Education International
Education International

Djibouti: Interview with a champion of the independence of teaching unions

published 13 March 2012 updated 16 March 2012

Farah Abdillah Miguil, General Secretary of EI Djibouti affiliate SYNESED (Union of Secondary Teachers), was his union’s delegate to EI’s 6th World Congress in Cape Town, South Africa in July 2011. In this interview, he shares his thoughts as a union leader and champion of human and trade union rights on the state of education in his country and globally.

How does the education system in Djibouti (primary, secondary, higher) work? What sort of quality does it deliver? What could be done better?

· Under colonisation

Formal education in Djibouti started with colonisation. As in all French colonies, it was a strictly French curriculum – designed for mainland French children – coupled to a strong, all-out assimilation agenda. Education then was highly selective but of decent quality, as far as its structure and resourcing went, at any rate.

· S ince independence

Independence came in June 1977, after which the content changed little, but the quality went steadily down. The curricula stayed aligned with French ones to keep the Djibouti upper secondary leaving diploma ( baccalauréat) valid as in France.

· The National Education Conference

It was this situation that prompted the first major reform in 1999 with the holding of the National Education Conference.

There was a clear need for education reform in Djibouti. The problem is that the educational community (teachers, parents, etc.) was marginalised, not to mention patronized, at this conference in order to stifle any form of democratic debate. The national conference’s main policy choice was to focus on mass education, with business-led educational choices leading to dead ends.

The only surviving legacies of this reform are access and the end of the bottleneck, i.e., the educational exclusion of the majority of final-year primary school pupils ... But our education system has never been in a worse state than now.

Also, wholesale fraud in the year-end exams at all levels has become commonplace of late, official acclaim for the fraudulent results notwithstanding.

Government is constantly harping on about its commitment to education, playing up the rising enrolment ratios and pass rates, but the fact remains that the Djibouti education system has sunk to its lowest point ever in recent years despite the National Education Conference reforms. The new skills-based approach has been rolled out in primary and middle school education without being scientifically validated.

Also, some newly-built schools have latterly been operating without water, electricity or toilets for the first time in the capital, Djibouti-Ville. Unprecedented! A huge step backwards.

· Higher education, a job of work still to do

Before and after independence, higher education took place abroad, especially in France. In the early 1990s, distance learning started up in Djibouti in collaboration with French universities. And, in 2000, the university centre started up, again in collaboration with French universities. Djibouti University is a very recent creation, dating from 2006. It veers between a lack of infrastructure, resources and management, etc.

Today, our education is both poor quality and totally unfitted for the labour market. The labour/social unrest currently besetting the country is partly due to the failing education system.

· Possible improvements

-           Put more resources into improving the learning conditions for pupils/students

-           Enhance the status of the teaching profession

-     Strengthen the initial and continuing training of teachers, guidance counsellors and inspectors

-           Provide appropriate teaching/learning methods

-     Involve teachers through their unions in decision-making that affects them and/or schools

-           Establish an assessment department

But these measures will not deliver improvements unless a stop is put to widespread impunity and favouritism first, and politics and tribalism are taken out of the teaching profession. The problem is that promotions have never been and still are not on merit but dictated by tribal membership, close personal relationships, political allegiances, and even services rendered to the ruling party, and that has a terrible impact on teachers’ morale.

What is the state of teacher trade unionism in Djibouti generally? Where does your union, SYNESED, stand in relation to it? What are SYNESED’s big battle fronts for the teaching profession?

Trade union culture is pretty much in its infancy in Djibouti. The single party and pseudo-democracy in place since 1992 has treated women and men in this country like children. After 34 years of independence, those who sit in parliament have never been elected but simply co-opted by the ruling party.

There is no public discussion of employment issues. The social partners are disregarded. So, workers turn to other forms of protection like allegiance to the ruling party, circles of friends, or the tribe. Pressures from all sides – social, family, tribal, etc. - have now brought our fellow countrymen to accept and assimilate the status quo as an iron law that they cannot do anything about. Self-exile or surrender seem to be the only options available.

Paradoxically, trade union culture in Djibouti reached its high point with the struggles for independence. Unfortunately, the post-independence single party absorbed the only existing union federation and ended up controlling it, exploiting the fact that people saw independence as the final battle and gave up the fight, forgetting that the appetite for power is never satisfied.

The adoption of the 1992 Constitution recognising political and trade union pluralism saw new free and independent labour organisations emerge. SYNESED and the Union of Primary Teachers (SEP) were among the first unions to be formed in 1993. In 1995, the Government introduced the Structural Adjustment Programme with the International Monetary Fund, sparking a wave of disputes and demands. SYNESED and SEP spearheaded these actions, many of which resulted in strikes because an administration lacking in any culture of dialogue and negotiation saw the unions as a political opposition that it somehow had to gag. During this time, SYNESED effectively and actively campaigned against teachers’ worsening working conditions and declining purchasing power. The recognition of the teachers’ union as a social partner is still a non-negotiable objective.

Unfortunately, September 1995 saw the start of a government crusade against union leaders, not to mention a purge of the unions. Almost all the leaders of both the country’s union federations were ousted. In February 1997, five SYNESED union officials were removed from office in a show disciplinary hearing. Two former SYNESED General Secretaries, Souleiman Ahmed Mohamed and Mariam Hassan Ali, have still not been reinstated, with all the personal hardships that entails. For the powers that be, it was all about going in hard to deter and kill off any thoughts of campaigning and protest actions. For the Djibouti authorities, the introduction of a pluralist constitution was just a red herring for external consumption and was not intended to change the lives of the people of Djibouti.

Our main battles were and are:

•           Recognition of our organisation as a partner

•           Better conditions for decent work

•           The right to freely choose our union leaders

•           The right and freedom of assembly

•           The right to bargain

•           Reinstatement of our unfairly dismissed colleagues

Trade union rights are human rights. Are you obstructed from exercising trade union rights in Djibouti? In what ways?

The exercise of union rights in Djibouti is obstructed in new ways every day:

·        The post of the independent union federation, UDT (Djibouti Labour Union), gets intercepted

·        Trade unionists are intimidated

·        ‘Yellow’ trade unions

·        Harassment and arrests of union leaders, and even representatives of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Italian Confederation of Trade Unions and the International Federation for Human Rights deported in 2006

·        Seizure of the UDT’s headquarters in September 2011

·        Demonisation of trade unions and their leaders in the government-controlled media

·        Demonstrations prohibited in violation of the country’s Constitution

·        It is hard to hold meetings without the political police stepping in

·        ILO fundamental rights undermined by the new 2006 Labour Code

Like most union leaders in my country, I am a victim of administrative terrorism through transfers, penalties, arrests, interrogations, and being sidelined in "dumping grounds", etc. For example, in May 2007, I was arrested at my workplace by two officers from the Service de Documentation et de Sécurité- a sort of political police – and questioned for an hour in their offices. My crime was to have sent an invitation to an EI delegation composed of Dominique Marlet, EI’s Human and Trade Union Rights Senior Coordinator, and Assibi Napoe, the Chief Regional Coordinator for Education International's Africa Regional Office. Both have had their visa applications rejected.

The government’s aversion to the free trade union voice remains undiminished. And today, any free expression risks government reprisals. The Djibouti League of Human Rights, headed by Jean-Paul Noel, is the only organisation that, despite the repeated arrest and imprisonment of its President, continues to denounce the daily violations of the ruling regime.

What effective help can EI bring to you and your union?

Ostracism and pressures from all sides have led many of our colleagues into self-exile. They have preferred the struggles and sufferings of exile to going against their conscience. They have been forcibly separated from their country and their loved ones. So those who stayed resigned themselves to defending the minimum freedoms through non-coordinated actions, never appointing official representatives, or even delegates for any negotiations which, from past experience, were destined to be futile and intended to identify scapegoats. This strategy has had disastrous consequences for pupils. It has also been destabilising for the regime which has just talked it down and never agreed to deal with the source of the problem, namely reinstating the victimised trade unionists and respecting fundamental trade union freedoms. Today, the trade unions have lost all their membership because being in a union is to be under a Damocles’ sword.

EI has always been there for us with unwavering support all through our fight for our rights. I would like to take this opportunity to thank EI’s General Secretary and all EI affiliates on behalf of all Djibouti’s teachers for their unfailing support.

There are now no trade union activities going on at all. With no members, the only effective aid I can see would be training, training and more training for teachers about their duties and their rights. The sad fact is that the authorities will not let EI members in, or let us hold our workshops. We want EI to do what it has always done – to speak out about the denial of teachers’ rights, so that the whole world knows that somewhere in a small republic named Djibouti, women and men are being stripped of their most basic rights. We see a moral duty in continuing to speak out about what is happening in our country. Bearing that witness is a form of minimum resistance.

What kind(s) of cooperation with EI member partners would be useful to develop your union?

As I’ve just said, no help would be of any effect at present. But when the time comes, we will call on the experience and expertise of our EI partners to build a free, independent and democratic trade union.

The trade union situation is deeply worrying, but recent history shows how things can move apace or even faster. We’ve seen the events that unfurled in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya.