Intelligence Brief: Djibouti

Posted in Africa | 01-Nov-05 | Author: Michael Weinstein

Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh.

On October 18, the political opposition to Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh announced that it would boycott November regional administrative elections on the grounds that the polls would be an "electoral masquerade" covering a system in which "media is muzzled, the judiciary is subjected to pressure and opposition figures are suppressed."

The opposition had resorted to a similar boycott of an April 8 presidential election, in which Guelleh ran unopposed and was returned to office for a second six-year term, which he promised would be his last. The opposition had contested 2003 parliamentary elections and had failed to capture any of the 65 seats at stake. It claimed that those elections had been rigged, paving the way for its successive boycotts, which are meant to deny legitimacy to Guelleh and his regime.

Following the parliamentary elections, Djibouti's electoral commission reported that 80 percent of the country's 196,000 registered voters had participated in the polls, giving Guelleh unanimous support. Highlighting the deep divide in Djibouti's political landscape, the opposition claimed that 80 percent of the potential voters had stayed at home.

Djibouti's Strategic Importance

Bordered by Ethiopia on the south and east, Eritrea to the north, Somalia on the southeast and the Red Sea to the northeast, Djibouti is a small country in the Horn of Africa, with a population of 721,000 people according to U.N. estimates, that has vital strategic importance for the Western powers and its large neighbor Ethiopia.

Geopolitically, Djibouti controls the passageway between the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean, giving it prime importance for outside powers keen to protect their commercial interests.

The country, which gained its independence from France in 1977, continues to host the largest overseas French military base, which accounts for approximately 50 percent of its G.D.P., much of it through rent payments. More recently, Djibouti has permitted the U.S. to open a base housing the headquarters of the Central Command for the Horn of Africa, which is tasked with anti-terrorism operations and fulfilling a program of regional stabilization through civil-affairs missions and military cooperation with local states. Germany also has a naval base in Djibouti in its role within the Euro-American collaboration in the Horn of policing the sea lanes in the region, where shipping is vulnerable to gangs of Somali pirates. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Somalia"]

The country's capital, Djibouti city, in which two-thirds of its population resides, is the major port in the region and has special importance for landlocked Ethiopia, which depends on access to it for its exports and, most importantly, for imports of vital food aid supplied by the U.S., E.U., Japan and Italy. Djibouti's port plays a similar role for the impoverished landlocked countries in north-central Africa. Along with military base rents, the port fees accruing from Djibouti's position as a trans-shipment point sustain the country's weak economy.

Despite its small population and apparent economic advantages, Djibouti is mired in poverty, with a 60 percent unemployment rate. As the port has been modernized to handle container shipments, many dock workers have lost their jobs and the country, like its drought stricken neighbors, has become dependent on outside food aid. Beyond Djibouti city, the hinterland is desert and can only support a declining pastoralist economy. Foreign donors have been less forthcoming to Djibouti than they have to its neighbors because its standard of living seems to be slightly higher, although the figures are distorted by wide wealth and income gaps between rich and poor.

Overlaid on Djibouti's poverty is an ethnic divide between the Issa, a Somali people, who comprise 60 percent of the population, and the Afar, an Ethiopian group, who make up 35 percent. Concentrated in the north, the Afar supply the core of the opposition to Guelleh's regime, which is dominated by the Issa political class.

Guelleh's Power

According to a U.S. State Department Consular Information Sheet on Djibouti, issued on May 2, 2005 -- after the one-man presidential election -- the country "enjoys a stable political climate." That judgment, reflecting Washington's vital interest in keeping its base, masks a situation in which Guelleh has succeeded in creating an authoritarian regime with formal trappings of democracy that is based on a political machine that controls the communications media, depends on Issa solidarity and has been able to co-opt enough of the Afar political class to overwhelm the opposition.

After Djibouti gained independence, it was ruled by Guelleh's uncle Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who initially worked within a power sharing agreement between the Issa and Afar. That arrangement collapsed as Aptidon moved to consolidate his power and created the Issa-dominated machine that Guelleh took over.

Ethnic tensions reached the breaking point in 1992, when dissidents in the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (F.R.U.D.) -- the Afar party -- initiated an insurgency against the regime that ended in 2000 when the last of the rebellious F.R.U.D. factions signed a peace accord with Guelleh, who had succeeded his uncle in Djibouti's first multi-party presidential election. The deal gave the F.R.U.D. representation in government ministries, but did not fully resolve Afar discontent.

The key to Guelleh's success is the skillful way in which he has played the cards in his strong hand. As the head of Djibouti's security agency under his uncle's regime, Guelleh gained an intimate knowledge of the country's political forces and has used it to practice a politics of divide and rule, supplemented by repression and intimidation when expedient. Despite its judgment that Djibouti is "stable," the U.S. State Department has criticized the regime for "limiting citizens' rights to change their government" and for creating a climate in which opposition parties and media are intimidated into "self-censorship."

In order to maintain the dominance of his machine, Guelleh has walked a fine line between keeping the favor of France and lambasting it with nationalist rhetoric. He has been able to get Paris to pay more rent for its base, at the same time that he irritates it by failure to cooperate in a longstanding investigation of the suspicious death of French judge Bernard Borrel in Djibouti in 1995. Two witnesses have said that Borrel, who had been advising Djibouti's justice ministry, uncovered evidence that implicated Guelleh in arms trafficking and that the judge might have been assassinated to keep him quiet.

The regime has stonewalled the French investigation and, on October 21, escalated tensions by announcing that it has declared Djibouti's treaty of judicial cooperation with Paris to be "void." The Borrel affair is one of several provocations that Guelleh has directed at Paris, partly to protect himself and his loyalists, and partly to give him credibility as a nationalist.

In order to diminish Djibouti's dependence on Paris and to increase the flow of funds to the state and attract investment, Guelleh allowed the U.S. into Djibouti and has cultivated ties with wealthy Persian Gulf states, particularly Dubai. Most importantly, Guelleh has supported Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, ensuring that Addis Ababa will back him rather than act as the protector of the Afar. [See: "Intelligence Brief: Ethiopia"]

Guelleh's skillful manipulation of political forces both inside and outside Djibouti has driven the opposition into a corner in which it cannot count on the Western powers to pressure Guelleh to democratize and has lost the backing of its natural regional protector. In securing his position internationally, Guelleh has been free to use his hold on the capital city and the port to pay off his machine, play upon Issa interests, and marginalize the opposition. Meanwhile, the opposition has been reduced to mounting ineffective boycotts.

In May, the Indian Ocean Newsletter reported that armed Afar resistance had once again emerged in the hinterland and that "the cease-fire signed with the F.R.U.D. in February 2000 was hence at an end." The report concluded that the incipient revolt, currently confined to the Afar region, "could attract more discontented Djiboutians, including some from the Somali ethnic group," particularly in light of the arrest of political opposition leader Ismail Guedi Hared.

The Bottom Line

Holding in his hands the strategic prize in the Horn of Africa, and having forged a political machine dividing the minority Afar, Guelleh's rule appears to be secure in the short term. Discontent among the Afar and disaffection in the general population due to persisting poverty and unemployment pose threats to Djibouti's stability in the medium term.

If Guelleh is successful in attracting investment to Djibouti, his machine will be strengthened. If the country's economy continues to stagnate, pressures on the regime from below will build, recruits to the armed Afar resistance will increase and the political opposition will gain renewed life.

Look for outside powers to continue to prop up Guelleh as they become wary of the possibility of a backlash against them if he fails to get economic development off the ground.

The Power and Interest News Report (PINR) is an independent organization that utilizes open source intelligence to provide conflict analysis services in the context of international relations. PINR approaches a subject based upon the powers and interests involved, leaving the moral judgments to the reader. This report may not be reproduced, reprinted or broadcast without the written permission of [email protected]. All comments should be directed to [email protected].