Djibouti president set to clinch fifth term

Nairobi, Kenya: Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh is expected to extend his two-decade rule of the tiny Horn of Africa nation as the country heads to the polls Friday.

Guelleh, 73, is facing political newcomer Zakaria Ismail Farah, his only rival after traditional opposition parties decided to boycott the election.

A businessman specialized in the importation of cleaning products, Farah, 56, is seen by observers as unlikely to pose a significant challenge to the strongman who has been in power for 22 years.

Djibouti is a largely desert country strategically situated on one of the world's busiest trade routes and at the crossroads between Africa and the Arabian peninsula, a short distance from war-torn Yemen.

Under Guelleh, the country has exploited this geographical advantage, investing heavily in ports and logistics infrastructure.

At the same time, the country has seen an erosion of press freedom and a crackdown on dissent.

"Little by little, there has been a hardening of the regime since 1999," said Sonia Le Gouriellec, a political scientist who authored a book on Djibouti.

"The more it has opened to the world, the more it has closed internally."

Guelleh's predicted the fifth term will be his last, under a 2010 constitutional reform that scrapped term limits while also introducing an age limit of 75 which would lock him out of future elections.

Djibouti's election campaign came as the country saw Covid-19 infection rates soar by 38 percent in the past week, with some 200 cases a day in the country of almost one million people.

The rate of positive tests is 23 percent.

Nevertheless, thousands turned out for rallies for the ruling Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP), many without wearing masks.

Farah -- who had to renounce his dual French citizenship to join the race -- held a few small rallies before canceling the rest in the 10 days leading up to the polls.

He complained that he was not offered security services for his rallies.

The challenger, who has styled himself as the "flag-bearer of poor Djiboutians", appeared with his wrists bound and mouth taped last month at one of his rallies to protest "unequal treatment".

In 2020 Guelleh faced an unusual wave of opposition protests, which were brutally suppressed, after the arrest of an air force pilot who had denounced clan-based discrimination and corruption.

And police broke up several spontaneous small protests against Guelleh's fifth term in the run-up to the election.

Dependence on China

Djibouti, which gained independence from France in 1977, has remained stable in an often troubled region, drawing foreign military powers such as France, the United States and China to establish bases there.

The country, seeking to become a trade and logistics hub, in 2018 launched the first phase of what will be Africa's biggest free-trade zone, financed by China.

The Asian powerhouse -- which sees Djibouti as a critical part of its "Belt and Road" global infrastructure initiative -- also funded the building of a railway to Ethiopia.

"Previously there were many alliances... What happened during the last mandate is that they fell into a... total dependence on China," Le Gouriellec said.

On the international stage, Djibouti suffered a setback in its diplomatic ambitions in 2020 when it lost out to Kenya for a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council.

The country's economy shrank by one percent in 2020 but is expected to grow seven percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Djibouti's GDP per capita is about $3,500, higher than much of sub-Saharan Africa, but some 20 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty and 26 percent are unemployed, according to the World Bank.

Wily strategist with a firm grip on power 

Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh is a strategic thinker who has used his country's unique position on the Horn of Africa to lure investors and foreign military powers while keeping an iron grip on power.

The portly 73-year-old polyglot with a salt and pepper beard has been in power since 1999, and most Djiboutians just refer to him by his initials, IOG.

He was the handpicked successor to his relative Hassan Gouled Aptidon, the country's first president after independence from France in 1977.

Born in 1947 in neighboring Ethiopia, where his father was a railway worker, Guelleh returned home as a teenager, later joining the police.

He quickly rose to become Aptidon's chief of staff, a powerful role with control over security forces and the intelligence services that he held for 22 years.

In 1999, Aptidon stepped down, passing the torch to Guelleh, who was elected without a struggle.

A wily political operator who pledged during an election a decade ago it was "my last race", Guelleh is now seeking a fifth term in office, unbound by constitutional limits.

He speaks six languages -- Italian, French, English, Somali, Arabic, and Amharic.

'Power-seeker'

Starting from his earliest years in power, Guelleh seized on Djibouti's unique geographic location on the Red Sea to develop the tiny, arid nation of one million into a reliable international military and maritime hub.

The third-smallest country by area on the African mainland, and sandwiched between volatile neighbours, Djibouti embarked on an infrastructure blitz, courting major investment in its quest to become the "Dubai of Africa".

It also hosts military bases for global powers including France, the United States, Japan, and China.

"IOG is open to new things, especially when it comes to digitalization, fintech, and new technologies," said Benedikt Kamski, a researcher based in Addis Ababa for the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute, a German think tank.

"I think he is a strategically thinking politician who understands the strength of Djibouti and uses the country's potential," said Kamski, who also described Guelleh as a "power-seeker".

Guelleh relies on both his sub-clan, the Mamasan, and his extended family to control the levers of power.

His wife, Kadra Mahamoud Haid, is an influential figure while relatives, both close and distant, hold many key positions in the administration.

Despite a plethora of infrastructure projects -- largely financed with massive loans from China -- many Djiboutians still live in grinding poverty.

Guelleh's government has also been accused by rights groups of cracking down on dissent, limiting free speech, and suppressing opposition parties.

Age cap

While Guelleh is seen as a shoo-in for re-election on Friday, this run should be his last, at least on paper.

When a limit on presidential terms was scrapped in a 2010 constitutional revision, an age cap was introduced, mandating that candidates must be under 75 years old.

"I see this election now as a starting point for the post-Guelleh era," Kamski said.

Guelleh is expected to anoint a successor from within his own trusted circle, in much the same fashion as his own appointment.

Five things to know about Djibouti

Djibouti, which is one-tenth the size of England with a population of just one million, is one of Africa's smallest countries.

But the nation, which holds a presidential election on Friday, has used its strategic position along with one of the world's busiest trade routes to its economic and political advantage.

Foreign military bases

Djibouti is situated at the mouth of the Bab al-Mandab strait, between the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, giving it a unique geographical location between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

Its stability in an often volatile region has drawn foreign military powers to establish bases in the country.

France has its biggest military base on the continent in Djibouti, counting some 1,500 troops, while China, Japan, and Italy also have soldiers in the country.

Djibouti is also home to the only permanent American military base in Africa, with some 4,000 soldiers supporting anti-terrorist operations on the continent, notably in Somalia.

Final mandate

Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh, 73, has been in power since 1999 and is only the second leader of the country since independence in 1977.

In Friday's election, he is seeking a fifth term in office -- his last, given a 2010 constitutional amendment that enshrined an age limit of 75 for presidential candidates.

The amendment also removed presidential term limits, which allowed him to remain in office at the time.

In 2020 Guelleh faced an unusual wave of opposition protests -- which were brutally suppressed -- after the arrest of an air force pilot who had denounced clan-based discrimination and corruption.

Port economy

With its position along with one of the world's busiest trade routes, Djibouti's economy relies heavily on its ports such as the Doraleh container port complex and smaller facilities for the import of specific products such as potassium, salt, and oil.

Djibouti is the main maritime outlet for landlocked Ethiopia and has styled itself as a trade hub, launching a massive free trade zone in 2018.

In 2020, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Djibouti's economy contracted for the first time in 20 years with a growth of minus one percent, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

However, it is expected to rebound in 2021 with seven percent growth.

The GDP per capita is about $3,500, higher than much of sub-Saharan Africa, but some 20 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank.

Renewable energy and water

Situated at the junction of three tectonic plates, and blessed with year-round sunshine, Djibouti has the potential to develop solar, geothermal, and wind energy.

The country is currently working on its first geothermal energy plant in Lake Assal -- a saline crater lake at some 150 meters (500 feet) below sea level.

In March 2021 the arid nation also launched its first desalination plant, expected to provide potable water to 250,000 people, a quarter of the country's population of around one million.

Climate change

The majority of the population lives in the capital Djibouti City. The country has a surface area of 23,200 square kilometers (9,000 square miles) and is 90 percent desert.

Less than 1,000 square kilometers are arable, and there are less than 130 millimeters of rainfall annually.

Like much of the region, Djibouti has faced worsening climate extremes. In 2019 rare floods hit the country after massive downpours.

Some areas received the equivalent of two years of normal rainfall in only a day, and at least nine people died in floods in the capital.

Share this story