Within the span of just a few days, two long-serving African leaders will go to the polls in search of new electoral mandates. As part of the “Super Sunday” of African elections in 2016, Djiboutian strongman Ismail Omar Guelleh will stand for re-election on April 8 while Idriss Déby Itno and 13 other candidates compete in the first round of Chad’s presidential vote on April 10. On the surface, Djibouti and Chad similar political contexts: both Guelleh and Déby have led their countries since the 1990s. The two leaders previously organized constitutional referendums to remove existing term limits, with Chad’s abolished in 2005 and Djibouti’s cast aside in 2010. Looking beyond time spent in office, however, the two presidents offer very different images of how African leaders positions themselves and their countries on the continent.
Idriss Déby was a career military officer when he took power in a 1990 coup, bringing an end to the murderous regime of Hissene Habré. Since, he helped institute Chad’s first multiparty constitution and won the presidential elections in 1996 (being re-elected in 2001, 2006, and 2011). While much of the Chadian leader’s time in power in the 2000s and early 2010s had been spent fending off challenges, Déby’s more peaceful current term in office (domestically, at least) has seen a marked increase in his country’s regional influence. In 2013, 2,000 battle-hardened Chadian troops served on the front lines of the international campaign against jihadist groups in northern Mali, earning the gratitude of both France and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Several months later, Chad earned election to the UN Security Council for the first time. Capping off his government’s growing international clout, Déby himself was named Chair of the African Union this past January.
Ismail Omar Guelleh has enjoyed his own long tenure, although its primary impact on Djibouti has been to turn the East African nation into a staging ground for overseas powers. Since taking over from his uncle in 1999, Guelleh and his ruling clique (comprised largely of relatives and members of his Issa clan) have profited greatly from instability nearby in allowing the United States, Japan, France, Germany, Spain, and more recently China and Saudi Arabia to set up military installations on Djibouti’s largely non-arable territory. Given Djibouti’s tiny size, small population, and ample foreign currency inflows, one would expect living standards for average Djiboutians to have increased as a result of these partnerships. In reality, the millions that have been earned from these basing agreements have had little impact on the lives of average people.
Both Déby and Guelleh enjoy outsized statures in sub-Saharan Africa. Déby’s Chad has become a key partner for France (the former colonial power) as well as the United States. Since 1986, French forces have been based in N’Djamena, while the ongoing Operation Barkhane is headquartered in Chad’s capital and allows French forces to carry out operations throughout the region. For France, the shared border with southern Libya makes Chad all the more strategic for monitoring militant groups there. The US military, meanwhile, has led an annual counterterrorism exercise known as “Operation Flintlock” in western Chad for ten years running. Through Flintlock, many of the Chadian and other regional soldiers that turned back Boko Haram last year did so with training and guidance from American, British, and other Western military personnel.
Djibouti, however, recently began hedging its bets by inviting China to join the other nations already based on its territory. The openness toward China has been paired with antagonistic steps taken toward longtime US military tenants. Last August, reports emerged that Guelleh had ordered American forces out of their naval facilities in the town of Obock so that the site could be taken over by the Chinese. The sudden embrace of a major geopolitical rival has put American lawmakers on edge, with multiple Congressional representatives criticizing Guelleh’s behavior and one even calling for Washington to leverage its influence to push Guelleh aside.
Continuity and change
Taking a closer look at the upcoming elections, both Déby and Guelleh have remained in office far beyond what Western politicians could ever aspire to. Responding to an opposition demand, the Chadian electoral authority adopted biometric voter identification in 2015, while Déby has promised to reinstate the term limits abolished in 2005 if he is re-elected. In doing so, the president is reversing a trend that has taken hold across the continent in recent months in Burundi, Rwanda, or Congo-Brazzaville.
Guelleh, for his part, is running despite repeated promises that his current term would be his last. In the aftermath of Djibouti’s 2013 electoral crisis, Guelleh and the opposition reached an agreement for reforming the electoral commission that his government has since seen fit to ignore. If the Djiboutian leader has not been active in implementing this agreement, his security forces have been active in hunting down opponents; 19 people were killed including a six year old girl in December for attending religious gatherings deemed hostile to the government. In another recent development, the British High Court ruled against Djibouti in a case involving the persecution of a political opponent, Abdourahman Boreh, once one of Guelleh’s trusted advisors and manager of the country’s port. He fell out of grace after opposing Guelleh’s desire to run for a third term in 2008 and the government accused him of taking kickbacks. Boreh was eventually redeemed earlier this year in London, after a judge dismissed the case and the trumped up charges filed against the businessman.
While there will be no surprises in both polls, Chad and Djibouti highlight once again the vast divergence in African leadership styles. While some leaders seem ready to accept the limits of their power and pave the way for future politicians, others still refuse to give up their kleptocratic mores.