Djibouti’s Presidential Elections: the Crackdown Continues

Paris.

On April 8, the voters of Djibouti go to the polls to elect their country’s president. There is little question that the current officeholder, President Ismail Omar Guelleh, will win a fourth term. However, allegations of fraud, violence, and abuse of judicial process have already irrevocably marred the upcoming election. In typical fashion, Guelleh’s usual despotic leadership has doubled down on its violent anti-democratic tendencies leading up to the election.

The latest sign that the election will be fraudulent is the fact that foreign reporters are being expelled from the country. The BBC reported on Monday that its reporting team in Djibouti was detained by plainclothes police after interviewing a foreign minister and an opposition presidential candidate. The team was held incommunicado, questioned for eight hours, then hustled aboard a plane out of the country the next morning. Although the BBC has written the government seeking explanation for its actions, there has been no reported response at the time of this writing.

Although Guelleh’s campaign officially kicked off on March 25, not everyone is following suit. The president’s main political rival, the Union for National Salvation (known by its French acronym, USN), is quickly fracturing in the run-up to polling, as three of the seven parties that make up the USN are declining to participate in the vote. In the words of one party leader, the exercise is nothing but a “sham election,” citing the fact that minimum requirements of transparency aren’t in place. After winning his last term in a highly suspect vote in 2013, IOG (as he is nicknamed) promised an independent electoral commission in exchange for an increased representation in Djibouti’s legislative body for his party, the Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP). Though some opposition leaders believed IOG to be sincere in his promise, the president has yet to meet his end of the bargain by failing to establish such a commission.

Although the only aspect of Guelleh’s leadership that is transparent is its corruption, opposing it is hazardous. A letter signed by fourteen experts in genocide and human rights describes the appalling situation in the country. Pointing out that NGO’s like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Reporters Without Borders all agree that Djibouti is among the most poverty-stricken and misery-ridden countries in Africa, the letter goes on to say that Guelleh has kept a tight grip on the reins of power through force and intimidation. Torture, extra-judicial killing, exile, and forced disappearance are all common fates for those who dare stand up to Guelleh’s power.

The Guelleh regime has used the judicial process to keep opponents in check as well. Earlier this year, terrorism charges against prominent Djibouti businessman Abourahman Boreh, a vocal critic of IOG, were dropped by an English court. The Djibouti government, which has already sentenced him in absentia to fifteen years in prison on terrorism charges, had Boreh hauled before English courts on twenty-three separate charges also relating to terrorism and had his assets frozen as well. Initially a supporter of and friend to Guelleh, Boreh had a falling out with IOG when he began demanding a greater share of the profits from the country’s port redevelopment project and declined to support Guelleh’s proposal to change the country’s constitution and scrap term limits.

Though terrible, the above pales in comparison to punishment experienced by some who oppose the Guelleh government. Djibouti expatriates in France began a hunger strike last month in protest of the ultimate violation of personal sanctity – the frequent, wanton, and usually officially ignored incidence of sexual assault by the Djibouti military against enemies of the regime. Ten women, victims of the kind of rape against which they protest, are striking to bring awareness to the problem. The rapes occur in “areas of resistance,” according to one of the women. Soldiers rape women in these areas at any opportunity, whether it be going to a police station to check on a detained relative, or going to a well to get water. Further, complaints of rape filed with the government of Djibouti are essentially ignored – an overseas committee formed to investigate the rapes has received almost 250 complaints, whereas the government of Djibouti claims only a tenth of that number in its files. Local doctors do not report incidents of rape for fear of having their offices closed, and French military doctors are urged to “reconsider” their findings after pressure from the Djibouti government.

The women chose France as a place to raise awareness as the Republic is one of several countries that maintain military bases in the strategically-positioned country. There has been a Gallic presence in Djibouti since it declared independence from its former colonial master in the 1970s. The United States has had military assets there as well after beginning its War on Terror. At the present time, several more European countries, Japan, and the People’s Republic of China have operations at Camp Lemonnier. Saudi Arabia is soon to follow as well.

These countries bring billions of dollars with them into the country. However, in the words of the International Monetary Fund, the investments are having “limited trickle-down effects” – two-thirds of the country lives in grinding poverty, and the unemployment rate is roughly fifty percent. Few skilled workers are available in-country, evidenced by the fact that China has to fly in its own skilled laborers. The destitute of Djibouti escape their misery thanks to the amphetamine-like effects of khat, a powerful and ubiquitous drug that some half-jokingly say prevent the overthrow of the Djibouti government. Most of the profits go to Guelleh and his cronies while the United States and Europe look the other way.

The rigged elections are mere hours away, but there is little hope that they will bring anything but a Guelleh “victory” and, along with it, more corruption, torture, rape, disappearances, deaths, poverty, and general misery to a benighted population with plenty of it to spare.

Allen Swenson a Paris-based international development practitioner and social entrepreneur with a focus on African life and society. 

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