Djibouti | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

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President Ismael Omar Guelleh announced in September 2002 that Djibouti was to have a full multiparty system as opposed to a four-party system. A pro-government bloc of four parties under the umbrella Presidential Majority Union (UMP) was to run against an opposition bloc of four parties under the umbrella Union for Democratic Alternative (UAD). The vote was scheduled for January 2003. The country's political opposition is divided and was unable to make a showing in previous elections that were controlled by the government. Guelleh's pledge to further consolidate the country's democratic institutions came at a time of increasing American interest in Djibouti, which is strategically located on the Red Sea. Some 800 U.S. Army and Special Forces troops were stationed in Djibouti by November 2002, and an additional 400 troops were expected. They are there to set up regional headquarters to fight terrorism following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.

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, Aptidon was declared the winner of a fourth six-year term in Djibouti's first contested presidential elections. Both the opposition and international observers considered the poll fraudulent. Aptidon stepped down in 1999 after 22 years in power, opening the way for the country's first free presidential election since independence. 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 (Somali) and minority Afar peoples hold most political power. The government in 2001 followed up a peace agreement it had signed with the radical wing of the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD) in 2000 with a more extensive accord. It, like the previous agreement, was aimed at putting an end to the ethnic Afar insurgency that began in 1991. The largest FRUD faction agreed in 1994 to end its insurgency in exchange for inclusion in the government and electoral reforms.

Approximately 2,700 French troops are among 8,000 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 and few natural resources. Services provide most of the national income. Efforts to curb rampant corruption have met with little success.

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. Ismael Omar Guelleh, of the ruling Popular Rally for Progress (RPP) party, won the 1999 presidential poll with 74 percent of the vote, compared with 26 percent for Moussa Ahmed Idriss, of the Unified Djiboutian Opposition (ODU). 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 were also considered unfair. The RPP, which, in coalition with the legalized arm of the FRUD at the time, won all 65 National Assembly seats.

The judiciary is not independent. Sharia (Islamic law) prevails in family matters. The former chief of police, General Yacin Yabel Galab, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2002 on charges related to an attempted coup in December 2000. Eleven other police, including eight senior officers, received sentences ranging from 3 to 10 years. Galab was chief of police from independence until his dismissal just prior to the coup attempt.

Security forces arrest Djiboutians 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 the rape of female inmates. There are complaints of harassment of political opponents and union leaders. Local human rights groups do not operate freely. However, 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. Djibouti and the United States in 2002 agreed to set up radio relay stations in Djibouti to broadcast Arabic radio programs of the Voice of America.

Islam is the official state religion, but freedom of worship is respected, although the government discourages proselytizing.

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

The economy is largely a rural agricultural one, and the nomadic subsistence economy is small. Workers may join unions and strike, but the government routinely obstructs the free operation of unions.