 7,000-strong African Union peacekeeping forces whose mandate is restricted to the government’s institutions rather than pursuing rebel groups.
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.
Speaking to a variety of soldiers a picture emerged of various paths disgruntled troops took. Some sold their weapons to get money to survive, others were indoctrinated and stayed with the rebels and yet others just returned to their ordinary lives.
“I joined Al-Shabab because of a lack of concern for us by the government leaders,” said Abdi Gesey, a former Somali soldier who is now a fighter in the ranks of Al-Shabab.
“When I was a soldier for the government I could not visit my family for security reasons. I could not get salary regularly and I was also restricted in few areas,” Gesey lamented in a telephone interview. “That was why I have defected.”
Barred by UN sanctions from purchasing weapons, Al-Shabab has found that its greatest source of arms were from deserting government troops. In some government strongholds, kiosks have been recruited to pay government soldiers cash for their weapons. The weapons later make their way to Al-Shabab.
“It’s clear that (Al-Shabab) cannot fight and defend themselves as powerful as they are without the government’s weapons being sold to them, Abdullahi Mire, a Somali political analyst in Mogadishu, told The Media Line. “Half of the weapons and ammunition in the Al-Shabab arsenal originated from government soldiers and the African Union forces.”
In a recent weekend parade, Al-Shabab showed off arms, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and other weapons they claimed previously belonged to the Somali government.
“As you can see this is the new AK-47, the RPGs, the anti aircraft, bazookas and automatic rifles that American Christians gave to the puppet government,” Sheikh Mukhtar Robow Abu Mansur, the deputy leader of Al-Shabab said at a press conference in Mogadishu.
“We shall continue hunting with the weapons they have been offered to us by the enemy,” Robow Abu Mansur stated.
Somali president Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed vowed earlier this year that the government would make greater efforts to ensure the salaries of soldiers were paid, but there has been little seen to show these vows were implement.
[Related: Puntland accuses Somaliland troops of fighting beside al-Shabab]