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The authorities in 2007 closed the country’s only private newspaper after it ran an article accusing the president’s brother-in-law of accepting a bribe. The closure came less than a year before legislative elections, which were scheduled for early 2008.
Djibouti, formerly the French Territory of the Afars and Issas, gained independence in 1977. Its 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 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.
President Hassan Gouled Aptidon controlled a one-party system until 1992, when a new constitution authorized four political parties. In 1993, Gouled won a fourth six-year term in Djibouti’s first contested presidential election, which was considered fraudulent by both the opposition and international observers. 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. The RPP’s Ismael Omar Guelleh—Gouled’s nephew and a former head of state security—won the presidential poll with 74 percent of the vote, while his leading opponent received 26 percent. For the first time since elections began in 1992, no group boycotted the vote, which was regarded as generally fair. In 2001, a comprehensive peace accord aimed at ending the decade-long ethnic Afar insurgency was signed. In 2003 parliamentary elections, a bloc of four parties under the umbrella Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP) ran against the four-party opposition bloc, Union for a Democratic Alternative (UAD). The ruling UMP captured all 65 seats despite the UAD receiving 37 percent of the vote.
In April 2005, Guelleh won a second six-year term. The only challenger withdrew from the election, citing 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.
As president, Guelleh has used Djibouti’s strategic importance to generate international support and development assistance. The country has granted foreign armed forces, particularly those of the United States, access to its port and airport facilities. Since 2004, approximately 2,000 U.S. military personnel have been stationed in Djibouti, alongside a similar number of French troops. Guelleh has endorsed 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.
Djibouti’s only private newspaper was closed by the authorities in 2007 in the wake of a libel suit involving the president’s brother-in-law. The move came less than a year before legislative elections, which were scheduled to take place in early 2008. Also in 2007, former president Gouled died at age 90.
Djibouti has virtually no industry and few natural resources, and the UN Population Fund has reported that more than 40 percent of its residents live below the national poverty line. The country is heavily dependent on foreign assistance to support its balance of payments and to finance development projects. 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. Two-thirds of the inhabitants live in the capital city, most of the remainder being nomadic herders. Scant rainfall limits crop production, and most food must be imported.
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 elected president serves six-year terms, and the 65 members of the unicameral parliament, the National Assembly, are directly elected for five-year terms. In the 2003 legislative elections, opposition parties were significantly disadvantaged by electoral rules and the government’s abuse of the administrative apparatus. In addition, although the ruling UMP coalition won just 62 percent of the vote, it captured all the seats in parliament because the election law stipulates that the majority victor in each of the country’s five electoral constituencies is awarded all seats in that district. While the opposition UAD alleged widespread voter fraud, its case was rejected by the Constitutional Council.
Political parties are required to register with the government. 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’s 2007 Index of Economic Freedom, the economy has been hampered by excessive government interference, a relative lack of property rights, and high levels of corruption. For example, the Center for Public Integrity, citing a recent unpublished report by the Djiboutian Court of Auditors, notes widespread concern about the use of port revenues that are not reported in the official budget. Djibouti was ranked 105 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Despite constitutionally mandated protections, freedom of speech is not upheld in practice. The government owns the principal newspaper, La Nation, as well as Radiodiffusion-Television de Djibouti (RTD), which operates the national radio and television stations. Journalists generally avoid covering sensitive issues, including human rights, the army, the FRUD, relations with Ethiopia, and French financial aid. The opposition-oriented Le Renouveau newspaper was closed by the authorities in May 2007 on grounds of libel, due to an article stating that a businessman had paid a bribe to the national bank governor, President Ismael Omar Guelleh’s brother-in-law. The move reportedly made Djibouti one of three African countries, along with Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea, that lacked private newspapers. FM radio relays of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Radio France Internationale are available in Djibouti. 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, educational choices are limited and the government only authorized the establishment of a university in 2006.
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. In March 2007, the chairman of the Djibouti League of Human Rights was found guilty of “defamation and spread of false information” and sentenced to six months in prison. 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. Two Djibouti Trade Union officials were arrested in March 2006 after they returned from training in Israel, and were accused of engaging in “secret contacts with a foreign power” and perpetrating an “affront to the President of the Republic.” An international labor union delegation subsequently sent to investigate the situation was expelled.
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 are not independent of the government. 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. Security forces at times have physically abused prisoners and detainees. Prison conditions remain harsh, and overcrowding is a serious problem. No action has been taken against security personnel who used excessive force to disperse demonstrations in previous years.
The Afar people, Yemeni Arabs, and non-Issa Somalis suffer from social and economic discrimination. In 2002, a “Family Law” took effect, designed to protect women’s and children’s rights. 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. Women continue to 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.