When they received their salaries last Friday, January 16, one day late, they were paid only in local currency,
The government has been debating paying soldiers allowances for overtime, transport, housing and education in hard currency to try and contain growing discontent within the armed forces.
During a commander’s parade last week, Brigadier-General Douglas Nyikayaramba told soldiers not to expect salaries in foreign currency because the government did not have adequate hard cash to pay the 25,000-strong force – but it was considering paying allowances this way. He did not specify when this would start.
The non-taxable allowances are paid in addition to their basic pay to cushion the soldiers, who are not housed by the government and are not provided transportation to and from work.
With the unofficial dollarisation of the economy, the soldiers wanted at least part of their payment in January to be in hard currency. In addition to the usual subsidies for transport, housing and education, they expected a hardship allowance to relieve them in an economy where all transactions are now in foreign currency.
It’s understood that troop representatives want the lowest-ranked soldier to be paid a minimum of 2,000 US dollars a month. Privates, who are the lowest-paid soldiers, receive monthly payments of about 13 dollars.
The paltry payments in Zimbabwe dollars came as a grave disappointment. A corporal at 2 Brigade in Harare, who asked not to be named, said, "Aren’t they selling things in US dollars? That’s the money we want. We need to buy food and pay our children’s school fees in foreign currency."
If not dealt with properly, a captain at a Harare barracks, who refused to be named, told IWPR that the government might face worse riots than what Harare saw in December last year.
Already, he said, he had received reports that some angry soldiers attacked Reserve Bank Governor Gideon Gono’s farm close to Norton, 40 kilometres west of Harare in Mashonaland West province. They took cabbages from the field and nearly 200 chickens and some goats, which they said they would sell to get the foreign currency that he denied them.
"The government has to find a way to deal with this anger," he said. "The soldiers had been looking forward to their salaries in foreign currency but when they were told that it was out of the question, they were furious. This anger is not healthy for the government, whose greatest strength has been the army."
In December’s unrest, disgruntled rank-and-file soldiers, frustrated at not receiving their meagre salaries because of acute cash shortages, ran through the streets of Harare, looting shops and attacking black market foreign currency dealers.
The riots were viewed as the first spark of a military rebellion against Mugabe, prompting some civilians to join in. Close to 150 soldiers, mainly from 2 Brigade, were arrested and now face court martial proceedings.
What is angering the low-ranked soldiers the most were rumours that top army officers were getting part of their salaries in foreign currency.
In a secret operation to secure their loyalty, the government is said to have partly paid the salaries of soldiers ranked from colonel upwards in hard currency, with the lowest taking home 2,000 US dollars per month.
"The senior officers get everything, they got the big farms and they get a lot of things cheaply and now they are being paid in foreign currency," said the captain, who wished to remain anonymous.
" It’s just not fair and the junior officers are watching and they don’t like what they see."
One junior officer, who asked not to be identified, said, "We can’t even afford public transport. The fact that they raised our hopes and quickly dampened them just makes us furious. We also have to buy groceries, fuel and pay rent in foreign currency.
"Yes, as soldiers we have to obey but unfortunately we are not immune to the economic hardships facing everyone else. They are the ones that dollaralised the economy. How do they expect us to survive on 13 US dollars a month?"
A senior policeman told IWPR that officers had been on high alert from last week after it was confirmed that rank-and-file soldiers were no longer receiving any part of their salaries in foreign currency.