Djibouti is a republic ruled by a powerful president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, who has been in office since 1999 and is not subject to term limits. While Djibouti technically has a multiparty political system, the ruling Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP) uses authoritarian means to maintain its dominant position. The opposition’s ability to operate is severely constrained, and journalists and activists who air criticism of Guelleh or the UMP are regularly harassed or arrested.
- The COVID-19 outbreak in Djibouti was most acute in May. Authorities successfully curbed the spread of the virus through border controls, mass testing, and contact tracing, as well as movement restrictions and social-distancing rules that began in March and were eased in June. At year’s end the country had reported 61 deaths from the virus.
- In June and July, police used excessive force, including live ammunition, to suppress demonstrations against the government’s detention and alleged mistreatment of an air force lieutenant who had been arrested in April after criticizing authorities on social media and attempting to flee the country. Journalists who sought to cover the case and corresponding protests were arrested or forced into hiding.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||0.000 4.004|
The president, who holds most executive power, serves five-year terms under current rules. President Guelleh was elected to a fourth term in 2016, having been credited with 87 percent of the vote. The opposition fractured, with some groups boycotting the poll and others participating. The lead-up to the election featured restrictions on the media and the harassment or detention of opposition figures. On election day, opposition parties complained that their monitors were turned away from polling sites.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||1.001 4.004|
The 65 members of the unicameral National Assembly are directly elected for five-year terms. Constitutional changes in 2010 called for the creation of an upper house, but the new Senate had yet to be established as of 2020.
Most of the opposition boycotted legislative elections held in 2018, citing the government’s failure to honor a 2014 political agreement by implementing electoral reforms. The polls were marked by irregularities, and the ruling UMP increased its majority to 57 of 65 seats. The opposition Union for Democracy and Justice–Djiboutian Democratic Party (UDJ-PDD) won seven seats, and the Center of Unified Democrats (CDU) took one.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||1.001 4.004|
A core element of the 2014 political agreement—meant to end the opposition’s boycott of the legislature following deeply flawed elections in 2013—was a pledge to reform the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), which the opposition has accused of bias. These reforms had not been carried out as of 2020. Other electoral provisions favor the dominant party, for example by awarding at least 80 percent of the seats in each multimember parliamentary district to the party that wins a majority in that district.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||1.001 4.004|
While Djibouti technically has a multiparty political system, parties must register with the government to operate legally. The authorities have denied recognition to a number of opposition parties; members of such parties have been periodically harassed, arrested, and prosecuted, and their offices have been raided by police. The law requires the leaders of political parties to have clean criminal records, and the government has pursued spurious charges against opposition figures to disqualify them or their parties.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||0.000 4.004|
President Guelleh has been in power since 1999, when he succeeded his uncle, the only other president since independence in 1977. The 2013 elections marked the first time that the opposition had won any seats in the National Assembly. Opposition parties have traditionally been disadvantaged by Djibouti’s electoral system, media controls, abuse of state resources to favor incumbents, and arrests and harassment of opposition leaders and supporters.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||1.001 4.004|
The ruling party dominates the state apparatus and uses security forces and other administrative resources to marginalize, disrupt, and suppress independent political activity.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||1.001 4.004|
The constitution prohibits political parties based on gender or on ethnic, religious, or regional identity. Minority groups, including the Afar, Yemeni Arabs, and non-Issa Somalis, are represented at all levels of the government, but the president’s majority Issa group holds paramount positions in the ruling party, the civil service, and the security forces.
Women are underrepresented in leadership positions. A legal quota ensures that women hold at least 25 percent of the seats in the National Assembly, and the actual number is only slightly above that level.
In practice, the authoritarian political system restricts the ability of women and members of ethnic and religious minorities to organize independently and advance their respective interests.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||0.000 4.004|
The president, who is not freely elected, effectively controls policymaking and governance, and the UMP-dominated parliament does not serve as a meaningful check on executive power.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||0.000 4.004|
Corruption is a serious problem that is enabled and sustained by the dominant position of President Guelleh and his ruling party in every aspect of public administration. All significant business deals reportedly go through the president himself.
State bodies tasked with combating corruption lack the resources and independence to function effectively. Prosecutions of senior officials are rare.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||0.000 4.004|
The government operates in an opaque manner and resists attempts to shed light on its policymaking, budgetary, and contracting decisions. There is no law establishing the right to access public information. The government has made no effort to explain to citizens how it spends revenue collected from foreign powers that lease land for military bases in Djibouti.
There is also little transparency on Guelleh’s investment deals with Chinese and other foreign entities, which have provided Djibouti with loans, built critical infrastructure, and operated special economic zones. The agreements have resulted in a massive amount of public debt and spread discontent among local communities that were not consulted on the location or terms of foreign development projects.
|Are there free and independent media?||0.000 4.004|
Despite constitutional protections, freedom of expression is not upheld in practice, and journalists engage in self-censorship. Defamation and distribution of false information are criminal offenses. The National Communication Commission distributes licenses to media outlets; the National Security Service reportedly has a role in approving such licenses. The government owns the dominant newspaper, television station, and radio broadcaster, as well as printing presses. According to Reporters Without Borders, domestic media content generally reflects government views. Journalists affiliated with outlets based abroad or small opposition publications are subject to harassment and arbitrary arrest. The websites of the overseas opposition radio station La Voix de Djibouti, run by exiles in Europe, and the Association for Respect for Human Rights in Djibouti (ARDHD) are sometimes blocked by the state-owned internet service provider.
In 2020, a number of journalists, some of whom worked for La Voix de Djibouti, were arrested, harassed by authorities, or forced into hiding due to their coverage of the detention of dissident air force lieutenant Fouad Youssouf Ali and corresponding protests. In some cases police also harassed journalists’ family members.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||2.002 4.004|
Islam is the state religion, and 94 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs oversees religious matters; under a 2013 law and 2014 implementing decree, the ministry has direct authority over mosques and imams, who are civil service employees, and vets their Friday sermons. Registered non-Muslim religious groups operate freely, and unregistered groups are able to worship in private, though public proselytizing is illegal.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||2.002 4.004|
Academic freedom is not always respected. Teachers have at times been detained for alleged affiliation with opposition groups. The state oversees the curriculums of the secular public school system and private Islamic schools.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||2.002 4.004|
Open discussion of sensitive political issues is impeded by restrictive laws on defamation and other such offenses. The government reportedly monitors social media and conducts surveillance on perceived opponents. Individuals are subject to arrest for posting critical content about the government online.
In March 2020, air force lieutenant Fouad Youssouf Ali fled to Ethiopia and released a video on social media that accused a military official of corruption and clan-based discrimination and called for an armed uprising. After Ethiopian authorities deported him back to Djibouti in April, the government arrested him on charges of treason, defamation of the armed forces, and incitement to hatred and rebellion. In June, he released a video from prison and alleged inhumane treatment. After his initial attempt to flee in March, his wife, two children, and more than a dozen other family members had been temporarily detained, and they subsequently reported harassment.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||0.000 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is protected under the constitution but not respected in practice. Permits are required for public gatherings. Police regularly use violence to disperse unauthorized protests and arrest participants. In June and July 2020, authorities used live ammunition and other excessive force to suppress demonstrations against the government’s arrest and alleged mistreatment of air force lieutenant Fouad Youssouf Ali. An estimated 100 to 200 people were arrested.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||1.001 4.004|
Local human rights groups that work on politically sensitive matters cannot operate freely, face difficulties in registering with the authorities, and are subject to government harassment. Organizations that focus on social and economic development, including women’s rights groups, are generally tolerated by the government. Individual activists are regularly arrested for their work.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||2.002 4.004|
While workers may legally join unions and strike, the union registration process is onerous and subject to government discretion, which the Labor Ministry has used to favor progovernment unions and deny registration to independent labor groups. The government has been known to intimidate labor leaders and obstruct union activities. Teachers’ union activists have reported being dismissed, transferred, demoted, or denied access to wages.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||0.000 4.004|
The courts are not independent of the government and suffer from corruption. Supreme Court judges are appointed by the president, with the advice of a judicial council dominated by presidential and UMP nominees. The president and parliamentary majority also control appointments to the Constitutional Council.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||2.002 4.004|
Security forces frequently make arrests without the required court approval, and lengthy pretrial detention is a problem, with detainees often waiting years to go to trial. Allegations of politically motivated prosecutions are common, and opposition groups consistently accuse the government of sanctioning arbitrary arrests and detentions. The government has used counterterrorism laws to target political opponents.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||1.001 4.004|
Security forces regularly engage in physical abuse and torture during arrest and detention. Prison conditions are reportedly poor, with pretrial and convicted prisoners often held together due to overcrowding. The authorities released hundreds of prisoners in 2020 to address concerns about the spread of COVID-19 behind bars.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||1.001 4.004|
Though the law provides for equal treatment of all Djiboutian citizens, Somali Issas control the ruling party and dominate government positions, while members of minority ethnic groups and clans suffer from discrimination that contributes to their social and economic marginalization.
Women have fewer employment opportunities and are paid less than men for the same work. While the law requires at least 20 percent of upper-level public service positions to be held by women, this rule has not been enforced.
Same-sex sexual activity is not specifically banned, but such conduct has been penalized under broader morality laws, and there are no laws in place to prevent discrimination against LGBT+ people. Matters of sexual orientation and gender identity are generally not discussed publicly.
Djibouti hosts roughly 30,000 refugees and asylum seekers. Slow processing of asylum claims leaves many asylum seekers at risk of deportation. A 2017 law allows registered refugees to work without a permit and provides access to health care and education.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||2.002 4.004|
The government has been accused of suspending the travel privileges of political opponents. Civilian movement is restricted in militarized border areas due to past activity by the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD-Armé), a rebel group, and tensions with Eritrea.
Movement restrictions and social-distancing measures associated with the COVID-19 pandemic were most intense between March and May 2020, and included stay-at-home orders for all but essential workers. Some constraints remained in place for the rest of the year, with adjustments in response to changing case numbers. The government’s management of the crisis broadly conformed to international guidelines and was relatively successful at curbing the outbreak.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||2.002 4.004|
Private property protections are weak, and court proceedings on business and property matters are affected by corruption and political influence.
Customary practices and personal status rules based on Sharia (Islamic law) place women at a disadvantage regarding inheritance and property ownership.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||1.001 4.004|
Female genital mutilation is illegal, but most women and girls have undergone the procedure. Domestic violence is rarely reported and prosecuted, and spousal rape is not specifically criminalized. The Sharia-based family code requires women to obtain a guardian’s consent to marry, among other discriminatory provisions surrounding marriage and divorce.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||1.001 4.004|
Many residents have difficulty finding employment in the formal sector, as the president and his allies tightly control all large-scale economic activity, especially around the military bases leased by foreign powers. Legal safeguards against exploitative working conditions are poorly enforced; migrant workers and refugees are especially vulnerable to abuse.
A 2016 law on human trafficking includes strong penalties for perpetrators, but authorities have struggled to secure convictions and to effectively identify and assist victims.
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Global Freedom Score24 100 not free