Thursday December 3, 2020
This year marks nine years of indefatigable struggle for free and independent trade unionism in Somalia. More significantly, 2020 is also the year that trade unions graciously defeated a multipronged government campaign against us.
Notwithstanding the widespread repression against journalists in Somalia, who for many years have faced arrests, torture and killings for simply carrying out their work, the then Ministry of Information of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) that existed in 2011 could not withstand a strong, dynamic and vocal National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ). As a result, it chose to embark on a vicious campaign to either destroy NUSOJ or smuggle through unelected, weak leadership in order to control it.
Instead of defending the right of citizens to exercise their fundamental rights, government officials, law enforcement and the Attorney General’s office were mobilised to go after the NUSOJ leadership. A total of 11 warrants of arrests were issued against me and my colleagues, for which there was no legal basis. We were banned from travelling outside of the country and our offices were raided in broad daylight.
When the transitional government came to an end in 2012, it was followed by the Federal Government of Somalia headed by Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who formerly worked for various civil society institutions. We would never have guessed that the worst was yet to come, and yet the attacks escalated. Intelligence and security agents were deployed to monitor our movements, disband our meetings, frighten our members, and to add to the campaign of delegitimisation headed by the Ministries of Information and Labour.
But these attacks only fuelled our determination to fight for the independence and freedom of NUSOJ. Placing our faith in the rule of law, we had the guts to take legal action against the Ministries of Information and Labour at the Supreme Court in late 2015 – the first time ever that a civil society organisation had filed legal action against a governmental institution in the highest court of the land.
Despite attempts to endanger our lives during the court proceedings, surprisingly, on 4 February 2016 the court ruled in NUSOJ’s favour, confirming the legitimacy of the NUSOJ leadership and finding the government of interfering the internal union affairs.
But the administration of President Mohamud, who left office in 2017, did not abide by the verdict. Instead, he set out to use the most powerful weapon in the judiciary against me: the State Attorney General charged me with treason, simply for exercising my right to complain of freedom of association violations at the Supervisory Mechanism of the International Labour Organization (ILO) where the government was summoned to defend itself in March 2016. In Somalia, there is a single punishment for treason: the death penalty.
The treason charges were swiftly condemned by UN human rights experts, the African Union, various human rights bodies as well as the international labour movement, spearheaded by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Fearing that the government would lose the case at the Supreme Court, President Mohamud made the unconstitutional decision to remove the President of Supreme Court and appoint his own Chief Justice.
It is unthinkable that a government led by a former member of civil society would take the extraordinary step of charging a trade unionist with treason simply for exercising his right to freedom of association and to preserve the independence of his union – but this is the situation we found ourselves in.
We stood on our ground, continued with confidence and in November 2016 the ILO delivered its verdict in our favour, soon after which the government dropped its treason charges. Following the election of President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (popularly known as President Farmaajo) in February 2017, the repression lessened but remnants of the Mohamud government who continued under the new administration continued their attacks on free and independent trade unions, as represented by NUSOJ and the Federation of Somali Trade Unions (FESTU). However, this time, the campaign lacked command from the upper echelons of government.
It took two years for the Farmaajo administration to break ranks with the vestiges of President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud’s administration. Much credit goes to the late Abdirahman Hosh Jibril, a learned labour lawyer with progressive views on social justice and independent trade unionism, who died suddenly while serving as the Minister of Constitutional Affairs. I am equally proud to recognise the right thinking demonstrated by the former Minister of Women and Human Rights Deqa Yasin and the former Minister of Labour and Social Affairs Sadik Warfa, who both spearheaded Somalia’s acceptance of, and adherence to, the ILO ruling, thus paving the way for constructive social dialogue between our union movement and the government – something that was impossible with the previous administration.
Today, the NUSOJ stands totally vindicated. The name and independence of our union has been successfully defended, the persecution of trade unionists has been overturned, all manoeuvres to steal the independence of trade unions has been defeated, and all legal battles have been won in favour of the unions.
As for our detractors and tormentors, they can be roughly divided into four groups: 1) those who want to hide their heads in shame; 2) those who pretend they were unaware of what happened; 3) those who still cannot come to terms with fact that the false narrative they were peddling about independent trade unions has been proven wrong 4) and those who recognise their past misjudgement and acknowledge their mistakes.
Although it has been an incredibly difficult nine years, the story of NUSOJ and the militancy of our trade union movement is a testament to the fact that persistence pays off, that a government that attempts to illegally take over a trade union organisation can be defeated, and that no condition – especially one steeped in injustice – is permanent.