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Djibouti’s president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, has continued to stifle political rights and civil liberties since his reelection in April 2011. In 2012, the government suppressed freedom of expression, including through regular arrests of independent journalists and union workers. The death of Djiboutian League of Human Rights chairman Jean-Paul Noël Abdi, the country’s leading rights activist, was a significant loss for the advocacy community.
Djibouti gained independence from France in 1977. Its people are divided along ethnic and clan lines, with the majority Issa (Somali) and minority Afar peoples traditionally falling into opposing political camps. An Afar rebel group, the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD), launched a guerrilla war against Issa domination in 1991. 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.
Gouled stepped down in 1999, but his nephew, Ismail Omar Guelleh, won the 1999 presidential poll with 74 percent of the vote. It was regarded as Djibouti’s first fair election since independence. In 2001, a peace accord was signed with the remaining Afar rebel groups. A four-party coalition, the Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP), ran against a four-party opposition bloc, the Union for a Democratic Alternative (UAD), in the 2003 parliamentary elections, and won all 65 seats.
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. Legislative elections in 2008 were also boycotted by the main opposition parties.
Unresolved grievances among the Afar led to a revival of the FRUD insurgency, with sporadic violence in 2010. In April 2010, Guelleh, a member of the Issa majority, pressured the parliament into passing a constitutional amendment that overturned the two-term limit for presidents; the change cleared the way for him to run for a third term in 2011.
In early 2011, a series of protests by university students against failures in the education system quickly broadened into antigovernment demonstrations. In the largest rally, several thousand people gathered outside Djibouti’s national stadium to protest Guelleh’s decision to stand for another term. At least two people were killed and another 100 were arrested, including the leaders of three political parties.
The 2011 presidential election campaign was marred by the harassment of opposition leaders and a clampdown on public gatherings. Soon after the ban on demonstrations, Democracy International, a U.S.-funded international electoral observation organization, was expelled from the country. Opposition parties argued that the restrictions made it impossible to fairly contest the election and chose not to select candidates for the presidential race. As a result, Guelleh faced only one challenger in the April election, independent candidate Mohammed Warsama, and won with 81 percent of the vote. An African Union observer mission declared the election process peaceful, fair, and transparent.
Guelleh has used Djibouti’s strategic location on the Gulf of Aden to generate millions of dollars in state revenue by renting military bases to his allies. Since 2001, Djibouti has been home to large U.S. and French bases, and Japan opened a naval facility in 2011.
Although food insecurity in some regions of the country remains at crisis levels following a severe drought in 2011, conditions began to stabilize in July 2012. In February 2012, the International Monetary Fund agreed to loan Djibouti $14 million to help counter the effects of the drought. However, certain regions of the country remained in a food crisis during the year due to ongoing rainfall deficits.
Djibouti is not an electoral democracy. The ruling UMP coalition party has effectively usurped the state. The constitutional amendment passed by the parliament in 2010, in addition to removing the two-term limit for presidents, reduced presidential terms from six years to five, and specified that candidates must be between the ages of 40 and 75. The changes allowed President Ismail Omar Guelleh to stand for a third term in 2011.
The 65 members of the unicameral parliament, the National Assembly, are directly elected for five-year terms. The 2010 constitutional changes provide for the formation of a bicameral parliament comprising the existing National Assembly and a newly created senate, though steps to establish one have yet to be taken. Opposition parties are disadvantaged by the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system, as well as the government’s abuse of the administrative apparatus. In the last legislative elections contested by the opposition, in 2003, the UMP won 62 percent of the vote but captured all the seats in the National Assembly, 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.
Political parties are required to register with the government. In 2008, Guelleh issued a decree that dissolved the opposition Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development party, whose leader had reportedly voiced support for that year’s Eritrean military incursion.
Efforts to curb corruption have met with little success. Government corruption is a serious problem and public officials are not required to disclose their assets.
Despite constitutional protections, freedom of speech is not upheld in practice. There are no privately owned or independent media, though political parties are allowed to publish a journal or newspaper. The government dominates the domestic media sector and monopolized the airwaves during the 2011 election. The government owns the principal newspaper, La Nation, as well as Radio-Television Djibouti, which operates the national radio and television stations. Strict libel laws lead journalists to practice self-censorship. While the government places few restrictions on internet access, opposition internet radio station and critical news website La Voix de Djibouti, run by Djiboutian exiles in Europe, is regularly blocked. In February 2012, La Voix de Djibouti journalist Farah Abadid Hildid was detained for 24 hours and was reported to have been subjected to physical and psychological torture. Hildid had been arrested and held twice in 2011 after participating in antigovernment protests. Another La Voix de Djibouti journalist, Houssein Ahmed Farah, was arrested in August 2012 and charged with forgery and evasion of judicial supervision. Farah was conditionally released in November after being held for three months.
Islam is the state religion, and 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. Freedom of worship is respected. While academic freedom is generally upheld, higher educational opportunities are limited.
Freedoms of assembly and association are nominally protected under the constitution, but are not respected in practice. The interior minister placed a ban on public assembly during the during the 2011 election season. Local human rights groups do not operate freely. Djiboutian League of Human Rights chairman Jean-Paul Noël Abdi, the country’s leading human rights activist, died of natural causes in April 2012. Prior to his death, Abdi had been arrested several times, including at least three times since 2007.
Workers may join unions and strike. However, the government discourages truly independent unions and has been accused of meddling in their internal elections and harassing union representatives. There were at least 117 arrests of strikers seeking unpaid wages in 2011, including the arrest and detention of 62 dock workers for two weeks in January as well as arrests against nurses and 55 railroad workers in April.
The judicial system is based on the French civil code, though Sharia (Islamic law) prevails in family matters. The courts are not independent of the government. A lack of resources often delays legal proceedings. Security forces frequently make arrests without a proper decree from a judicial magistrate, in violation of constitutional requirements. Allegations of politically motivated prosecutions surfaced in 2010 following the conviction in absentia of Djiboutian businessman Abdourahman Boreh on charges of terrorism. Boreh, who received a 15-year sentence, had been planning to stand against Guelleh in 2011 but withdrew his bid after the demonstrations turned violent. Though in exile, he continues to publically condemn Guelleh’s administration; in October 2012, Boreh gave an interview to the BBC in which he accused the government of failing Djiboutians.
Following the arrests of more than 100 antigovernment protesters in February 2011, about 80 suspects were brought to court and charged with assault and demonstrating without a permit. According to Human Rights Watch, a judge dismissed 40 of these cases and was promptly removed by the justice minister. His replacement then proceeded to convict and imprison 25 defendants. Prison conditions are harsh, but have improved in recent years. The 2010 constitutional amendments abolished the death penalty.
Minority groups including the Afar people, Yemeni Arabs, and non-Issa Somalis suffer social and economic marginalization.
Women face discrimination under customary practices related to inheritance and other property matters, divorce, and the right to travel. The law prohibits female genital mutilation, but more than 90 percent of women are believed to have undergone the procedure. An estimated 50 percent of girls are now receiving primary education following efforts to increase female enrollment. While the law requires at least 20 percent of upper-level public service positions to be held by women, women still hold just close to 14 percent of legislative seats.