Djibouti is a republic ruled by a powerful president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, who has been in office since 1999 and is not subject to term limits. While Djibouti technically has a multiparty political system, the ruling Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP) uses authoritarian means to maintain its dominant position. The opposition’s ability to operate is severely constrained, and journalists and activists who air criticism of Guelleh or the UMP are regularly harassed or arrested.
Key Developments in 2018:
- Legislative elections were held in February, but most of the opposition boycotted due to the ruling party’s refusal to implement a 2014 political agreement, and the party won 57 of 65 seats in the National Assembly.
- Security forces in May violently dispersed a demonstration in Tadjourah as jobless youth protested nepotism and discrimination in hiring, particularly at Djibouti’s ports. Dozens of people were detained, and six were charged with “threatening public order.”
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 7 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 2 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4
The president, who holds most executive power in Djibouti, serves five-year terms under current rules. President Guelleh was elected to a fourth term in 2016, having been credited with 87 percent of the vote. The opposition fractured, with some groups boycotting the poll and others running competing candidates. The lead-up to the election was marked by restrictions on the media and the harassment or detention of opposition figures. Among other reported irregularities on election day, opposition parties complained that their monitors were turned away from polling sites.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 1 / 4
The 65 members of the unicameral legislature, the National Assembly, are directly elected for five-year terms. Constitutional changes in 2010 called for the creation of an upper house, the Senate, but steps to establish the new chamber have yet to be taken.
Citing the government’s failure to implement electoral reforms in keeping with a 2014 political agreement, most of the opposition boycotted legislative elections held in February 2018. The process was marked by irregularities, and the UMP increased its majority to 57 of 65 seats. The opposition Union for Democracy and Justice–Djiboutian Democratic Party (UDJ-PDD) won seven seats, and the Center of Unified Democrats (CDU) took one.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1 / 4
A core element of the 2014 political agreement—meant to end the opposition’s boycott of the legislature following deeply flawed elections in 2013—was a pledge to reform the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI), which the opposition has accused of bias. No such reforms took place before the 2016 presidential election or the 2018 legislative elections. Other provisions of the electoral framework give an advantage to the dominant party, for example by awarding at least 80 percent of the seats in each multimember parliamentary district to the party that wins a majority in that district.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 3 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 1 / 4
While Djibouti technically has a multiparty political system, parties must register with the government to operate legally, and the authorities have denied recognition to some opposition parties, including the Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development (MRD). The Republican Alliance for Development (ARD) reportedly lost its recognition after a leadership shuffle in August 2018.
Opposition party activities are subject to interference by security forces. In March 2018, for example, police raided the headquarters of the unrecognized Rally for Democratic Action and Ecological Development (RADDE), confiscated equipment, and arrested one person as the party was preparing nonviolent demonstrations. Several other arrests of opposition figures were reported in October.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0 / 4
President Guelleh has been in power since 1999, when he succeeded his uncle, the only other president since independence in 1977. The 2013 elections marked the first time that the opposition had won any seats in the National Assembly. Opposition parties have traditionally been disadvantaged by Djibouti’s first-past-the-post electoral system, controls on the media, abuse of state resources to favor incumbents, and regular arrests and harassment of opposition leaders and supporters.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 1 / 4
The ruling party dominates the state apparatus and uses security forces and other administrative resources to marginalize, disrupt, and suppress independent political activity.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1 / 4
Minority groups, including the Afar, Yemeni Arabs, and non-Issa Somalis, are represented at all levels of the government, but the president’s majority Issa group holds paramount positions in the ruling party, the civil service, and the security forces. In practice, the authoritarian political system restricts the ability of ethnic and religious minorities to organize independently and advance their interests.
Women’s ability to engage in independent political activism is also constrained, and they are underrepresented in leadership positions, partly due to societal discrimination. In the 2018 elections, women won 15 seats in the National Assembly, though that still fell short of the country’s new 25 percent quota for women in the legislature. The president’s cabinet includes one woman.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 2 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0 / 4
The president, who is not freely elected, effectively controls policymaking and governance, and the UMP-dominated parliament does not serve as a meaningful check on executive power.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4
Corruption is a serious problem, and efforts to curb malfeasance in public agencies have met with little success. State bodies tasked with combating corruption lack the resources and independence to function effectively. Prosecutions of senior officials are rare.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4
The government has made legislation publicly available and created some mechanisms for citizens to request information, but there is no law establishing the right to access government information. Policymaking, public administration, and contracting remain largely nontransparent. Rules on asset disclosure by public officials are poorly enforced.
There is little transparency regarding Guelleh’s personal deal-making with countries like China, through which they are authorized to provide loans, build infrastructure, or operate special economic zones. His decisions have resulted in a massive amount of public debt—China alone is owed the equivalent of more than 80 percent of Djibouti’s gross domestic product—and spread discontent among local communities that were not consulted on the location or terms of foreign investment projects.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 19 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 6 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 1 / 4
Despite constitutional protections, freedom of speech is not upheld in practice, and journalists engage in self-censorship to avoid professional or legal repercussions for critical reporting. A 1992 communications law establishes defamation and distribution of false information as criminal offenses, while also imposing restrictive requirements on senior employees of media outlets. The government owns the dominant newspaper, television station, and radio broadcaster.
While the government typically places few restrictions on the internet, some outlets have faced interference and harassment. The websites of the opposition radio station La Voix de Djibouti, run by exiles in Europe, and the Association for Respect for Human Rights in Djibouti (ARDHD) are sometimes blocked by the state-owned internet service provider.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 1 / 4
Islam is the state religion, and 94 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs oversees religious matters; a 2013 law and 2014 implementing decree gave it authority over mosques, which were converted into government property, and imams, who became civil service employees. While the government has claimed that this supervision is meant to counter foreign influence, it has also been used to curb dissent. Security services have questioned imams who give sermons on political or social justice themes, and some have been jailed.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 2 / 4
Academic freedom is not always respected. Teachers and other education staff have at times been dismissed for alleged affiliation with opposition groups and trade unions in recent years. The state oversees the curriculum of the secular public school system and those of the country’s Islamic schools.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 2 / 4
Open discussion of sensitive political issues is impeded by restrictive laws on defamation and other speech-related offenses. The government reportedly monitors social media for critical content and conducts surveillance on perceived opponents.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 3 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 0 / 4
Freedom of assembly, while nominally protected under the constitution, is not respected in practice. Permits are required for public assemblies. In May 2018, jobless young people in Tadjourah mounted a demonstration to express frustration with discrimination and nepotism in hiring. Police used violence to disperse them, wounding several and arresting dozens; the wounded reported being afraid to seek formal medical care for fear of arrest. Six protesters were charged with “threatening public order” and placed in pretrial detention. Activists alleged that security forces employed gas grenades and live ammunition and cut telecommunications services to the protest area. A subsequent protest over aid delivery in a district of the capital was similarly broken up by police, who arrested several dozen protesters.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 1 / 4
Local human rights groups that work on politically sensitive matters cannot operate freely and are often the target of government harassment and intimidation. In April 2018, human rights defender Kadar Abdi Ibrahim, who is also the secretary general of the unrecognized opposition Movement for Development and Liberty (MoDEL), was arbitrarily detained and had his passport confiscated and his home searched upon return from UN-related human rights activities abroad. Some organizations that focus on social and economic development, including women’s rights groups, are tolerated or supported by the government.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4
Though workers may legally join unions and strike, the government has been known to intimidate labor leaders and obstruct union activities. The Labor Ministry has broad discretion over union registration, allowing it to support progovernment unions and deny recognition to independent labor groups. The country’s designated economic free zones (EFZs) operate under separate rules that provide fewer rights to workers, according to the US State Department.
F. RULE OF LAW: 4 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 0 / 4
The courts are not independent of the government and reportedly suffer from corruption. Supreme Court judges are appointed by the president, with the advice of a judicial council dominated by presidential and UMP nominees. The president and parliamentary majority also control appointments to the Constitutional Council.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2 / 4
Security forces frequently make arrests without the required court approval, and lengthy pretrial detention is a problem, with detainees often waiting years to go to trial. Allegations of politically motivated prosecutions are common, and opposition groups consistently accuse the government of sanctioning arbitrary arrests and detentions.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 1 / 4
Security forces regularly engage in physical abuse and torture during arrest and detention.
Occasional clashes between the rebel group Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD-Armé) and Djiboutian security forces occur on the country’s periphery. The rebels released two hostages in February 2018. In September, Djibouti and Eritrea, which has been accused of supporting FRUD-Armé, agreed to normalize relations and ask the United Nations to mediate a border dispute.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4
Though the law provides for equal treatment of all Djiboutian citizens, minority ethnic groups and clans suffer from discrimination that contributes to their social and economic marginalization. Women have fewer employment opportunities and are paid less than men for the same work. An estimated 60 percent of girls now receive primary education following efforts to increase female enrollment in schools; the figure for boys is more than 67 percent. While the law requires at least 20 percent of upper-level public service positions to be held by women, this rule has not been enforced.
Same-sex sexual activity is not specifically banned, but such conduct has been penalized under broader morality laws, and there are no laws in place to prevent discrimination against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. Matters of sexual orientation and gender identity are generally not discussed publicly.
Djibouti hosted more than 27,000 refugees in 2018, mostly from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Yemen. However, slow processing of asylum claims leaves many asylum seekers at risk of deportation. A law signed in 2017 provides for refugees’ access to health care, employment, and education; registered refugees are able to work without a permit.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 6 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2 / 4
Due to counterinsurgency operations related to FRUD-Armé, civilian movement in Djibouti’s militarized border areas is restricted.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4
Private property protections are weak, according to the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom, and court proceedings on business and property matters are “time-consuming, prone to corruption, and politically manipulated.”
Customary practices and personal status rules based on Sharia (Islamic law) place women at a disadvantage regarding inheritance and property ownership.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1 / 4
The law prohibits female genital mutilation, but most women and girls in the country have undergone the procedure. Domestic violence is rarely reported and prosecuted, and spousal rape is not specifically criminalized. The Sharia-based family code requires women to obtain a guardian’s consent to marry, among other discriminatory provisions surrounding marriage and divorce.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4
There are limited employment prospects in the formal sector, as the president and the ruling party tightly control all large-scale economic activity, including that surrounding lucrative military bases leased by foreign powers. Efforts like the Chinese-built Djibouti International Free Trade Zone, which was launched in July 2018 and will be home to businesses from more than 20 countries, are heralded as employment opportunities, but workers in the special economic zones remain vulnerable to exploitation.
A new law on human trafficking was adopted in 2016, prescribing strong penalties for trafficking offenses and providing for victim-assistance programs. The government has made some progress in enforcing the law, according to the US State Department, but it continued to fall short in 2018 on matters such as identifying and assisting victims.