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Djibouti at a crossroads

Ismail Omar Guelleh’s latest wish is to turn Djibouti into Africa’s Singapore, which probably means also wanting to be regarded as the Horn nation’s Lee Kuan Yew, the father of a somehow new country.

So far, the bet is far from won, but judging from the past, the 68-year old strongman will not be afraid to use any means to get to his goal. His behavior wasn’t different, after all, when the highest prize, political power, was at stake.

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Before being elected fort the first time as president of the small Republic in 1999 (a post he has since retained), Guelleh held key roles in the state apparatus. As chief of the police special branch during the presidency of his own uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, he was accused by his political rivals of having ordered the assassination of several dissidents. The claim left him unscathed as have, so far, those of several human rights organizations, regarding allegations of torture, disappearances and the arrests of activists. Even the secretary-general of the main opposition coalition the Union for National Salvation (USN), Abdourahman Mohamed Guelleh is currently held in Gabode Central prison together with former minister Hamoud Abdi Souldan, among others.
Journalists, in turn, are no better off. In January, ‘Reporters Without Borders’ condemned the unjust detention of Mohamed Ibrahim Waïss, a radio reporter for La Voix de Djibouti (The Voice of Djibouti). Arrested on 11 January, Waïss was released six days later, after having been allegedly forced to sign a statement, and without having had access to a lawyer. Also Kadar Abdi, co-editor of the opposition-funded paper L’Aurore, was arrested in the same month, after publishing the photo of a victim of a police massacre, a 7-year old girl. He was released on 16 January, but the charges against him haven’t been dropped. Even the British magistrates of the London High Court who are following the case of Dijbouti’s richest man, Abdourraman Boreh, weren’t able to force the president in court when it began to seem clear that the businessman (a former presidential candidate who had previously been an ally of Guelleh), had been falsely accused of terrorism by the government. The decision to not turn up, the head of state said in a statement sent to the court, was taken ‘in the highest interest of the country’.

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According to some observers, the trial (in which Guelleh was only asked to appear as a witness) would have shed at least some light on the way in which Dijbouti is ruled by the president, his enlarged family and his partisans, mostly drawn from the almost septuagenarian ruler’s own Issa Mamassan clan. A particularly important role seems to have been played by the first lady Kadra Mahamoud Haïd, who is regarded as a sort of vice president, while the couple’s two daughters, Haibado and Fatouma-Awo, are respectively a presidential adviser and a successful businesswoman. Even the country’s most important asset, its port, is managed by a close relative of the strongman, his half-brother Saad Omar. And a cousin, Djama Ali, is director general of state-owned Electricité de Djibouti, the electric company which the authorities used as a source of funds in its early years.

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This countrywide network is one of the factors on which Guelleh relies in order to be re-elected for a fourth term later this year. At present, he is almost totally in control of the country: it was only in 2013 that the opposition first managed to send some representatives to the parliament, but the presidential party UMP (Union for the Presidential Majority) still holds a considerable majority of the seats. At the end of February, less than a month and a half away from the scheduled date for the election, 8 April, the opposition intentions were still unclear. On the one hand, USN has indicated its vice-president Omar Elmi Khaireh, a former independence hero, as its candidate; on the other hand, however, the coalition is also seriously considering an election boycott, denouncing that a landmark agreement reached with the government in 2014 has not yet been put into practice. In particular the much awaited reform of the national electoral commission (CENI) is still to come. The authorities have dismissed the issue as ‘not central’. “The opposition must understand that it is stability that counts”, said Idriss Assoweh for instance, who chaired CENI at the time of the last presidential election. Stability, however, seems difficult to reach without implementing a political agreement: on 21 December at least nine people (but the International Federation for Human Rights gave the much higher toll of 27) were killed when police opened fire on a religious rally which had previously been banned. It was then that the 7-year old girl whose photo was published on L’Aurore lost her life.The opposition regards this act, as well as the imposition of a state of emergency in November, not long after a mass demonstration against the government was held, as an attempt to stifle dissent. On the other hand, the authorities point out that the state of emergency was declared because of the terror attacks in Paris and Bamako earlier that month and that national security should be regarded as a key issue, due to the country’s particular position in the Horn of Africa.

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Dijbouti, during the years, has felt menaced by both the Afar rebels in the north (reportedly financed by the Eritrean regime), a group of which is still active in the Mabla mountains, and by the Al-Shabaab insurgency in neighbouring Somalia, where national troops are taking part in the African peace-enforcing mission, Amisom. On only one occasion the Islamist insurgents (which have struck multiple times in their home country and also in Kenya) staged an attack in Djibouti: in 2014 a man and a woman blew themselves up in a restaurant leaving two more people dead and eleven wounded. In the event of a repetition, however, it wouldn’t be only the local government to be concerned: although tiny, Djibouti is important to many regional and even world powers for a number of strategic reasons.  (Y.L.)

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