Human Rights Defender of the month: Omar Faruk Osman

Omar Faruk’s career, and the passion that drove it, were the product of his circumstances.  He was born in 1976, in the first of strong man Mohamed Siad Barre’s two-decade rule over Somalia, which was characterized by gross rights abuses and barely existent civic space. He came of age in the 90s when those abuses and rights violations were peaking, as his country was engulfed by a ruinous civil war following the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship.  

“I have graphic memories of injustices that were happening in my country, at first, inflicted by a dictatorial government that reigned for 21 long years, and later, during the civil war that proceeded its collapse. It was during this time that I began my career in journalism. I wanted to humanise the suffering that was going on by telling the stories of the victims, and of the efforts to restore peace in our country,” says Faruk.

When a 27,000-strong United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNISOM) was deployed in the country between 1993 – 1995, Faruk, barely 20 at the time, and only armed with passion and his pen,  followed them to the frontline, to tell the story of the peacekeeping mission. Here, among other stories, he told the story of Botswana peacekeepers and how they were valiantly fighting off bandits in Somalia’s Waberi district, securing communities that had been terrorized into surrender. Progressively, his stories inspired Waberi residents to begin cooperating with the peacekeepers to identify and apprehend the bandits, helping restore security to a restive region.  

Soon after, the civil war festered into a full-blown terrorist insurgency led by Al-Shabab, and UNISOM was replaced by AMISOM – the African Union Mission in Somalia in 2007. But the media landscape in Somalia did not change. Journalists continued to suffer harassment by both terrorists and state authorities, from physical attacks to arbitrary imprisonment under repressive laws enacted by successive transitional governments, and sometimes death.

In 2002, when Somalia’s then Transitional National Government mooted and approved a repressive media law, Faruk and other journalists came together to form Somali Journalists Network (SOJON), with the primary objective of promoting and protecting press freedom and defending the rights of journalists. The Association would in 2005 rebrand into professional trade union and register as the National Union of Somali Journalists (NUSOJ), to advocate for issues beyond press freedom, including better pay and better working conditions of journalists. In 2009, Faruk was elected Secretary General of NUSOJ. He says he had found his calling in advocacy journalism:

“This approach (advocacy journalism) allowed me to utilize journalism as a powerful tool for inciting necessary and positive change. I realized that I could be both an informer and an effective agent of change. I was able to advocate for the safety and rights of fellow journalists, shedding light on the challenging and often dangerous situations journalists operate in between war theatres, and to advocate for justice of those wrongfully imprisoned, “he says.

His efforts were gaining international attention. In 2010, Faruk was elected President of the Federation of African Journalists by journalists from 43 African countries. At home though, there was little sign that the press freedom environment was changing for the better. In 2017, Global Impunity Index ranked Somalia the most dangerous place to be a journalist in the world, the third consecutive year Somalia was garnering the unenviable distinction.  That same year, the Somali Transitional National Government was mooting a new media law in its Parliament, expansive in its scope and intent towards further closing the media space. Faruk got wind of the bill in advance and proceeded to do comprehensive analysis of its repressive intent, which enlisted collective outrage from the public. The Bill was eventually shelved.

Following his talismanic leadership at NUSOJ, Faruk was in 2020 elected the Secretary General of the Federation of Somali Trade Unions (FESTU), the umbrella organisation of all trade unions in the country, which has within its ranks, 11 other trade unions.

“Workers in Somalia face numerous challenges, including denial of their rights to associate, assemble or express themselves freely. Many of them are also poorly paid and have no written employment contracts. Female workers also suffer sexual and gender-based violence, while many workplaces lack sufficient occupational health and safety measures to protect staff. So, I saw my election to lead FESTU as a responsibility bestowed unto me by my fellow workers to lead them in tackling these and other challenges,” he says.

Under his leadership, FESTU set out to mobilise workers to embrace collective bargaining to improve their conditions of work, while providing legal support to workers whose rights have been abused. The trade union also continued to engage the government to pass worker-sensitive labor laws and to domesticate international labor standards and labor conventions that Somalia has ratified.

Last year, Faruk was given another mandate, this time at an even bigger platform. At its 31st Congress held in Muscat, Oman, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) elected Faruk to its executive committee, one of only four representatives from Africa. He says the election was an affirmation of his commitment to the cause of press freedom:

“I am deeply committed to promoting press freedom, defending the rights of journalists, and fostering an environment where they can work without fear or intimidation. Being elected by my colleagues to these positions is a show of confidence, which I dare not betray,” he says.

See more HRDs of the Month

Human Rights Defender of the month: Omar Faruk Osman

Omar Faruk’s career, and the passion that drove it, were the product of his circumstances. He was born in 1976, in the first of strong man Mohamed Siad Barre’s two-decade rule over Somalia, which was characterized by gross rights abuses and barely existent civic space. He came of age in the 90s when those abuses and rights violations were peaking, as his country was engulfed by a ruinous civil war following the collapse of the Siad Barre dictatorship.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Rita Kahsay

When the Ethiopian Federal Government representatives and those of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) signed a peace agreement in Pretoria, in November last year, the two parties were hailed for ending arguably the deadliest conflict of the 21st century, in which over 600,000 people had died.
But long before the negotiators for peace got around to an agreement, there were many other unsung heroes, who, through individual and collective efforts helped sustain the world’s gaze on the dire situation in Tigray, despite the Ethiopian Government’s determined efforts to hush it up.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Godfrey Kagaayi

Born 33 years ago, in Bukoba, northern Tanzania, Godfrey Kagaayi did not have to look elsewhere for inspiration to tackle the daunting challenge of mental health. By his own admission, the family and community in which he was raised were fertile grounds for the same.
His family had crossed the border into Uganda when he was barely 5 months, settling into present day Rakai district. But the Rakai of the 90s was a difficult place for a child to make their earliest memories: In 1990, Uganda’s first ever case of HIV/AIDs was reported in the district, setting off a decade of suffering and anguish for many of its residents. Taking advantage of the Rakai’s fishing and polygamous lifestyle, the novel virus spread like wildfire, killing people in droves and leaving untold heartache in its wake.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Hiader Abdalla Abu Gaid

Hiader Abdalla Abu Gaid is one of the lucky survivors of Sudan’s latest conflict.

He was born 36 years ago, in Almalha locality, North Darfur state, the third born in a family of 10. Then, Darfur was not the hot bed of war and conflict it has since become infamous for. Although the region, predominantly inhabited by Sudan’s black population remained segregated by the predominantly Arab government in Khartoum, its people co-existed in thriving, predominantly subsistence communities. In Almalha, people reared camels and cattle, while others tended crops. The community was also famed for its hospitality to strangers, welcoming outsiders who ended up staying, owning land, and intermarrying with their hosts.

Human Rights Defender of the month:Immaculate Nabwire and Daphne Nakabugo

In personality, Immaculate Nabwire and Daphne Nakabugo could not be more different. Where the former is loud, if free-spirited, and mischievous, the latter is quiet, reticent, and predominantly solitary. Together though, they are the quiet champions behind DefendDefenders’ digital skilling programs, equipping (women) human rights defenders with critically transformative – and sometimes, life-saving digital tools and skills.
“You’ll be surprised how many people out there, including the literate are not exposed to the idea of digital safety. And as technology gets more advanced, it is getting ever more lucrative for hackers and other malign actors, which means that the urgency of the need for digital security skills for everyone cannot be over-stated,” says Daphne.

Human Rights Defender of the month:Mary Pais Da Silva

On 17 February 2023, in Ethiopia’s rustic resort of Bishoftu, more than 5000Km from her homeland, Mary Da Silva was announced winner of the 2023 AfricanDefenders Shield Award, in the presence of hundreds of colleague human rights defenders from 36 African countries. It was a fitting validation for the Eswatini human rights lawyer, whose sense of empathy and sensitivity to injustice has been a defining hallmark of her career.
Born 45 years ago in Lubombo, eastern Eswatini, the last of 4 siblings, Mary attributes her values to her upbringing. Although she was born in Eswatini, her parents are originally from Mozambique, and only relocated to eSwatini at the start of the Mozambican civil war that lasted between 1977-1992, which ravaged families and displaced many others.

Human Rights Defender of the month: Jane Naini Meriwas

Like many African societies, The Samburu community in Northern Kenya is a gerontocracy – a very hierarchical community in which elders hold sway over almost all private and public matters. Among these predominantly pastoral nomads, very little importance is attached to the young – especially young girls, who are barely given a chance at education and often married off before their first menstrual cycle, but not before they undergo mandatory Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
It is in this community that Jane Naini Meriwas was born 46 years ago, in Kipsing village, Oldonyiro Subcounty, Isiolo County. When she was 16, her mother passed on, and she watched with great trepidation as her father planned to marry another wife, not sure what that would mean for her or her ambitions for school. As it turned out, fate was on her side. When her father uncharacteristically asked what she thought of his plans, Jane seized the opportunity to stand up for herself and interests:

Human Rights Defender of the month: Kasale Maleton Mwaana

Kasale’s human rights activism precedes his years. The son of pastoralist parents from Ngorongoro district in northern Tanzania, he grew up seeing his parents and entire community having to defend their land and way of life against authorities who thought their lands could be put to better use. Now, at 25, Kasale is already one of the most recognizable advocates of his people’s cause, much to the ire of Tanzanian authorities.
“Our people’s struggle goes back many generations. It started with the pushing out of our forefathers from Serengeti to gazette Serengeti National Park in 1959, and then further evictions from the Ngorongoro crater to gazette the Ngorongoro conservation area in 1975. Since then, every generation has had to resist further evictions. It’s now my generation’s turn,” he says.