“My husband is an honourable man who has fought for this country; why make his family suffer? Why are they not paying him?”
Monica stares poignantly at a blank wall in the living room of her newly rented two-room house nestled in the sprawling Bwaise slum in Kampala. She cuts a forlorn figure as she ponders where to get money to buy food for her family. Monica (not real name) is the wife of a UPDF soldier in Mogadishu on African Union duty.
During our conversation, her seven-year-old son storms into the house unannounced. He has been sent away from school during mid-term exams because his tuition is not yet paid. Monica shrugs and mutters a few words — here is yet another problem. Since November 2011, the Ugandan soldiers in Somalia have not been paid a single penny.
According to the contracts they signed, the soldiers serving under the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) are supposed to be paid a monthly salary of $750 (about Shs 1.8m) from the African Union peace fund. Of that money, $100 (about Shs 250,000) is given to the soldiers for upkeep whilst in Somalia, while the rest is paid directly into their bank accounts in Uganda to support their families.
“My wife tells me there has not been a single penny in the account since last November. While other civil servants get their salaries at the end of the month, we receive ours five months late,” said a source who did not want to be named. Although Amisom spokesperson Lt Col Paddy Ankunda acknowledges that the soldiers have not been paid in time, he blames the African Union.
Speaking on phone from Mogadishu on Tuesday, Ankunda said, “We are aware that the soldiers have not been paid since November 2011; there is a lot of bureaucracy within the AU and this is totally out of our control.”
Ankunda further told The Observer that the general chief of staff is in talks with the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa and the money could be ready “today” (Tuesday). However, another UPDF officer serving in Somalia disputed Ankunda’s version, claiming that the AU pays the money promptly.
“The public should know the truth; the contract states that AU remits the money to UPDF, which in turn pays us. We are fully aware that AU has been fulfilling its obligations faithfully. The problem is within UPDF,” said the angry officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
He added: “To make matters worse, they (UPDF) take off $200 (about Shs 500,000) from our monthly salaries. That was not in our contract. This is an abnormal tax because it leaves us with mere peanuts.”
When The Observer contacted Ankunda again yesterday, he denied the soldiers’ claims. “UPDF has no control over the money,” he said. “AU advances it through Bank of Uganda, which in turn distributes it to the soldiers’ accounts.”
Monica’s husband left Uganda in 2009 for the Somalia mission, which aims to shore up the fragile Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and defeat the AlShabaab militants. With a salary much better than the paltry monthly earning back home, Monica’s husband hoped his family would share the spoils of an ugly insurgency. But today Monica regrets her husband’s absence. Fighting back tears, she narrates one grim episode after another. She says she has never been as miserable as she is today since his departure. Monica was recently kicked out of the house she was previously renting and opted for a cheaper one in Bwaise after selling her household items.
“By July 2010, I had not received money for months; I’ve suffered a lot with my three children. I’ve not heard from my husband since then and I don’t know whether or not he is alive. Fellow women mock me, saying my husband abandoned me,” she laments.
Monica has resorted to selling tonto, a local brew, to eke a living. She also plans to relocate her family to the village.Yet she is not the only one facing such a plight. In Kitintale, another Kampala suburb, Jennifer (not real name) had to change her children’s school because she could not afford the tuition. Like Monica, she too has resorted to doing odd jobs, which she says are not deserving of an army officer’s wife.
“My husband is an honourable man who has fought for this country; why make his family suffer? Why are they not paying him?” Jennifer asks. She says she plans to mobilise other soldiers’ wives to protest against the situation.
These stories open a murky window into the daily trials and tribulations of UPDF soldiers serving in Somalia.
“UPDF breached all the terms of the contract that we signed with the UN,” complained one officer who asked not to be named. “First, it was the salary, then the visiting rights and our work leaves. This is betrayal of the highest order.”
Some of the officers The Observer spoke to said they have, on a number of occasions, raised the issue with their bosses in Somalia, but to no effect.
“Why should we wait for half a year to receive a chopped-up one month’s salary, yet Kenya and Burundi pay their soldiers even before month-end? Even the Somali guards whom I personally trained earn better than us,” one soldier complained.
The soldiers, nevertheless, said the $100 upkeep is given to them on time and their places of abode are fairly good.
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