Yemeni Army: The Regime’s Cash Cow

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A military police trooper mans a machine gun during a military patrol on a road linking the Yemeni capital Sanaa with the oil-producing province of Marib 26 June 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Khaled Abdullah)

By: Sam Kimball

Published Friday, July 13, 2012

Sanaa - One of the main demands of the uprising that exploded a year and a half ago in Yemen, unseating longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, was a demand for transparency and accountability in a system wracked with corruption. While the country has a new president and is seemingly making steps towards an inclusive National Dialogue, many Yemenis are worried by the lack of real changes, especially when it come to the country’s military.

The most dramatic shows of defiance in solidarity with the former regime have come in the refusal of pro-Saleh military leaders to leave their posts when ordered to by the new president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. Critical to their continued grip on power is the limitless well of financial resources available to the military, which government agencies have little control over.

Muhammed Jubran, a professor at Sanaa University and the head of the National Conference for Transparency and the Protection of Public Funds told Al-Akhbar, “Nothing has changed in the laws regarding the budget.”

Institutions like the Ministry of Defense’s Financial Authority are supposed to regulate the distribution of funds to various sections of the armed forces. Distribution of resources between military branches is deeply politicized.

“According to the information I have, the Republican Guard controls more than 70 percent of the armed forces budget. The Financial Department doesn't have the right to investigate the nature of the Republican Guard’s finances,” said Jubran

The Republican Guard, an elite military unit groomed for decades to secure the interests of Saleh’s regime, is headed by Saleh’s son, Ahmed Ali Abdullah Saleh. Hadi has been careful to sidestep Ahmed in his attempts to clear the military of Saleh loyalists because the military leader still wields immense influence.

“Even since 2011, with Hadi in power, there are sums of money that have gone to the Republican Guard and neither the Ministry of Finance nor the Ministry of Defense know what they were for,” Jubran remarked.

He went on, “Why is Ali Abdullah Saleh so intent on keeping his son in the armed forces? Because the Republican Guard is a source of funding. Supposedly the Financial Department of the Ministry of Defense controls the budget, but the Financial Department wasn’t able to prevent Ali Abdullah Saleh from transferring any amount he wished to the Republican Guard and then spending those sums as he wanted.”

Ali al-Wafi, an economic analyst and member of the Islah party, insists that only a thorough restructuring of Yemen’s military could bring accountability to the military budget. Like Jubran, Wafi pointed out that hangers-on from the old regime’s military leadership have maintained the military as a source of profit.

“The restructuring of the army would be a huge operation,” Wafi noted soberly. If accomplished, however, he contends that “it will result in reducing between ten to fifteen percent of the entire [national] budget.”

Wafi asserts that much of the money which military leaders siphon from the defense budget slips through accounting loopholes as a result of the Yemeni parliament’s vague bookkeeping. Speaking on the 2012 budget, he said, “In the second part of the budget, fifty-nine billion Yemeni riyals ($275 million) is marked ‘other expenses.’ What are ‘other expenses’?”

Wafi also claims that Yemen’s military leaders exaggerate the number of soldiers under their command. “Suppose a military commander’s base ‘has’ five hundred soldiers. The real number of soldiers there is two hundred fifty. The ‘others’ still receive their salaries.” With no records of where the money ends up, salaries for fictitious soldiers “go into the pockets of the army leadership.”

Jubran also mentions this practice, citing the abuses of Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, commander of the First Armored Division, who broke ranks with Saleh last year during the uprising. “There are 100,000 soldiers who take salaries. 100,000 – in name – so Ali Mohsen is allotted wages for these soldiers. In reality, Ali Mohsen’s forces don’t exceed 30,000 troops.”

Sadeq al-Faqih, an official in Yemen’s Ministry of Defense, said, “The defense budget represents a red line that can't be touched. It’s a budget which the top military leadership benefit from enormously.”

Faqih described the massive wealth amassed by the leadership as draining the armed forces of resources and leaving ordinary soldiers struggling to get by.

Unit leaders receive high wages and access privileges. Yet the salary of a regular soldier who works in the desert or at sea doesn't surpass 30,000 Yemeni riyals [$140] The unit leader, however, has monthly allocations and travel expenses, and his own account within the Ministry of Defense.”

Faqih said that leaders affiliated with the Ministry of Defense have shares in highly profitable oil and telecommunications companies and that the Ministry of Defense itself possesses private enterprises.

Reform, be it the military restructuring Hadi is obligated to undertake under the power transfer deal backed by the Gulf Cooperation Council, or the handling of soldiers’ salaries, faces serious challenges. Though Faqih claims that Hadi and Yemen’s Minister of Defense and Chief of Staff have begun holding private meetings to deal with the issue of corruption in the military budget, he also said that officers benefiting from the situation have banded together to block implementation of Hadi’s decisions.

Defiance against the transitional government’s attempts to bring accountability to the managing of military funds has been as bold as it has been potent. Jubran said, “I made an agreement with Prime Minister Mohammed Salim Basindawa where he promised he would ensure the realization of the President’s declaration that every soldier will receive his salary from the bank [as opposed to from the Ministry of Defense], starting from the beginning of April. Now we’re in June, and he still hasn’t done anything. I asked him why. He told me that the armed forces leaders refused. They said no. This is the only reason why the military budget has not been made public.”

Yet, Faqih claims that moves are being made to bring transparency to the military’s finances. Several committees have been formed by the transitional government to oversee the budgets of various branches of the military. He said that the Minister of Defense, Mohammed Nasser Ali, is taking serious steps to curb corruption in the military. “Now he’s on the right path,” Faqih said.

Jubran points out that doing away with corruption in military funding and ensuring that the ordinary soldier is cared for is the only way to ensure the military’s ability to take on the many challenges facing Yemen. He claims that neglect by military brass has left the armed forces unable to fight, citing surrenders to the rebel Houthi movement in the North and al-Qaeda in the South as proof that they are under-equipped and demoralized.

The loyalty of soldiers to Yemen’s security, he said, can’t be counted on unless more is done to counter corruption in the budget. Noting recent successes, he said, “When loyalty shifted, look at what happened: Abyan was liberated, Shabwa was liberated, Bayda was liberated, Marib was liberated. Most of these areas were recently under the control of al-Qaeda.”

“I believe that we have made progress in Yemen,” Jubran said. “But, we’ve yet to achieve the demands of the revolution because President Hadi has not yet realized that the revolution lives on, and he’s got to do away with the corrupt, whoever they are, even if they’re close to him.”


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