Worlds of Education

Photo: LDDH Djibouti
Photo: LDDH Djibouti

#UDHR70 - “Teacher trade unionism in Djibouti: verdict of a life of sacrifice”, by Ahmed-Kadar Nour Ismail

published 11 December 2018 updated 11 December 2018
written by:

On the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the time has come for me to look back over more than 30 years of personal commitment to national education in my country, and more than 20 years of trade union activism within the Syndicat des Enseignants et du Personnel de l’éducation (Trade union of Teachers and Education Staff - SEP, formerly the “Syndicat des Enseignants du Premier degré” – Trade union of Primary Teachers).

What did I learn? What were the consequences?

My career finally and definitively came to a halt when I made a commitment to trade union activism. A few years away from retirement, I find myself at almost the lowest level and my basic wage is almost identical to that which I earned at the beginning of my career. This could lead me to believe that my teachers and peers who saw a certain amount of talent in me were wrong. I would like to believe that my skills are not to blame for the failure of my career.

Our teaching organisations have been almost ripped to shreds, and although the trade union still exists and continues to show signs of life, it is only a shadow of its former self. Without sufficient human resources and equipment, its abilities and actions are restricted when carrying out missions.

Arrested and incarcerated around twenty times, twice brought before the courts and tried for public disturbances and illegal demonstrations, my trade union commitment led to me being treated almost like a criminal. So, what kind of verdict – other than one of repression – can be given to these two decades of trade union activism? This question, which I shall need to answer one day, will constitute the final verdict of the majority of my working life.

Am I entitled to complain, though, given the even more deplorable situations experienced by some of my colleagues? Souleiman Ahmed Mohamed, for instance, former General Secretary, founder and lynchpin of the secondary education teacher trade union, the SYNESED, was never reinstated and forced into exile abroad in order to survive. My colleague Mariam Hassan Ali, former General Secretary of the same SYNESED, a victim of the collective dismissal of the leaders of our two trade unions in 1996 because of strikes, was exiled after her husband was expelled from the country and her family displaced. Abdoul-Fatah, former General Secretary of the SEP, a contract teacher (substitute teacher), could not accept being reinstated with less than half the pay – which was already insufficient – that he earned after twenty years working in national education. Hachim Adawé Ladieh (may God welcome him to his Paradise), founder of the SEP, left us suddenly without his situation having changed. And many other colleagues, activists, representatives, trade union leaders continue to suffer due to their commitment to trade unionism.

Today, there are fewer collective arrests and imprisonments; the main reason for this being the fear of being active, the fear of that other form of systematic repression that includes suspended wages, arbitrary transfers, being side-lined, the absence of a meritocracy, all of which lead to promotions and careers being controlled by clientelism. No-one wants to take the risk of ruining their career, of turning their professional life into a hell, of ending up like us, their elders, perfect illustrations of the fate that awaits them. Hence the lack of enthusiasm for trade unions!

My last arrest and incarceration dates back to April 2017, when my colleague and deputy Omar Ali Ewado and I spent 10 days in the jails of the SDS (Documentation and National Security Department) for having sent to President Erdoğan of Turkey a letter asking for our Turkish teacher colleagues to be freed. It was a letter much like those sent by many teacher trade unions throughout the world, at the request of Education International.

I was told of my most recent last wage suspension, as was my comrade and fellow prisoner Omar A. Ewado, on the day of our release. Understandably, it was difficult to obtain a “certificate of detention” from the secret service – our jailers – to provide as justification.

My last arbitrary transfer took place at the end of last week and, as my experience has taught me, my wage suspension, which is still in effect without formal notice, inevitably followed.

As a husband and a father to six children (three boys and three girls), I dread seeing the look in my children’s eyes when I am unable to buy the things they need due to yet another wage suspension, even though I have taken on other odd jobs, including night work, to prevent that from happening. I remember working the night watch for six months in order to pay the electricity bill and avoid having our power cut during a heatwave. In summer, the average temperature can reach 43 to 45 degrees. Another time, during the summer of 2015, I got a job as a “coolie” (assistant mason). Fortunately, my training in IT maintenance enabled me to meet my family’s basic needs on the occasions of the frequent wage suspensions I suffered and during the time I had been dismissed.

However, this is the usual lot of many trade unionists and civil society activists in most countries around the world. Many of them even have to endure a worse fate, such as the murders of trade unionists and teachers in Colombia, kidnapping, mutilation, etc.

The question that must be asked is not why all of this is happening to us; I believe that all of this, as hard as the situation can be for my comrades and me, must be in the natural order of events likely to happen. No change or progress takes place without resistance and without those desiring to make things better having to risk paying the price of their commitment.

The real question, then, is: for what results? Can I say that this ordeal suffered throughout a life of professional activity has not been in vain? That the sacrifice of so many careers, the deprivation, the losses of our families will have served to improve workers’ situations, or contributed to creating social progress, will have been useful to my country?

I cannot say!

But I know that the most painful part of any test is when it is revealed as having been pointless!

May that never occur.


10 December 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The Declaration remains a relevant inspiration for educators and trade unionists worldwide, as it guarantees the right to form unions, freedom of expression and the right of all to quality education. Human rights requires an informed and continued demand by people for their protection. For this special occasion, Education International is releasing a series of blogs bringing voices and thoughts of unionists reflecting on struggles and accomplishments in this domain. The blogs reflect the continued commitment of education unionists, in every part of the world, in every community, to promote, defend and advance human rights and freedoms for the benefit of all.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.