Why Friday protests will test Farmajo’s defence of civil rights

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The outgoing Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo faces the biggest test yet on Friday as opposition leaders plan a massive peaceful protest on his government and against delayed elections.

Yet, ahead of the planned event in the capital, there have been proceedings that show the government’s unreadiness to entertain dissent or divergent views.

When the opposition caucus of Presidential candidates known as the Council of Presidential Candidates first announced the rally earlier this week, the government curiously responded by banning public gatherings citing Covid-19 cases. On Thursday late night, there were reports of ‘militia’ attacking government forces, causing a clash and bloodshed.

Well, there should be no question about controlling the rise of Covid-19 cases, especially in this era of ‘Vaccine Apartheid’ where Africa in general and Somalia, in particular, are still queuing for doses. As of Thursday night, 130 countries around the world were still unsure of when they could start vaccinating their people against Covid-19. So it makes sense that the government would encourage sanitation and other safety precautions.

But this wasn’t just a health issue. The timing coated it all with politics. To ban public gatherings without providing alternative means to picket could simply mean the message from critics is also targeted for the muzzle. Luckily, Somalia is a civilised society and the laws in it protect the rights of all publics.

We argue that the federal government of Somalia allows the protests to continue if participants can all wear masks and sanitise. The world should not stop and certainly, Somalia should not mute its programmes simply because Covid-19 cases have come, but we can give the greater duty to the public by granting them the freedom to picket and the duty to sanitise. In any case, the infection incidences had been on the rise since early February which would have informed authorities on tougher decisions earlier.

Opposition leaders led by ex-Presidents Sheikh Sharif and Hassan Sheikh Mohamud have claimed they were attacked on Thursday night as they lodged in Mogadishu. We think their claim warrants a serious look. Rather than the Information Minister Osman Dubbe simply dismissing the incidents as militia attacks on government forces, the federal government will do better guaranteeing security for all peaceful protesters on Friday. Or, it could run the risk of being associated with assassination attempts. In some civilised democracies, the security of all presidential hopefuls is paramount and no authority dares risk the safety of personnel involved in a presidential contest.

There may be many weaknesses in the Somali government today, but it will be weaker if it chooses the path of suppressing the dissent. Democracies are built on stronger grounds of diversity and Somalia should resist the urge to join autocracies around the world where the contrary view is seen as subversion.

Certainly, the government retains the obligation to keep all Somalis safe and it will be seen on Friday how this will be implemented. There are scenarios for authorities to choose from: They can choose to crush protests, keep the streets calm but invite a widening sense of disapproval. Or, they can allow peaceful protests, protect them and ask them to maintain public health guidelines.

Doing the former will risk the legitimacy of the government further at this moment where delayed elections have raised temperatures. The latter, on the other hand, can be a safe ventilation valve, allowing folks to walk home without incident. The protests will surely be another test on the Presidency of Farmaajo.