The small East African nation of Djibouti often escapes notice despite its coveted strategic position. Recent behaviour by the countries increasingly megalomaniacal President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, who will likely change the constitution a second time to stay in power and is traveling to London to testify against a political rival, is making headlines.
A brief authoritarian history
The former French colony has been run by President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh since 1999, who came to power after his uncle kept the seat warm for 22 years. Amending Djibouti’s constitution in 2011 to broach a third presidential mandate, Guelleh’s action is seen to represent what has been referred to as an encroaching “third-termism” on the African continent, where strongmen seek to maintain their grip on power for as long as possible. In this way, Guelleh, or “IOG” as he’s referred to locally, can be seen in line with Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose 2015 announcement that he would seek a third term spurred a military coup and violent civil unrest, or Blaise Compaoré, who attempted the same constitutional amendment as IOG before he was washed away in the Burkinabé Uprising of 2014.
Like in Burundi and Burkina Faso, IOG’s 2011 decision to stand for a third term fueled major protests, particularly with the youth of the small East African country. The Opposition Youth Movement (MJO) helped lead the civil uprising, demanding transparent democratic elections. While the demonstrations went undisrupted at the time, MJO President Mouhayadine Yacin Mohamed and spokesperson Said Charmake Darar were later arrested for and charged for taking part in an “illegal demonstration,” “disturbing public order,” and causing “violence and degradation,” according to NGO Freedom House. It seems that little has changed since, as the authoritarian impulses of IOG have only gotten worse.
In 2013, 500 opponents of the government were arrested for partaking in protests in the allegedly rigged legislative elections. According to the Freedom House report, IOG’s administration not only continues to repress and harass human rights activists but they have also continued to crack down on journalists and opposition leaders throughout 2014. According to the NGO, the current rating for political rights in the country is six out of seven (seven being the worst), civil liberties is five out of seven and the overall status of Djibouti is “not free”.
In reality, Djibouti has become a de facto one-party state under IOG, with the ruling Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP) coalition party centralizing power and preventing anything resembling a free electoral process. While the coalition was formed back in 2003 and is made up of five parties (the People’s Rally for Progress (led by Guelleh), the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy, the Social Democratic People’s Party, the National Democratic Party, and the Union of Reform Partisans), it does not represent the nation as a whole and the parties in the coalition are all supporters of the Guelleh regime.
As a guise to outsiders, the constitution supposedly enables all citizens their full political rights, though this is not the case on the ground. The UMP has done its best to diminish the means of other parties as well as preventing citizens from protesting for fear of imprisonment, as was seen in 2013.
In December of 2014, a deal was brokered which was regarded as a pivotal point for stability in the country at the time. The agreement was meant to enable the opposition party (Union for National Salvation (USN)) to take seats in the parliament. However, the President of the party, Ahmed Youssouf Houmed, told AFP in early June of this year: “more than five months after the signing of the framework agreement… it is clear that the terms of the agreement have not been implemented.”
A deadlock has formed and none of the plans for democratic and institutional reforms that were agreed upon between the two parties have been implemented by IOG’s regime, the opposition claims. The USN has stated that if the agreement is not upheld by the ruling party and the reforms are not made, they will respond by boycotting the upcoming elections.
“One is always suspicious with a regime that has taken so many commitments without any honor! But as we wish above all to maintain social peace and not to add to the plight of the population, we remain open to finding a compromise. We are all the more attached we know it begins when the confrontation but no one knows where it will stop, ” Houmed told the Voice of Djibouti.
President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh is 67-years-old and has been in power for the past 16 years. The Voice of Djibouti speculates that the President could once again change the constitution allowing him to run for his planned fourth term, which seems quite likely at this stage. When quizzed on the topic by AFP earlier in May, Guelleh replied simply “I have not yet taken a decision.”
However, while the opposition strongly disagrees with many of the actions taken (or lack thereof) by IOG and his party, they recognize that change will take time. “There are immediate issues, there are some long questions: the change in the institutions, decentralization, the statutes of political parties,” the leader of the opposition told The Voice Of Djibouti. “For now, the USN is trying to alert international opinion on the challenges of the next presidential election and risks.”
On the other hand, IOG clearly felt some political competition from former ally and businessman Abdourahman Boreh.
Wrongly found guilty of terrorism charges in Djibouti – charges that were overturned by the British High Court – Boreh is now being accused of corruption. In an especially humiliating turn for IOG, the terrorism charges were found to be completely fabricated, resulting in a severe tongue-lashing from the judge, Justice Falux, and an £880,000 fine for the law firm representing Djibouti’s government.
Justice Flaux, who previously sat on the terrorism case, has requested that President Guelleh appear in court as a witness for the new corruption case. If Guelleh does appear, it will be the first time in history that a sitting African president will go to give evidence before a court in the UK. Round two of allegations against Boreh has the eerie feeling of political repression, especially in a country such as Djibouti.
If the extreme repression of the people of Djibouti continues – along with poverty and the “inequitable distribution of revenue, widespread corruption, human rights abuses and lack of real political reform” – it seems that the situation in the small East African state could soon become violent and chaotic. As Houmed pointed out, it is the international community that needs to take action and help or possibly even force the current political regime to implement democratic reforms. As the Institute for Security Studies’ Situation Report of Djibouti read, repression can only suppress tension and anger towards a regime for so long. Eventually the government is going to have to make a change. What that change will be, only time will tell…