Low Pay Jeopardizing Congo's Military
Wednesday, November 22, 2006; 7:07 AM
KINSHASA, Congo -- Willy, a 35-year-old career soldier, has fought in armies run by presidents and rebels. He has followed orders in three languages, deserted to escape execution and switched sides for better pay.
Now he's joined up with the unified military his Central African country is trying to create out of armed factions built by warlords and dictators. But Willy, who gave only his first name to avoid censure by superiors, says salaries are so bad he could easily desert again.
"They can combine us, that's great. But if they don't pay us well, everyone will go back," Willy said _ maybe to a farm, or a school, or to any other army that might offer better pay.
As President Joseph Kabila prepares to move from transitional leader to Congo's first freely elected president in more than 40 years after a landmark vote, one of his major tasks will be securing the loyalty and maintaining the discipline of thousands of one-time militiamen.
During a 1998-2002 war, rebel leaders and neighboring countries carved out private fiefdoms throughout vast Congo, scooping up men like Willy to build armies that eventually left the country with up to 300,000 soldiers of varied allegiances.
Much of Congo's recent fighting has been between military groups loyal to one former rebel leader or another. As results from a first round vote were announced in August, clashes between Kabila's forces and those of challenger Jean-Pierre Bemba killed dozens. Fighting broke out briefly again between armed factions a few days before second-round results were released earlier this month.
And the capital remains unstable. The supreme court caught fire Tuesday amid street brawls that interrupted the start of Bemba's court case charging vote fraud.
Still, Bemba has promised to confine his challenge to the courts. And as part of the peace deal to end the war, militiamen have been asked to choose to join integrated brigades or disarm with the promise of payments to make up for losing their soldier's pay.
Willy, one of 20,000 men who once fought for Bemba, said he knows the army needs to be unified, but complains that troops are disorganized and pay is poor.
He gets $30 a month as an officer; enlisted men make closer to $20. Many soldiers say they supplement their income by growing spinach outside their barracks that they sell for about three times their monthly salary.
Willy said he had similar issues in the armies of longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and Laurent Kabila _ the rebel leader who overthrew Mobutu and ruled briefly before being assassinated in 2001, when power passed to his son.
He says he joined up at 18 because he didn't have money for school fees, switched to Laurent Kabila because he promised better salaries and deserted to Bemba when he was threatened with execution for fleeing in a battle. He switched multiple times between taking orders in Congo's Lingala language, Swahilli and French.