Written by Daniela Kirkby (1)
|Despite the fact that Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh’s regime is one of the most repressive administrations in sub-Saharan Africa and is surrounded by corruption, mismanagement, money laundering, drug trafficking, human rights abuses and political stagnation; in March 2010, Guelleh announced that he was ready to run for a third six-year term.
While speculation has surrounded President Guelleh’s intentions to run for a third mandate, the General Assembly has approved a constitution amendment. In addition to abolishing the two-term maximum, the amendment sets an age limit of seventy five for presidential candidates and shortens the mandate from six years to five, while also creating a senate. In total, fourteen amendments were adopted and among them were the outlawing of the death penalty and the creation of a senate. Once the Bill is adopted, President Guelleh can either decide to hold a referendum to validate the constitutional amendment or he can ask MP’s to examine the law a second time, in which case it must be passed by a two-thirds majority.
Ismail Omar Guelleh took power from his uncle, President Hassan Gouled Optidon in 1999. He is Djibouti’s second president since the country gained its independence from France in 1977 and was re-elected in April 2005 for his second term. His party, The People’s Rally for Progress (PRP) dominates the country’s parliamentary system after the main opposition, the Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP) boycotted the last legislative elections in 2008, leaving them with no seats in parliament.
Guelleh was sworn in for his second and final six year term as president after a one-man election that took place on 8 April 2005. He took 100% of the votes in a 78.9% turnout. Since then, he has been praised by his supporters for his implementation of reforms, which focus on irradiating poverty and developing Djibouti’s energy sector.
The first of Gulleh’s reforms focuses on increasing access to the use of local infrastructure and basic urban services coupled with community development, while the second aims at alleviating the high costs of electricity. As a result, the majority of the country’s electorate has also bolstered Guelleh’s national status by endorsing the possible third term through repeated demonstrations and petitions in favour of the amendment.
Guelleh was introduced to power when he was appointed as Head of Djibouti’s secret police and chief of cabinet. After being trained by Somalia’s National Security Service and later, the by the French Secret Service, he was groomed for many years to take over from his ageing uncle. Critics of Guelleh have stated that he has used his knowledge to practice a politics of divide and rule, using repression and intimidation where necessary.
According to human rights groups, Djibouti has one of the most abysmal human rights records. Detention without trial, physical torture and various forms of mistreatment appear to be daily occurrences. The President’s personal security forces are allowed to arrest anyone at will and are allowed to detain their suspects indefinitely and without trial and or due process. Political prisoners are often abused, molested, beaten and assaulted while being held.
With virtually no natural resources and crippled by the chronic embezzlement of the port revenue and bureaucratic inefficiency, Djibouti is heavily dependent on foreign aid to compensate for its increasing balance of payments (BOP). As blatant looting of state resources by corrupt officials continue without consequence, poverty has become a realistic feature in Djibouti.
Freedom of speech is restricted, while criticism of the President is unlawful and dissent is often squashed by the use of brutal force. Even though intelligence reports highlight growing discontent amongst the masses to where necessary, local news states otherwise.
The Realistic Interpretation
In soft democracies such as Djibouti’s, the use of fear is the most powerful tool for Guelleh to harness and maintain further control over the country. When citizens are viewed as potential enemies, it is plausible to argue that the use of coercion to enforce absolute obedience is taking place. External opinions and facts about Guelleh’s regime point to an ever present threat to democracy, even though national reports state otherwise. Guelleh is notorious for stifling voices of dissent, while corruption has degraded the basis for a legitimate political system to operate and paralysed the public will to enforce change.
Djibouti is fast falling toward the status of a failed state, and the recent constitutional amendment does not bode well to the possibility of future improvement. Indeed, the necessary ingredients for state disintegration and chaos have been put in place. The transparent contrast between local and international perceptions on Djibouti’s political, social and economic situation highlight the possibility that its citizens are either disconnected from the powers which rule, or choose to be in fear of their future. In either scenario, the political legitimacy of the country’s leaders must be consciously placed under serious question.
(1) Daniela Kirkby is an Analyst in Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Africa Watch Unit (firstname.lastname@example.org )