By Ali H. Abdulla
The first duty of a man is to think for himself José Martí
Legal equality, political freedom and rule of law have been identified as important characteristics of democracy. Democratic states value freedom of speech which is a principle that supports the freedom of an individual or a community to articulate their opinions and ideas without fear of retaliation, censorship, or sanction.
Somaliland is a separatist enclave ruled by a former colonel in the old Somali army under strongman Mohamed Siyad Barre who was overthrown in 1991 by rebel movements. Muse Bihi Abdi, the current president of Somaliland, used to be a member of the Somali National Movement (SNM) that took up arms against the Somali government under the pretext of being denied legal equality, political freedom and freedom of speech by the regime he served for a considerable time before he joined the rebel movement. It is ironic that his regime stands accused of violating all these principles.
After the collapse of the central government in Mogadishu and to appeal to western donors, Somaliland formed three parties based on clan affiliations and held elections monitored by sympathetic observers who overlooked the many flaws in the system which many believe is not based on genuine democratic principles. Democracy is not about holding elections only. As a matter of fact, Somaliland violates most of its principles. Like dictatorships, the Somaliland administration uses armed units to arrest perceived dissidents in the middle of the night without court warrants. Journalists are routinely thrown in jail if they displease the Somaliland leaders.
Many believe that the latest elections were marred by deliberate and flagrant vote rigging and widespread fraud that prompted Somaliland intellectuals in the Diaspora to form a government in exile known as the United States of Somaliland under the leadership of Mr. Mustapha Martin, a resident of Minnesota in the United States. His call for a democratic state built upon equality and real democratic principles have received widespread support among the Somaliland Diaspora.
Naima Qorane is a young poet who grew up in Somaliland despite having deep roots in the Ethiopian occupied Western regions of Somalia known to many as the Ogaden region. Although the region is inhabited by ethnic Somalis, the British decided to hand it over to Ethiopia well before it granted Somaliland its independence in 1960. The 1977 war between Somalia and Ethiopia broke out over the Ogaden region.
The Ogaden region is famous for being the cradle of Somali poetry and many well-known poets were born there. Young Naima’s father is a poet in his own right. Naima took after her father and started reciting poetry from a young age. Her poetry is largely about Somali Unity and the need for a strong central authority instead of weak federal states that challenge the authority of the central government in Mogadishu.
Although she was born after the 1977 war with Ethiopia, she was affected by the heroics of the Somali freedom fighters many of whom were close relatives and got martyred in the war. In one of her many poems, she raises the question: “Why did we go to war if some of our leaders want to dismember the Somali State”.
Unlike many youths in Somaliland who were indoctrinated by their vindictive leaders to regard Somalis in the South as their enemies, Naima used her powerful poems to call for the unity of all Somalis in the Horn of Africa: Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia and the two former Somali colonies that united to form the Somali Republic which was brought down by rebels based in Ethiopia that funded and encouraged the destruction of Somalia.
Naima lost her freedom on 29 January 2018 when she was arrested without a court warrant at the Hargeisa airport by the Somaliland Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and thrown in jail without due process. She has been in jail for more than three months without trial and was refused bail. She suffered physical and verbal abuse and may have been exposed to ailments induced by the unhygienic conditions of her incarceration. Her jailers tried to break her into confessing to fabricated crimes against Somaliland and to drop her calls for a united Somalia. When that failed, she was tried for what the Somaliland prosecutors in Hargeisa called “bringing the state into contempt” and a biased judge sentenced her to three years in jail.
Her only crime was to compare conditions under the old Siyad Barre regime with those under the current Somali administrations including Somaliland. It is no secret that all Somalis have suffered tremendously after the collapse of the central government despite its heavy handedness. Thousands have perished in the civil wars that erupted after the fall of the government: Thousands have lost their lives in risky trips across the Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean Sea to escape a hopeless future in their country: Somali beaches were contaminated by toxic dumps and its fisheries looted by foreign powers that protect their fishing fleets under the pretext of fighting against Somali pirates: Expired food items and drugs flood Somali markets leading to an increase in cancer related deaths and sufferings: Thousands die from hunger and starvation as a result of recurring droughts caused by the widespread and uncontrolled burning of trees for fuel and exported coal: Regional powers have a free hand in Somali affairs: A neighboring African state found a chance to claim Somali territorial waters and land. It goes without saying that Naima did not commit a crime when she emphasized these obvious facts.
There are many Somaliland politicians who held office in Mogadishu, and there are even a few who took up arms against the Somaliland regime. Unlike Naima, some of them roam Hargeisa freely without let or hindrance. In a recent coronation ceremony for a traditional leader in Puntland, a Somaliland traditional leader called indirectly for the restoration of Somali unity like Naima but he will never suffer her same fate. Another traditional leader talked about apparent lack of justice between the two cases.
What contributed to Naima’s ridiculously long sentence of three years is the lack of competent legal representation. She was defended by inexperienced young lawyers who graduated from local colleges in Hargeisa. Somalia in general suffers from poor educational institutions that lack qualified professors. These colleges flood the market with ill-equipped graduates who are a ticking time-bomb with the possibility of embracing extremist ideologies when they fail to secure meaningful jobs.
Western donors who support Somaliland by funding its imperfect elections have a moral responsibility to pressure the Somaliland leaders into freeing Naima: that is if they truly believe in democratic principles for Africa.
Experienced International pro-bono lawyers should take up her case and defend her after her current Somali lawyers appeal her unjust sentence.
Human Rights organizations that flood the social media with cases like Naima’s should call for her release. So far, they have failed to act although many of us have written to them to adopt her case.
The Somali President in Mogadishu and his Prime Minister who so far ignored Naima’s plight should voice their displeasure with the incarceration of a person who courageously uses her voice to call for Somali unity: a unity that both officials swore to uphold and defend. Many of us have written to them directly to at least express their indignation with Naima’s unjust incarceration.
Those of us in the Diaspora should keep shaming Somaliland leaders by flooding them with phone calls and demonstrating against them peacefully whenever they travel abroad.
Ali H. Abdulla
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