Freedom in the World
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President Ismail Omar Guelleh won uncontested reelection to a second six-year term in April 2005. Government claims that voter turnout totaled 78 percent were contested by opposition and independent analysts. Djibouti continued to benefit from its strategic geographic location and strong rhetorical support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism. A continuing drought in eastern Africa has seriously affected Djibouti's pastoral population, with many seeking refuge in the capital city.
Djibouti was known as the French Territory of the Afars and Issas 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 constituting a traditionally significant political cleavage. Of the two main groups, the Issa make up about 60 percent of the population and the Afar, about 35 percent. Ethnic-based civil conflict broke out in 1991, with Afar rebels of the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD) launching a three-year guerrilla 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 Hassan Gouled Aptidon 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 six-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 People's Progress Assembly (RPP), in coalition with the legalized arm of the FRUD at the time, won all 65 legislative 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 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 is 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 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 a Democratic Alternative (UAD) bloc of four parties. The ruling UMP captured all 65 seats despite the UAD's receiving 37 percent of the vote; voter turnout was a low 48 percent.
In April 2005, Guelleh won reelection to a second six-year term. The only challenger withdrew, citing an inability to campaign effectively as a result of government control of the media and repression of the opposition's activities. The country's human rights league called the official turnout of 79 percent "highly unlikely." According to The Indian Ocean Newsletter, a number of supporters of the opposition were arrested. Meanwhile, the government maintained its effective control over the country's media.
As president, Guelleh has used Djibouti's strategic importance to generate both international support and development assistance. Djibouti has allowed foreign armed forces, particularly those of the United States, access to its port and airport facilities. In 2004, some 2,000 U.S. Army and Special Forces troops were stationed in Djibouti in support of U.S. foreign policy objectives. In addition, approximately 2,700 French troops are among 8,000 French residents. Guelleh has also taken an active position among Arab League members in support of actions taken by the United States and other countries to combat terrorism.
Although its strategic position has long proved to be an important asset, Djibouti has virtually no industry and few natural resources. Services provide most of the national income. Two-thirds of the inhabitants live in the capital city, the remainder being mostly nomadic herders. Scanty rainfall limits crop production to fruits and vegetables, and most food must be imported. As the result of a drought following three failed rainy seasons, the food situation in rural areas was precarious in 2005, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The nation is heavily dependent on foreign assistance to help support its balance of payments and to finance development projects. An unemployment rate of 40 to 50 percent continues to be a major problem, and more than 40 percent of Djiboutians live in extreme poverty. Per capita consumption dropped an estimated 35 percent over the last seven years because of recession, civil war, and a high population growth rate (including immigrants and refugees). Also, renewed fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea has disturbed normal external channels of commerce.
Citizens of Djibouti cannot change their government democratically. The trappings of representative government and formal administration have little relevance to the real distribution and exercise of power. The ruling party has traditionally enjoyed the advantage of state resources to conduct its electoral campaigns.
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. In addition, although the coalition won just 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 ruling UMP) be awarded all seats in that district. While the opposition UAD alleged widespread voter fraud, 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.
Political parties are required to register with the government. The UAD coalition is composed of the Union of Justice and Democracy (UJD), the Republican Alliance for Democracy (ARD), and the Djibouti Development Party (PDD). Some opposition leaders engage in self-censorship and refrain from organizing popular demonstrations, rather than provoke a government crackdown. This reluctance explains, in part, the lack of competition in the 2005 presidential election.
Efforts to curb the country's rampant corruption have met with little success. According to the Heritage Foundation 2005 Index of Economic Freedom, the government remains reluctant to reduce the bloated civil service, increase transparency, and reduce corruption. Djibouti was not ranked in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Despite constitutionally mandated protections, 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 television. Journalists generally 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 editor in chief of Le Renouveau has frequently been jailed by the authorities. Djibouti has been identified by Reporters Without Borders as a country in which freedom of speech is significantly limited. FM relays of the BBC and Radio France Internationale are on the air in Djibouti. A local FM relay carries Voice of America broadcasts. There is only limited internet access.
Islam is the official state religion, and most of the population is Muslim. 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. The Ministry of the Interior requires permits for peaceful assembly and monitors opposition activities. There are complaints of harassment of political opponents and union leaders. Local human rights groups do not operate freely. However, women's groups and some other nongovernmental organizations operate relatively freely.
Workers may join unions and strike, but the government routinely obstructs the free operation of unions and has in the past reorganized labor unions. Collective bargaining did not occur in 2005. Relations between employers and workers were informal and paternalistic. In late 2004, the Internationsl Monetary Fund noted a delay in the promulgation of a new labor code.
The judiciary, which includes a lower court, an appeals courts, and a Supreme Court, is based on the French Napoleonic code, although Sharia (Islamic law) prevails in family matters. The courts cannot be considered independent of the government. The Supreme Court may overrule decisions of the lower courts, and magistrates are appointed for life terms. The rulings of a Constitutional Council do not always protect civil and human rights. Security forces arrest Djiboutians without proper authority, despite constitutional requirements that arrests may not occur without a decree presented by a judicial magistrate.
The government continued to harass people, detain persons arbitrarily, and intimidate members of groups that were viewed as opposed to the government. Security forces at times beat and physically abuse prisoners and detainees. Prison conditions remained harsh, and overcrowding was a serious problem with reports of beatings, torture, and the rape of female inmates. No action was taken against security forces that used excessive force to disperse demonstrations in previous years. Conditions at Nagad detention center, where foreigners were held prior to deportation, were also extremely harsh.
The majority Somali Issas have controlled the military, civil and security services, and the ruling party. The Afari people, Yemeni Arabs, and non-Issa Somali suffer from social and economic discrimination.
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.