Djibouti | Freedom House

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Following clashes at the border in June 2008, Eritrean troops continued to occupy disputed territory in 2009, in defiance of a UN Security Council resolution. Also during the year, renewed violence by ethnic Afar rebels ended several years of relative calm, and drought and food insecurity remained significant hardships for much of the population.

Djibouti, formerly the French Territory of the Afars and Issas, gained independence in 1977. Its people are divided along ethnic and clan lines, with the Issa (Somali) and 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 international observers. In the 1997 legislative elections, which were also considered unfair, the ruling People’s Progress Assembly (RPP) won all 65 legislative seats.
Gouled stepped down in 1999, but his nephew, Ismael Omar Guelleh, won that year’s presidential poll with 74 percent of the vote. For the first time since elections began in 1992, no group boycotted the vote, and it was regarded as generally fair. In 2001, a comprehensive peace accord aimed at ending the decade-long Afar insurgency was signed. 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), in the 2003 parliamentary elections. The UMP captured all 65 seats.
Guelleh used Djibouti’s strategic location to generate international support and development assistance. Beginning in 2004, approximately 2,000 U.S. military personnel were stationed in the country, alongside a similar number of French troops.
In 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. The country’s human rights league called the official turnout figure of 79 percent “highly unlikely.”
Legislative elections took place in March 2008, but the main opposition parties did not participate, citing government abuses including the house arrest of opposition leaders and manipulation of the electoral process. In June of that year, an Eritrean military incursion along the disputed border resulted in the deaths of a number of Djiboutian soldiers. Eritrea ignored a UN Security Council resolution calling for a withdrawal, and the standoff continued through 2009.
Also in 2009, renewed clashes took place between government forces and elements of the FRUD, which accused the president of persecuting the Afar people and failing to hold transparent elections.
A severe drought affecting the entire Horn of Africa posed serious hardships for the majority of the population, more than 40 percent of which lives under the poverty line. Moreover, the country’s dependence on imported food meant that persistently high global food prices in 2009 had a profound impact on the poor. UNICEF warned that malnutrition was becoming a serious problem in and around the capital, home to two-thirds of the population.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Djibouti is not an electoral democracy. The formal structures of representative government and electoral processes have little relevance to the real distribution and exercise of power. The ruling party has traditionally used state resources to maintain itself in government.
The elected president serves a maximum of two six-year terms, and the 65 members of the unicameral parliament, the National Assembly, are directly elected for five-year terms. Opposition parties are disadvantaged by electoral rules and the government’s abuse of the administrative apparatus. In the 2003 legislative elections, the ruling UMP coalition won 62 percent of the vote. It captured all of the National Assembly seats, however, because the election law stipulates that the winner of the majority in each of the country’s five electoral constituencies is awarded all seats in that district. Opposition parties boycotted the 2005 presidential election and the 2008 parliamentary polls.
Political parties are required to register with the government. In 2008, President Ismael Omar Guelleh issued a decree that dissolved the opposition Movement for Democratic Renewal party, whose leader had reportedly voiced support for that year’s Eritrean military incursion.
Efforts to curb the country’s rampant corruption have met with little success. According to the Heritage Foundation’s 2009 Index of Economic Freedom, business activity is hampered by bureaucratic inefficiency, and the taking of bribes is commonplace. Djibouti was ranked 111 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Despite constitutionally mandated protections, freedom of speech is not upheld in practice. The domestic media sector is very limited. The government owns the principal newspaper, La Nation, as well as Radio-Television Djibouti (RTD), which operates the national radio and television stations. Strict laws governing libel and slander mean that journalists generally avoid covering sensitive issues, including human rights, the army, the FRUD, and relations with Ethiopia. The opposition-oriented Le Renouveau newspaper was permanently closed by the authorities in 2007 on grounds of libel, due to an article stating that a businessman had paid a bribe to the national bank governor, the president’s brother-in-law. Djibouti is one of the few countries in Africa without any independent newspapers. The international press is sold freely in Djibouti, and foreign radio broadcasts are available from the British Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America, and Radio France International, offering alternative sources of information to the public. The government places few restrictions on internet access, although the Association for Respect of Human Rights in Djibouti (ARDHD) claims that its site is regularly blocked.
Islam is the state religion, and 94 percent of the population is Muslim. Freedom of worship is respected. While academic freedom is generally upheld, higher educational opportunities are limited, with the government first authorizing 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 and criticism by civil society groups. The Interior Ministry requires permits for peaceful assemblies and monitors opposition activities. Police have dispersed several demonstrations, including protests against high food prices. Local human rights groups do not operate freely. In 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. In practice, however, the government discourages truly independent unions and has been accused of meddling in their internal elections and harassing union representatives.
The judicial system is based on the French civil code, although Sharia (Islamic law) prevails in family matters. The courts are not independent of the government. Corruption is a problem and led to the dismissal of two magistrates in 2007. A lack of resources often causes significant delays in legal proceedings. Security forces frequently make arrests without a proper decree from a judicial magistrate, in violation of constitutional requirements. Prison conditions remain harsh, with reports of detainees being physically abused, but there have been some improvements in recent years.
Minority groups including the Afar people, Yemeni Arabs, and non-Issa Somalis suffer social and economic discrimination.
Women continue to suffer serious discrimination under customary practices related to inheritance and other property matters, divorce, and the right to travel. Female genital mutilation is widespread, and legislation forbidding mutilation of young girls is not enforced. However, women’s groups working under the patronage of the first lady are engaged in efforts to curb the practice, and they have reportedly achieved some progress in the capital. A law requiring at least 10 percent of elected offices to be held by women has had a positive effect. The 2008 parliamentary elections resulted in a record nine female lawmakers, representing 14 percent of the legislature.