On 8 April 2011, the Republic of Djibouti held its third Presidential election since gaining independence from France in 1977. This election saw incumbent President Ismail Omar Guelleh extend his rule to a third term. However, opposition parties boycotted the election, alleging irregularities. This resulted is Guelleh only facing one opponent – the independent candidate Mohammed Warsama Ragueh. The opposition boycott, along with the expulsion of a group of American election monitors has brought the legitimacy of the election into doubt. This paper examines the context in which the Djiboutian Presidential election took place, the electoral process and the aftermath of the elections.
Djibouti’s political background
Djibouti is a small state in the Horn of Africa, neighbouring on Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Djibouti has a population of 757,074 making it one of the least inhabited states in Africa.(2) The country is one of extreme strategic importance as it borders the Gulf of Aden, which serves as an international trade port. Not only is it home to a French military base but it is also home to the only US military base in Africa. It is also in a strategic position for both the ‘War on Terror’ in and around the Horn of Africa, and the fight against Somali pirates prevalent off the coast of Somalia.
The former French colony gained independence in 1977 and has had two Presidents since. Hassan Gouled Aptidon became the first President of Djibouti in 1981. Upon assuming the presidency he declared Djibouti to be a one party state, with the only legal party being his People’s Rally for Progress (RPP). With Aptidon having served two terms, the first multi-party election was held in 1993. Three political parties qualified to enter candidates for the presidency in 1993. These were the dominant RPP, which had been the only legal party from up until that point, the Parti du Renouveau Démocratique (The Party for Democratic Renewal, PRD) and the Parti National Démocratique (National Democratic Party, PND).
Ultimately, only the RPP and the PRD contested the national assembly elections and the PND withdrew, citing concerns about the conduct of the election and allegations of fraud. Despite the introduction of multi-party politics to the country, and the presence of more than one presidential candidate in the polls, Aptidon was re-elected, taking 60.7% of the votes. The political sphere continues to be dominated by the conservative RPP party.
Aptidon’s third term in office was marked by an on-going economical crisis, which ultimately led to his retirement ahead of the 1999 elections. Aptidon’s nephew – Ismael Omar Guelleh – was nominated as RPP candidate for the presidency ahead of the 1999 elections. Guelleh received 74% of the votes. Moussa Ahmed Idriss, the candidate for the new Unified Djiboutian Opposition (ODU), and his party challenged the results of the election, citing ‘irregularities’ and misconduct. However, international and local observers considered the election to be generally fair and Guelleh was sworn in as President. The opposition boycotted the 2005 elections, in which Guelleh was re-elected in a poll in which he was the only candidate.
Development of the political landscape
In February 2011 waves of anti-Government protests, which paralleled many of those seen in other Arab and North African countries, swept across Djibouti as protesters called for Guelleh to step down. Members of the opposition are critical of Guelleh’s increasingly autocratic grip on power. The February 2011 protests served as the starting point in a series of protests against Guelleh and his Government. One such protest was brought to an end when police opened fire on 20,000 protesters.(3) Guelleh supports close ties to France and has been a key player in the quest for peace in Somalia. With a series of long-serving Presidents and tight Government-controlled media, democratic institutions in Djibouti are weak. The country lacks strong, viable opposition parties.
An uncompetitive electoral process
In 2010, Parliament passed a constitutional amendment, allowing Guelleh to seek a third term in office. This amendment sparked outcry from the opposition, who saw it as the latest attempt to ensure the ruling party’s continuing domination of national politics. Some observers also cast doubt on the fairness of the election, saying that it was ‘uncompetitive’.(4) The international organisation Democracy International is reported to have said that Guelleh’s re-election was ‘never in doubt’. The fact that the Government released results of the election within hours of the polls closing was considered to support this view.(5)
Protests and opposition boycott
Further protests took place following Guelleh’s announcement to stand as a candidate in the 2011 election. After the announcement, Abdourahman Boreh – the self-exiled opposition leader – announced that he would not participate in the election and expressed concerns about rigged votes and voter intimidation.(6) Democracy International, which was planning to monitor the elections, was expelled after claims were made that the group was supporting the opposition.(7) In April 2011 Guelleh changed the Constitution to allow Presidents to serve for three terms.(8) The previous term limit was two terms of six years and this constitutional amendment by Guelleh has been seen by many as an attempt to extend his time in power.
The election day
After the official opposition staged a boycott only two candidates registered to run in the 2011 presidential election. Guelleh’s only challenger was independent candidate Mohammed Warsama Ragueh, a former judge who served on Guelleh’s Constitutional Council. Despite the opposition boycott, the turn-out was reported to be high, with almost 70% of the 152,000 registered voters casting their ballot.(9) Guelleh won a landslide victory securing 80% of the votes. The independent candidate – former head of the Constitutional Court – Mohamed Warsama Ragueh received 19% of the votes.(10) Guelleh called on Djiboutians to unite to overcome the challenges ahead. He was also reported to have said he would not seek a fourth term in office if he won this election.(11) The re-election of Guelleh means that Djibouti has been governed by the same family and party since independence more than thirty years ago.
Several opposition leaders and human rights organisations claim that there have been incidents of voter intimidation and that the election cannot be deemed free and fair. There have also been claims by opposition parties that vote rigging took place before the day of the election – one of the factors that led to the boycott. A prominent member of the opposition, Abdourahman Boreh, has been the main critic of the election and its associated processes.
The impact of the election on Djibouti and the wider region
Djibouti’s election results can hardly be described as surprising. The state has a long history of weak opposition parties lacking strong leadership, and this has had a profound and dramatic effect on the democratic processes within the country. These factors, coupled with the fact that Djibouti has not seen a change in power in more than thirty years, has further shattered many Djiboutians hopes of seeing a democratic country.
Despite this, Djibouti is one of the more stable states in the volatile region of the Horn of Africa. With its strategic position amongst other troubled nations, political tension in Djibouti has the potential to impact on the whole region. With Djibouti home to both an American and a French military base, many key players in the international community are keen to see that the political environment in the country is stable. Both America and France could apply pressure on the Government to turn to more democratic processes. However, this could have a negative impact on current French-Djiboutian relations, which may then have a further negative impact on the economy. Djibouti has suffered prolonged economic difficulties, which have been compounded over the last few years by perpetual drought. Good economic relations with the international community, including the former colonial power France, are therefore of extreme importance. The recent protests in favour of more democratic Governments that have swept across Africa and the Middle East could create tensions in Djibouti, and it may well be that these become another determining factor in the stability of the state.
(1) Contact Madie Schutte through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Election Reflection Unit ( email@example.com ).
(2) ‘Djibouti’, CIA World Factbook, https://www.cia.gov.
(3) William Davidson, ‘Djibouti Opposition Meets After Violence At Protests; One Policeman Killed’, 19 February 2011, Bloomberg,http://www.bloomberg.com.
(4) ‘Djibouti: President Ismail Omar Guelleh wins third term’, BBC News, 9 April 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk.
(6) ‘Djibouti Opposition Boycotts Presidential Election’, Somali and Press, 12 March 2011, http://somalilandpress.com.
(7) ‘Djibouti evicts US group ahead of election’, Sapa-Ap, 17 March 2011, http://www.timeslive.co.za.
(8) ‘Djibouti Lawmakers Remove Term Limits’, IOL News, 15 April 2011, http://www.iol.co.za.
(9) ‘Elections in Djibouti’, African Election Database, http://africanelections.tripod.com.
(11) ‘Djibouti: President Ismail Omar Guelleh wins third term’, BBC News, 9 April 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk.