Djibouti – The Last Domino to Fall in the Horn of Africa
On May 8th 2013 President Guelleh of Djibouti visits London. The situation in Djibouti and it’s importance does not receive much attention in London. It should. The situation in the Horn of Africa is deteriorating. News of the impending defeat of Al Shabab and other such militant groups in South Central Somalia have proven to be premature. The lack of engagement with isolated Eritrea have contributed to an impending implosion there. The Western-backed Djibouti President is also now under siege due to his regime’s brutal ways, a rigged election, and continuing appalling poverty. President Guelleh is one of the region’s last surviving long-standing dictators.
The same family have been in power in Djibouti since independence from France. The increasingly luxurious lifestyle of the President’s entourage has been criticised by international aid institutions, such as the use of a new Boeing 767 as ‘the family’s private jet’ and the construction of outrageously lavish palaces for relatives. Having changed the constitution allowing himself to be President for life, President Guelleh then expelled election monitors sent by the US State Department to oversee Presidential elections. He banned foreign observers, refused entry to respected journalists, and engaged in widespread manipulation of voter lists.
With a population of under a million and an electorate of only 200,000 citizens, Djibouti has been home to a large French military base since independence in 1973. It is also home to an expanding multi-agency US base, ‘Camp Lemonnier’.
Djibouti’s economy is based on its strategic location at the narrow entrance to the Red Sea, leading to the Suez Canal. Its ports provide maritime trade access for landlocked Ethiopia. Djibouti also receives several hundred millions of dollars a year income from foreign military bases, and is favoured with generous US, French and EU aid.
Whilst in aggregate a middle-income country, the general population live in dire poverty. Djibouti has one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in Africa. Much of the population has no reliable access to clean water or electricity. Ports in Djibouti have to recruit abroad to find the skills they need, despite unemployment at home of 60%. Today, 50,000 people receive aid from the World Food Programme. Women face serious discrimination. A recent IMF survey warned that ‘growth has thus far not succeeded in significantly reducing poverty or unemployment’. The country ranked 147th out of 169 countries in the UNDP’s Human Development Index for 2010, and malnutrition has risen.
Investment has dried up in the wake of confiscations and arbitrary taxes. According to the World Bank, Djibouti is one of the worst countries in the world in which to do business, ranked 170th out of 183 countries. Economic deprivation in the wake of profligacy at the top is one key cause of instability. Another is the government’s appalling human rights record. Large numbers were detained and mistreated during last year’s Presidential elections. Prominent human rights and opposition activists were arrested, including leaders of the four main opposition parties. Demonstrations against the election process in February 2011 were met with tear gas and violence.
Detention of government critics has persisted. Jean-Paul Noël Abdi, president of the Djiboutian League of Human Rights, was also arrested in Feb 2012 for his reporting on the demonstrations. He was released from prison 12 days later, but the charges remained. Also arrested for insurrection in early February were six reporters and informants for the opposition radio station La Voix de Djibouti. Held for over four months, and then placed under judicial control. In addition popular radio journalist Farah Abadid Hildid was abducted by police, stripped naked, and kept in a cell without water, the third time in a year he had been detained. This has been referred to the to the United Nations special rapporteur on torture.
The National Assembly elections of 22nd Feb 2013 precipitated renewed mass demonstrations, with credible video footage supporting opposition claims of more than 100,000 on the streets – extraordinary when one takes into account the fact that the electorate is only twice that figure. A wave of arrests of human rights activists before the National Assembly elections was internationally reported, but not the wave of detentions and torture that followed the elections. Opposition figures remain in detention.
After the elections twenty-six police refused to fire on crowds of civilians and joined the demonstrators. Demonstrations continue weeks after the elections and tear gas is often deployed. Demonstrators now are calling for the release of detained opposition leaders and human rights activists as well as a re-run of elections.
The opposition have now established an ‘Alternative National Assembly’ which will reflect the combined opposition to President Guelleh. The new Assembly has begun operating and it should receive the same pro-democracy support as the alternative structures established in Syria.
The current Western ‘devil-you-know’ approach may result in yet another messy, unstable factionalised state. President Guelleh’s visit to London should remind Western policymakers of the need to review Horn of Africa policy.