Djibouti | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Djibouti received an upward trend arrow due to an accord that consolidated a peace agreement signed in 2000 between the government and Afar insurgents, paving the way for a more extensive multiparty system.


The government of President Ismael Omar Guelleh followed up a peace agreement it signed with the radical wing of the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD) in 2000 with a more extensive accord in May 2001. It, like the previous agreement, was aimed at putting an end to the ethnic Afar insurgency against Issa (Somali) "tribal dictatorship" that began in 1991. The insurgents had demanded the installation of a democratic, multiparty system. The largest FRUD faction agreed in 1994 to end its insurgency in exchange for inclusion in the government and electoral reforms. The May accord reportedly provides for greater decentralization, more representative local bodies, and a more extensive multiparty system.

Djibouti was known as the French Territory of the Afar and Issa before gaining independence from France in 1977. President Hassan Gouled Aptidon controlled a one-party system until 1992, when a new constitution adopted by referendum authorized four political parties. In 1993, he was declared winner of a fourth 6-year term in Djibouti's first contested presidential elections. Both the opposition and international observers considered the poll fraudulent.

Aptidon stepped down in April 1999 after 22 years in power, opening the way for the country's first free presidential election since independence. Guelleh, of the ruling Popular Rally for Progress (RPP) party, defeated opposition leader Moussa Ahmed Idriss, of the Unified Djiboutian Opposition (ODU). Guelleh, who is Aptidon's nephew and a former head of state security, had long been considered the de facto head of government and the president's heir apparent.

Djibouti's people are deeply divided along ethnic and clan lines. The majority Issa and minority Afar peoples hold most political power. Legislative elections in 1997 returned the ruling party to power, thereby reinforcing the long dominance of the Mamassan clan of the majority Issa ethnic group.

Djibouti closed its border with the self-declared Republic of Somaliland in April because of a trade dispute over cigarettes. Relations initially soured between Somaliland and Djibouti when Djibouti hosted peace talks in 2000 that led to the installation of an interim government in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, which Somaliland opposes. By October 2001, Djibouti and Somaliland said they had resolved their differences and guaranteed the free movement of people, goods, and livestock across their common border.

Approximately 2,700 French troops are among 10,000 French residents of Djibouti. French advisors and technicians effectively run much of the country. Although this is slowly changing, President Guelleh favors retaining strong ties with France.

Djibouti has little industry, few natural resources, and high unemployment. Services provide most of the national income. Only one-tenth of the land is arable. Efforts to curb rampant corruption have met with little success, but efforts at privatization have received praise.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

The trappings of representative government and formal administration have had little relevance to the real distribution and exercise of power in Djibouti. The April 1999 presidential poll was marked by low turnout among the fewer than 200,000 eligible voters. Ismael Omar Guelleh won the poll with 74 percent of the vote, compared with 26 percent for Moussa Ahmed Idriss. For the first time since elections began in 1992, no group boycotted the vote. Although international observers declared the poll generally fair, the ruling party had the advantage of state resources to conduct its campaign.

The 1997 legislative elections were marginally more credible than the plainly fraudulent 1992 polls, but easily reinstalled the ruling Popular Rally for Progress (RPP) party, which, in coalition with the legalized arm of the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD) at the time, won all 65 national assembly seats. FRUD leaders joined the cabinet as part of the 1994 peace pact.

The judiciary is not independent. The government in 2000 promulgated a new law on judicial organization, which included the establishment of a national committee for the promotion and protection of human rights and provided for the separation of the court system from the ministry of justice.

Security forces arrest dissidents without proper authority, despite constitutional requirements that arrests may not occur without a decree presented by a judicial magistrate. Prison conditions are harsh, with reports of beatings, torture, and rape of female inmates. There are complaints of harassment of political opponents and union leaders. The Djiboutian Human Rights League, women's groups, and other nongovernmental organizations operate without hindrance.

Freedom of assembly and association is nominally protected under the constitution, but the government has little tolerance for political protest. Despite constitutional protection, freedom of speech is not guaranteed. The government closely controls all electronic media. There is one official newspaper. Independent newspapers, most of which are in the form of newsletters, are generally allowed to circulate freely, but journalists exercise self-censorship.

Islam is the official state religion, but freedom of worship is respected, although the government discourages proselytizing. There was growing concern in 2001 about Djibouti's treatment of immigrants, who have been flooding the capital because of drought in the Horn region. Citing security concerns, authorities in December 2000 detained about 5,000 illegal immigrants and deported many of them.

Despite equality under civil law, women suffer serious discrimination under customary practices in inheritance and other property matters, divorce, and the right to travel. Women have few opportunities for education or in the formal economic sector. Female genital mutilation is almost universal among Djibouti's women, and legislation forbidding mutilation of young girls is not enforced. Women's groups are making efforts to curb the practice.

The formal sector in the largely rural agricultural and nomadic subsistence economy is small. Workers may join unions and strike, but the government routinely obstructs the free operation of unions. The General Union of Djiboutian Workers and the Union of Djiboutian Workers formed a confederation in 1995 and were gaining increasing support until the government took control of them in 1999.