Why the world doesn’t care about Djibouti’s autocracy.
In the shadow of the extraordinary events under way in the Middle East, Djibouti’s presidential vote was always going to struggle for attention. Indeed, the plight of this tiny country, sandwiched between Somalia and Yemen, remains almost completely ignored. But as the primary seaport to 85 million landlocked Ethiopians, the center of anti-piracy efforts in the Horn of Africa, and a reliable Western ally in the war on terror, Djibouti is a strategically vital country in an unstable neighborhood.
And with Nigeria’s potentially tumultuous national vote coming this week, the relative quiet of the Djiboutian electoral process, which culminated with a ballot on April 8, might be considered a pleasant surprise compared with the electoral chaos of Africa’s largest democracy. Djibouti boasts fewer than a million inhabitants — voters in one district of the Nigerian city of Lagos outnumber its entire electoral roll.
But Djiboutian democracy is deeply flawed. The national parliament has not a single opposition legislator. The only national broadcaster, Radio-Television Djibouti, is the mouthpiece of the ruling party, slavishly reporting on the president’s visits and appointments. There are almost no independent civil society organizations, and, with almost all possible employment controlled by the state, criticism of the regime is a bad career move. In this environment, this year’s electoral campaign was little more than an exercise in hero worship of the incumbent president, Ismail Omar Guelleh.
Facing a two-term limit, Guelleh changed the constitution in April 2010 to allow him to stand for another five years in office. Guelleh came to power in 1999, succeeding his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who served as Djibouti’s first president since independence from France in 1977. His administration has brought trade deals and investment to Djibouti, but it has done little to address the country’s massive unemployment, which by some estimates exceeds 60 percent. He ran again in 2005 and officially won 100 percent of the vote. Facing a single independent challenger and a complete opposition boycott of this year’s vote, Guelleh’s reelection is certain.
If the story ended there, Djibouti would be a sad if predictable tale of autocracy — little different from Gabon, Syria, or Azerbaijan. With no natural resources to speak of, this microstate, more famous for its scuba diving than its diverse politics, is barely a footnote on the world agenda.
But to the West, and particularly the United States and France, Djibouti matters. It matters a lot. As the forward operating base of U.S. Africa Command, Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier is a friendly piece of real estate in the Horn of Africa, which includes Eritrea, Somalia, and Yemen. Approximately 2,000 U.S. troops are based at Lemonnier, in addition to the naval forces that periodically call at the port of Djibouti. With the nearest friendly African port located in Mombasa, Kenya — 1,700 miles away — the United States, NATO, and the European Union have no alternative to using Djibouti’s harbor as a sanctuary to conduct anti-piracy operations.