Guelleh’s only challenger will be Mohamed Warsama Ragueh, the former head of the country’s Constitutional Council whose candidacy was backed five days ago by an opposition coalition known as the Union for a Democratic Movement. Opponents of Guelleh had all previously said they would boycott the vote.
“It’s an interesting development, but the power of the incumbent is great,” said Chris Hennemeyer of Democracy International, a U.S.-based advocacy group ordered by the Djiboutian government to leave last month. “I think the outcome is fairly obvious.”
Guelleh has led Djibouti, which hosts the only U.S. military base in Africa, since 1999. The 63-year-old leader succeeded his uncle Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who was the country’s first president after it gained independence from France in 1977. In March 2010, Guelleh amended the constitution to allow him to extend his rule by two more six-year terms.
Djibouti, a Horn of Africa nation of 516,000 people, has a $982 million economy that relies on services related to its strategic location on the Red Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, according to the U.S. State Department. France has around 3,000 troops stationed in the country, which is smaller than the U.S. state of Massachusetts.
Violence broke out at an opposition rally near the city’s Hassan Guled stadium on Feb. 18 when security forces broke up a demonstration that the government said was hijacked by “trouble- makers.” A policeman died and nine other people were injured in the clashes, according to the government. Last month, four opposition leaders were detained while trying to lead another protest against Guelleh’s rule.
“The government has trampled on those very rights that make a vote free and fair,” Rona Peligal, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch, the U.S.-based advocacy group, said in a statement on April 5.
Ragueh has called for changes to the judicial system, investment in education and a reduced role for the ruling party in the economy, while Guelleh is relying on his track record of economic stability to secure him another six-year term. The economy has expanded every year since at least 2002 and growth is forecast to accelerate to 5.4 percent this year from 4.5 percent in 2010, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Ragueh said he has the support of 80 percent of Djibouti’s people.
“All of them are hoping for change,” he said in a phone interview from Djibouti City, the capital. “For 33 years, the same family led this country and the people are fed up. We are supposed to be a republic, but in fact we are a kingdom.”
The partnership between Ragueh and the opposition will lead to a “big victory,” Mohamed Daoud Chehem, a UDM leader, said in a phone interview from the northern city Tadjourah on April 5.
About 152,000 people are registered to vote in the election, according to Interior Minister Yacin Elmi Bouh.
“We are organized, we are ready,” he said in a phone interview yesterday. “We have a long tradition of elections.”
Polling stations are scheduled to open at 6 a.m. for 12 hours and observers from the U.S. Embassy, the African Union and the Arab League have been invited to monitor the vote, Hennemeyer said. The government’s plan to announce initial results within 48 hours “is virtually impossible,” he said. “It will provide evidence that it is a done deal.”
Asked to Leave
Democracy International was ejected after it helped “facilitate” the February protest, Bouh said. “It was not in their framework and the government decided to ask them to leave.”
The Bethesda, Maryland-based group was eight months into a two-year, $2.2 million program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The protests in Djibouti coincided with similar demonstrations across North Africa and the Middle East that led to the resignation of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt and a civil war in Libya.
“We were very even-handed,” Hennemeyer said. “The only conclusion I can draw is that the turnout at the Feb. 18 demonstration combined with the unrest in the region sent cold shivers down the collective spine of the government. I think it’s a real setback. The trend is toward greater democracy. Djibouti ignores it at its peril.”
Djibouti ranks 148th out of 169 countries in the United Nations Development Program‘s Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, education and living standards.