Freedom in the World
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The government of President Ismail Omar Guelleh used Djibouti's strategic importance to generate both international support and development assistance in 2004. Djibouti has allowed foreign armed forces, particularly those of the United States, access to its port and airport facilities. President Guelleh has also taken a proactive position among Arab League members in support of actions taken by the U.S. and other countries to combat terrorism. The country's limited political opening continued, with presidential elections scheduled for 2005 but with little prospect for significant competition. Meanwhile, the government maintained its effective control over the country's media.
Djibouti was known as the French Territory of the Afar and Issa before gaining independence from France in 1977. Djibouti's people are deeply divided along ethnic and clan lines, with the majority Issa (Somali) and minority Afar peoples holding most political power. In 1991, Afar rebels of the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD) launched a three-year guerilla war against Issa domination. In 1994, the largest FRUD faction agreed to end its insurgency in exchange for inclusion in the government and electoral reforms. However, sporadic attacks by a radical wing of the group continued.
President Gouled controlled a one-party system until 1992, when a new constitution adopted by referendum authorized four political parties. In 1993, Gouled was declared the winner of a fourth 6-year term in Djibouti's first contested presidential elections. Both the opposition and international observers considered the poll fraudulent. In the 1997 legislative elections, which were also considered unfair, the Popular Rally for Progress (RPP), in coalition with the legalized arm of the FRUD at the time, won all 65 National Assembly seats.
Gouled stepped down in 1999 after 22 years in power, opening the way for the country's first change in presidential leadership. The RPP's Ismael Omar Guelleh won the presidential poll that year with 74 percent of the vote, while Moussa Ahmed Idriss, of the Unified Djiboutian Opposition (ODU), received 26 percent. Guelleh, who was Gouled's nephew and a former head of state security, had long been considered the de facto head of government and the president's probable successor. For the first time since elections began in 1992, no group boycotted the vote, which was regarded as generally fair.
In 2001, the government followed up a peace agreement it had signed with the radical wing of the FRUD in 2000 with a more extensive accord. Like the previous agreement, this one was aimed at putting an end to the ethnic Afar insurgency that began a decade earlier.
In the January 2003 parliamentary elections, a pro-government bloc of four parties under the umbrella Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP) ran against the opposition Union for Democratic Alternance (UAD) bloc of four parties. The ruling UMP captured all 65 seats despite the UAD's receiving 37 percent of the votes in a low voter turnout of 48 percent. In addition, although the coalition won 62 percent of the vote, the election law stipulates that the majority victor in each of the country's five electoral constituencies (in this election, the UMP) wins all seats in that district.
The polls came at a time of increasing U.S. interest in Djibouti, which is strategically located on the Red Sea. In 2004, some 2,000 U.S. Army and Special Forces troops were stationed in Djibouti in support of U.S. foreign policy objectives. These troops are especially focused on limiting terrorist activities in the region, as neighboring Somalia has particularly identified as an area of activity for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups. In addition, approximately 2,700 French troops are among 8,000 French residents.
Djibouti has little industry and few natural resources, although its strategic position has long proved to be an important asset. Services provide most of the national income.
Citizens of Djibouti cannot change their government democratically. The trappings of representative government and formal administration have had little relevance to the real distribution and exercise of power in Djibouti. Although international observers declared the 1999 presidential poll generally fair, the ruling party had the advantage of state resources to conduct its campaign. President Guelleh announced in September 2002 that Djibouti would have a full multiparty system, as opposed to a four-party system.
The unicameral parliament, the National Assembly, has 65 members directly elected for a five-year term. In the 2003 legislative election, opposition parties were significantly disadvantaged by electoral rules and by the government's use of the power of its incumbency, including its dominance over the government administrative apparatus. The opposition UAD subsequently alleged widespread voter fraud, but its case was rejected by the Constitutional Council. The country's political opposition has suffered from significant divisions and had previously been unable to achieve any successes in elections that were controlled by the government. Presidential elections are due in mid-2005.
Efforts to curb the country's rampant corruption have met with little success. Djibouti was not ranked by Transparency International in its 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Despite constitutional protection, freedom of speech is not guaranteed. The government owns the principal newspaper, La Nation, as well as Radiodiffusion-Television de Djibouti (RTD), which operates the national radio and TV. Journalists generally have to avoid covering sensitive issues, including human rights, the army, the FRUD, relations with Ethiopia, and French financial aid. In 2004, a journalist from Le Renouveau newspaper was arrested after police ordered him to stop his vehicle during a motorcade escorting the president's wife. Press watchdog groups, such as the International Federation of Journalists, condemned his detention. The journalist's brother, who is the editor-in-chief of Le Renouveau, has frequently been jailed by the authorities. Legal action aimed at closing the paper is currently underway in the Supreme Court. Djibouti has been identified by Reporters Sans Frontieres as a country in which freedom of speech is significantly limited. There is only limited Internet access.
Islam is the official state religion, but freedom of worship is respected, although the government discourages proselytizing. While academic freedom is generally respected, education choices are limited and Djibouti has no university.
Freedom of assembly and association are nominally protected under the constitution, but the government has demonstrated little tolerance for political protest. 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. Workers may join unions and strike, but the government routinely obstructs the free operation of unions and has in the past reorganized labor unions.
The judiciary is not independent. Sharia (Islamic law) prevails in family matters. Security forces arrest Djiboutians without proper authority, despite constitutional requirements that arrests may not occur without a decree presented by a judicial magistrate. 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. Prison conditions are harsh, with reports of beatings, torture, and the rape of female inmates.
The right to own property is respected. Djibouti is a major food importer, and more than 40 percent of its people lived in extreme poverty in 2002. The IMF noted a significant delay in adopting certain structural reforms, particularly a new labor code and an investment code, which were to have been adopted by mid-2004.
Although women in Djibouti enjoy a higher public status than in many other Islamic countries, women's rights and family planning face difficult challenges, many stemming from poverty. Few women hold senior government positions; a record number of seven women were elected to parliament in January 2003. Education of girls still lags behind that of boys, and because of the high unemployment rate, employment opportunities are better for male applicants. Despite equality under civil law, women suffer serious discrimination under customary practices in inheritance and other property matters, in divorce, and regarding the right to travel. Female genital mutilation is widespread, and legislation forbidding mutilation of young girls is not enforced; women's groups are engaged in efforts to curb the practice.