Is President Guelleh’s iron grip on Djibouti eroding?

Commentary/Opinion Djibouti Hon of Africa News

By Dr. Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad

The legacy of colonialism and interference from the U.S. and other states keeps Djibouti’s president in office after 25 years. Djibouti needs democracy and sovereignty for its people.

Djibouti is a tiny country of one million people, formerly French Somaliland, sitting on the mouth of the Red Sea, at the intersection of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Its lifeblood is its highly geostrategic port.

The majority of Djiboutians speak the Somali language and share the history and culture of the Somali people, while the largest minority speak Afar and share the history and culture of the Afar people. Colonial boundaries determined that, upon independence, Somalis became citizens of Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, while Afars became citizens of Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia.  

Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh, 75, has been destabilizing the Horn of Africa for 25 years. In 2000, at the Arta conference organized to establish peace in Somalia, he and the TPLF, both of which were backed by the US, introduced the 4.5 system, which institutionalized the competition between clans  that had caused state collapse nine years earlier.

Theoretically, the 4.5 system forged a new Somali state by distributing national political representation between the four major clans, and a .5 “clan” of marginalized minorities. But instead it perpetuated a system in which clan allegiance was more important than state allegiance, and Somalia still doesn’t have a cohesive state. It’s little more than a flag and a UN seat, with clan-dominated federal member states resisting national authority.

Somali nationalists have been struggling to replace the 4.5 system with equal citizenship and one-person-one-vote democracy, but foreign actors, including Guelleh, the UAE, the UK, and most of all the US, have defeated these efforts. They don’t want to see a strong, coherent Somali state emerge because that would make Somalia more difficult to exploit.

Somaliland elites lay claim to the disputed Sool-Sanaag and Cayn (SSC) region but the people there have declared their allegiance to Somalia and said they want the region to be administered by the federal government in Mogadishu. Somaliland has attacked the SSC region, particularly the city of Lasanod, and Guelleh is accused of providing troops and munitions to the Somaliland forces.

On February 8th, 2023, a Djiboutian opposition party, the Parti Démocrate Djiboutien, distributed a press release stating that military officers from Somaliland traveled to Djibouti, where they met with top Djiboutian commanders to request direct support in their war with the SSC region in the form of arms, drone strikes, and care for wounded soldiers. The party also accused President Guelleh of violating international law by intervening in Somalia.

Guelleh has also used his business partnerships with prominent Somali traders to manipulate Somali elections ever since the 4.5 system was institutionalized.

For almost 27 years he partnered with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), as they ruled Ethiopia brutally, invaded Somalia at US behest, and engaged in a border war with Eritrea, a nation of six million people that the West can’t seem to punish enough for its independence.

He joined the TPLF in supporting UN sanctions on Eritrea, which were based on a territorial dispute with Djibouti, but also on the wholly unfounded claim that Eritrea was supporting terrorism in Somalia. Eritrea suffered the pain of consequent difficulties until the TPLF were removed from power in 2018. Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, negotiated peace with Eritrea and persuaded the UN Security Council to lift the sanctions in the same year.

Guelleh finally losing his grip

Now Guelleh is finally facing challenges to his near quarter-century rule as members of the political elite, including some in his own family, vie to succeed him.

The country’s current succession politics are characterized by political squabbles within the Somali Issa clan’s ruling elite and tensions between the Somali majority and Afar minority. The country’s peace and stability are jeopardized by the power struggle.

The first lady, Kadra Mahamoud Haïd, has become powerful and is running the show. She placed many members of her Somali Issak clan minority in various positions within the state. Among them, the central bank governor, the head of the Constitutional Court, the government’s general-secretary, and the deputy-speaker of the Djiboutian Parliament. The Gendarmerie commander is also one of her protégés. He remains in the position despite debility following a major stroke.

The growing sense of insecurity felt by Guelleh and his family is exacerbated by socioeconomic and political challenges. The conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region has also highlighted Djibouti’s economic vulnerability and over-dependence on Ethiopia’s use of its Djibouti and Doraleh ports. The drop in port revenue has weakened the bonds that hold those in power together, fueling speculation about Guelleh’s replacement.

When Guelleh took office in 1999, there was optimism that the country would move toward democracy, but that is no longer the case. Guelleh’s regime rules with an iron fist. Politics have become personalized, based on his prestige and the patronage network that has grown around him. He expanded his power by persecuting opposition groups and handing out economic benefits and political positions in exchange for political support.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Ligue Djiboutienne des Droits Humains (LDDH) expressed concern in 2022 about his government’s failure to uphold the principles of the rule of law, democracy, and human rights. With Guelleh’s succession in doubt, rights groups say the president is stepping up his efforts to silence all political opponents.

The authorities have created a fearful environment, with arbitrary arrests occurring almost daily, and security agencies continuing their intimidation campaigns against the population.

Rights Abuses

Guelleh’s opponents face constant threats, forcing some to dissolve their political parties. Despite criticism from rights groups and United Nations organizations, the Mouvement pour le Renouveau Démocratique et le Développement (MRD) party founded by Daher Ahmed Farah was dissolved by presidential decree in July 2008. The government has refused to restore the party’s status as requested in November 4th, 2020 by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Committee following a case the MRD had filed with it.

The government is guilty of mass killings and massacres. The last one was carried out on December 21th, 2015, at Buldhuqo in the outskirts of the Djiboutian capital. Dozens were killed on that day by the police, the gendarmerie and the army.

In September 2019, a young man named Gadidche Ladieh Omar was tortured to death by the police in Djibouti-City.

Lieutenant Fouad Youssouf Ali of the Djiboutian Air Force was arrested, detained, and subjected to inhumane treatment at Gabode Prison in April 2020.

Lieutenant Fouad shared a video of his detention, which showed a windowless cell taken from a latrine. His detention and inhumane treatment sparked protests and clashes between demonstrators and security forces, resulting in arrests and injuries.

Protesters who were arrested complained of torture and being held in filthy conditions. Of the protesters arrested in June 2020, at least eight are still detained without trial. Their names are: 1) Souleiman Darar Abdulleh, 2) Aden Meraneh Robleh, 3) Souleiman Mohamoud Bouraleh, 4) Yahya Mahamoud Ismail, 5) Sadick Djama Aden, 6) Liban Ibrahim Robleh, 7) Ibrahim Abe Assoweh, and 8) Charmarke Omar Hassan. They’re all young and were arrested in Ali-Sabieh town, Southeast Region of Djibouti.

The young protester Aden Adaweh Abdillahi was shot and killed in May 2021.

Later, in March 2022, a young mother of four, Ferouze Mahamoud Abdillahi, was killed by a Djiboutian soldier in Ali-Sabieh town.

In the same month, in Djibouti City, the capital, another young man, Djama Mohamed Ismail, also known as Charmarké, was tortured to death by the police.

International actors

Western powers do not condemn authoritarian rule unless doing so suits their interests, and they have no interest in condemning Guelleh. They, and most importantly the United States, have failed to stand against his government because of the security and geo-strategic positioning that the Horn of Africa nation provides to Washington.

Guelleh and his family have reaped significant benefits from the country’s strategic location over the years. They profit handsomely from the military facilities they rent to the Chinese, French, Americans, and others. They also benefit by renting houses to these military base staff and ancillary activities such as shops, restaurants and civil manpower services.

In the financial area, there are too many banks compared to the Djibouti’s economy’s size. There are ten conventional banks and three Islamic banks. Conventional banks are: 1) Bank of Africa, 2) Banque pour le Commerce et l’Industrie Mer Rouge, 3) International Investment Bank, 4) Banque de Dépôt et de Crédit de Djibouti, 5) CAC International Bank SA, 6) Exim Bank Djibouti, 7) Commercial Bank of Ethiopia Djibouti, 8) Silkroad International Bank Djibouti, 9) Bank Of China Djibouti, and 10) International Business Bank Djibouti. Islamic banks are: 1) Saba African Bank, 2) Salaama African Bank, and 3) East Africa Bank.

How can all those banks work and make profit in a tiny and under-developed economy of one million inhabitants? Only money laundering can explain so many banks, whether it comes from trafficking or other illicit activities.

Guelleh has used the proceeds from the military facilities to strengthen his grip on power and lubricate his patronage network. The president has taken advantage of the US-China geopolitical rivalry by securing continued concessions from both countries.

With total opacity, he uses the rents paid by the foreign military bases and other public money to feed his personal and family wealth.

Guelleh’s rule and undemocratic practices have been tolerated by the French and US governments over the years in exchange for the continuity and fragile stability that he and his ruling team provide.

Djibouti is the only African country that has granted the US a permanent military base, as part of a formal agreement signed in 2003. The countries’ bilateral security agreement grants the US access to the port and airport. The base primarily serves as an intelligence gathering and counterterrorism center, training African forces to combat Islamic militant groups, which Washington regards as threats to US interests in the region. The United States also uses Chabelley Airport to launch drone missions in Yemen and Somalia.

Regional Influence

Djibouti has benefited from Somalia’s collapse and disintegration. The chaos and political instability in Somalia have put an end to the fear of that Somalia might swallow Djibouti into a Greater Somalia uniting all Somali people. 

Because of Somalia’s instability, Djibouti now has less competition for customers for its port. Ethiopia receives and sends the majority of its goods through the Port of Djibouti, generating billions of dollars in revenue for Guelleh’s administration each year.

Guelleh and his family also established strong illicit business ties with various Somali mafia. Salaama Bank is largely seen as one of the pillars of these ties. Sources say the dictator has taken shares in it, be it directly or through relatives.

Guelleh’s interference in Somalia is recurrent. No Somali politician can become president or remain in office if does not have a good relationship with him. The late Abdullahi Youssouf Ahmed tried to rule the country without Guelleh’s interests-based support, but Guelleh fought back hard against him, supporting Sheikh Sharif Sheik Ahmed and other corrupt politicians. The main tools he uses to interfere in Somali politics are corruption and clan-based divisions. He often tries to make the Hawiye and Dir clans think that the Darood are their enemies when they are not, portraying himself as a Dir and Hawiye cousin.

Djibouti is strategically located on the world’s major shipping lanes, making it a strategic magnet for powerful countries. However, Somalia’s Berbera Port and Eritrea’s Assab Port are attracting foreign attention and money. The construction and upgrade of these two ports are expected to reduce Djibouti’s regional influence, and Guelleh’s greed and misrule are weakening Djibouti in this competition.

Guelleh believes he can maintain Djibouti’s strength by encouraging chaos and instability in Somalia, but his own country is now both politically and economically fragile. It is time for him to step down and transfer power to a younger generation with Djibouti and the Horn of Africa’s future at heart.

Dr. Abdiwahab Sheikh Abdisamad is a Somali Kenyan and Kenyan citizen. He is the Executive Director of the Institute for Horn of Africa Studies and a specialist in political science, conflict resolution, and rural development. 

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