By Drazen Jorgic
NAIROBI (Reuters) - 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 stabilize 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An unpublished report by a U.N. monitoring group seen by Reuters suggests corruption was one reason for non-payment of wages.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The report was compiled for the U.N. Security Council and will not be published until member nations have reviewed it.
Somalia would investigate the charges laid out in the U.N. 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 neighboring 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.
The report by the U.N. Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group, which oversees compliance with U.N. sanctions, alleges the army "hierarchy has systematically inflated their troop numbers in order to secure greater funding for salaries and rations".
"Few cases illustrate the threat posed by financial mismanagement and misappropriation to peace, security and stability in Somalia more than corruption within the Federal Government security institutions," said the U.N. monitoring group.
They added the "extent of misappropriation and impunity within SNA has dented donor confidence" in the government.
Dahir Adan Elmi, who was replaced as army chief last month, said the U.N. accusations were "without merit" and the failure to pay wages was due to revenue shortfalls, not graft.
Prime Minister Omar Sharmarke told Reuters recent al Shabaab gains in Lower Shabelle had little strategic significance.
When asked by Reuters about non-payment of salaries, the prime minister said his government was focused on rooting out "ghost soldiers" to determine the army's true size.
Cash-strapped Somalia would try to generate extra revenue from ports to pay soldiers their $100-a-month salary, Sharmarke added, without specifying when payments would re-start.
The United States and Britain supplement Somali troops' government salaries with a stipend worth $100 a month.
Experts say one of the reasons Somalia's army has not buckled under such conditions was help from better-equipped AU peacekeepers, who often share personal rations and fuel with Somali soldiers with whom they fight side-by-side.
Yet military officials from some African countries that provide peacekeepers to the AU force, known as Amisom, are alarmed by the risks posed of fighting alongside unpaid troops.
"It certainly opens up an infiltration opportunity for al Shabaab," said one senior Ugandan officer with knowledge of Uganda's Amisom operations. "I would consider it a big concern."
"BAD OLD DAYS"
With al Shabaab squeezed into a handful of areas in southern Somalia, donors had hoped the SNA would take charge of security in the countryside and build on Amisom's gains.
"Somalia cannot be rebuilt without fixing the army," said Stig Jarle Hansen, a Somalia expert from Norway's NMBU university. "Al Shabaab will never disappear if you don’t secure the countryside and that has to be done by Somalis themselves."
A program to integrate clan militia fighters into the SNA appears to be collapsing in southern Somalia's Kismayu region, according to clan elders in the area. The elders said hundreds of fighters had left due to lack of pay, though the government denies this.
"They’ve gone from 1,500 people to 800 in the last two weeks," added one Western security adviser, who said the failure to pay troops had sparked a rise in illegal checkpoints and was plunging the army "back to the bad old days".
The U.N. monitors said fixing army finances was vital if the gains were to be preserved, and prevent a "possible collapse of the state following the departure of Amisom forces".
But building up the morale of soldiers such as Hassan Osman will be tough without helping them feed their families.
"You cannot be happy when al Shabaab fights you from one side and the wife asks for a prompt letter of divorce from the other side," he said.
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan in New York; Elias Biryabarema in Kampala and Aaron Maasho in Addis Ababa; Writing by Drazen Jorgic, editing by Peter Millership)