Djibouti | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2007

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In 2006, Djibouti continued to benefit from its strategic location at the mouth of the Red Sea and strong support for U.S.-led antiterrorism efforts. However, an ongoing drought in eastern Africa seriously affected Djibouti’s pastoral population. Poverty is widespread, with more than 40 percent of the population, estimated at 800,000, living below the national poverty line, according to the UN Population Fund.

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 traditionally falling into opposing political camps. The Issa make up about 60 percent of the population and the Afar about 35 percent. Ethnic 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 won a fourth six-year term in Djibouti’s first contested presidential election. Both the opposition and international observers considered the poll fraudulent. In the 1997 legislative elections, which were also considered unfair, the ruling 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 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 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 and the radical wing of the FRUD followed up a peace agreement they had signed in 2000 with a more extensive accord. Like the previous agreement, it was aimed at putting an end to the ethnic Afar insurgency that began a decade earlier. In the 2003 parliamentary elections, a progovernment 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 receiving 37 percent of the vote. Voter turnout was a low 48 percent.

In April 2005, Guelleh won reelection and a second six-year term. The only challenger had withdrawn, 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 opposition supporters were arrested. Meanwhile, in 2006 the government maintained its effective control over the country’s media. Regional and municipal elections in March were characterized by a very high rate of abstention.

As president, Guelleh has used Djibouti’s strategic importance to generate international support and development assistance. Djibouti has allowed foreign armed forces, particularly those of the United States, access to its port and airport facilities. Since 2004, approximately 2,000 U.S. Army and Special Forces troops have been stationed in Djibouti to assist U.S. antiterrorism operations in the region. A similar number of French troops have also been stationed there. Guelleh has stood out from other Arab League leaders by endorsing actions taken by the United States and its allies to combat terrorism. In March 2006, the United States and Djibouti renewed their agreement on U.S. use of military facilities in the country—the only such arrangement in sub-Saharan Africa.

Although its strategic location at the mouth of the Red Sea has long proved to be an important asset, Djibouti has virtually no industry and few natural resources. The country is heavily dependent on foreign assistance to support its balance of payments and to finance development projects. An unemployment rate of approximately 50 percent continues to be a major problem; the estimated number of Djiboutians living in extreme poverty is also about 50 percent. The port and transport sector accounts for one-third of gross domestic product (GDP). Ethiopia is an important economic partner, with links to approximately 85 percent of the goods moving through the port of Djibouti. However, the continuing conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea and continued instability in Somalia have disturbed normal external channels of commerce.

Two-thirds of the inhabitants live in the capital city, the remainder being mostly nomadic herders. Scant rainfall limits crop production to fruits and vegetables, and most food must be imported. The country experienced its fourth consecutive year of drought conditions in 2006, with 150,000 people at risk of starvation. In August, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network of the U.S. Agency for International Development issued a warning for Djibouti.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Djibouti is not an electoral democracy. The trappings of representative government and electoral processes have little relevance to the real distribution and exercise of power. The ruling party has traditionally used the advantage of state resources to maintain itself in power.

The unicameral Parliament, the National Assembly, has 65 members directly elected for a five-year term. In the 2003 legislative elections, opposition parties were significantly disadvantaged by electoral rules and by the government’s abuse of the tools of incumbency, including the administrative apparatus. In addition, although the ruling UMP 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 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 highest authority on constitutional law. The 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 and other party activities so as to avoid 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 2006 Index of Economic Freedom, the government has dragged its feet on implementing reforms under the International Monetary Fund program, which included a new investment code, tax and banking changes, and fiscal transparency measures. The leadership also remains reluctant to streamline the bloated civil service. Djibouti was not ranked in Transparency International’s 2006 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 broadcasters. Journalists generally avoid covering sensitive issues, including human rights, the army, the FRUD, relations with Ethiopia, and French financial aid. The editor in chief of the newspaper Le Renouveau has frequently been jailed by the authorities. FM relays of the BBC and Radio France Internationale are on the air in Djibouti. A local FM relay carries Voice of America broadcasts to East Africa and the Arabian peninsula. 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.

Freedoms of assembly and association are nominally protected under the constitution, but the government has demonstrated little tolerance for political protests. The Ministry of the Interior requires permits for peaceful assembly and monitors opposition activities. Political candidates and union leaders have complained of harassment by the authorities. Local human rights groups do not operate freely. However, women’s groups and some other nongovernmental organizations are able to work without much interference.

Workers may join unions and strike, but the government routinely obstructs the free operation of unions and has in the past reorganized labor unions. In late 2005, at least one member of the truck drivers’ union was killed and several others were seriously injured by police during a demonstration. Two Djibouti Trade Union officials were arrested in March 2006 on the day after they returned from Israel, where they had been attending a training course run by that country’s Histradut labor federation. The officials were accused of engaging in “secret contacts with a foreign power” and perpetrating an “affront to the President of the Republic.” In April, an international labor union delegation sent to investigate the situation was expelled from Djibouti. The judicial system, which includes lower courts, an appeals court, and a Supreme Court, is based on the French civil 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 Constitutional Council is charged with ensuring the constitutionality of laws and protecting the individual, but in practice its rulings do not always uphold civil and human rights. Security forces often arrest Djiboutians without a proper decree from a judicial magistrate, in violation of constitutional requirements.

The authorities in 2006 continued to harass individuals, detain them arbitrarily, and intimidate members of groups that were viewed as opposed to the government. Security forces at times have beaten and physically abused prisoners and detainees. Prison conditions remained harsh, and overcrowding was a serious problem, with reports of beatings and torture. No action was taken against security personnel who used excessive force to disperse demonstrations in previous years.

The majority Somali Issas have long controlled the military, civil and security services, as well as the ruling party. The Afari people, Yemeni Arabs and non-Issa Somalis suffer from social and economic discrimination.

Although women in Djibouti enjoy a higher public status than in many other Muslim countries, progress on women’s rights and family planning has been hampered by a number of obstacles, many of them 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, job 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.