Politics

07
Apr
13:56 UTC

Djibouti Analysis: President Ismail Omar Guelleh to secure fifth term in April 9 presidential elections with limited opposition, extensive foreign support

Executive Summary

  • Djibouti will hold presidential elections on April 9, during which President Ismail Omar Guelleh is expected to secure a fifth term in office. His government has taken steps to undermine the political opposition and ensure they remain small, fragmented, and unable to mobilize.
  • Small opposition protests have recurred in Djibouti since January and may increase somewhat in the aftermath of the election, though this is not expected to escalate and will likely halt completely within weeks.
  • A coalition of opposition parties, a rebel group, and other NGOs and activists signed a “Charter for the Democratic Transition” in France as a plan for a future in which Guelleh is removed. The fact that it was written in exile and has no clear execution is a reflection of the irrelevance of much of the opposition to the situation on the ground.
  • The Somalia-based al-Shabaab called for attacks in Djibouti, though this is not likely to manifest as anything significant. The militants’ interest in Djibouti and the general political environment in the country remain enabled by the heavy foreign military presence in the country due to its strategic location on the Red Sea.
  • Those operating or residing in Djibouti in the coming days are advised to maintain vigilance and avoid the vicinity of gatherings due to tensions over the upcoming elections.

Please be advised

  • Djibouti will hold presidential elections on April 9, with a second round scheduled for April 23 if no candidate receives a majority of the vote.
  • President Ismail Omar Guelleh is seeking a fifth term. He will face Zakaria Ismael Farah of the Movement for the Development and Balance of the Djiboutian Nation (MDEND) party.
  • The main opposition parties, namely the Union for National Salvation (USN) and the Rally for Action, Democracy, and Ecological Development (RADDE), announced on February 1 that they intend to boycott the polls, citing alleged bias by the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) in favor of Guelleh.
  • The Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development (MRD) and the Republican Alliance for Democracy (ARD) have held more than a dozen small-scale protests in Djibouti city since Guelleh officially announced his candidacy in January.
  • On April 1, the ARD, two other parties, the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD), four NGOs, and a dozen activists formed a coalition and signed a “Charter for a Democratic Transition” in Nantes, France. In the announcement, they stated that the government would fall after the elections and thus require a transition plan to avoid violence.
  • On March 27, the Somalia-based jihadist group al-Shabaab released a 20-minute video entitled “A message to the people of Djibouti” in which the group’s leader Abu Ubaidah called upon local Muslims to strike against US and French interests in Djibouti.

Assessments & Forecast

  1. President Guelleh came to power in Djibouti’s first multiparty elections in 1999. After he was re-elected, he introduced a constitutional amendment to remove the two-term limit on the presidency. Although there was domestic resistance to these efforts, Guelleh has nonetheless consolidated his hold on the country’s institutions and, in the previous elections in 2016, secured 85 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. However, discontent after the 2016 polls led to violent opposition demonstrations during which security forces killed at least 27 protesters. Since then, the government has used legislative and judicial measures to undermine Guelleh’s political opponents, including arresting members and heavily regulating media freedom. This has left them fragmented and generally unable to mobilize supporters, reducing public pressure on Guelleh in general as well as even during election campaigns. To this end, the only opposition candidate in the April 9 polls is Zakaria Ismael Farah, who is known to be aligned with Guelleh.
  2. Nonetheless, Guelleh’s official announcement that he would be seeking a fifth term led the ARD and MRD parties to organize more than a dozen protests, mostly in Djibouti City. These were typically small gatherings, which likely reflects the fear and difficulty of anti-government mobilizations rather than indicating any real decline in anti-Guelleh sentiment. FORECAST: It is likely that there will be continued small-scale protests associated with the elections in the coming days, potentially ahead of the polls as well as in reaction to the outcome. Although Guelleh is certain to secure a victory, the ARD, MRD, and other opposition elements are expected to use this as another opportunity to allege bias and fraud. However, it is unlikely that the demonstrations will substantially increase in scale.

  1. The marginalization of the opposition is further evident by the announcement of the coalition on April 1, which was made in France rather than Djibouti. The inability to gather or announce such plans in the country is indicative of the restrictive political environment. The fact that their stated aims are not to participate in elections further illustrates the degree to which the elections are not a true competition. However, the coalition’s decision to push forward a “Charter for Democratic Transition” for a vague future in which Guelleh has been removed from office, without any clear mechanism by which he leaves power, further suggests that these opposition groups are not a substantive or relevant political force.
  2. This is the case despite the fact that the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD) rebel group is apparently involved in the coalition. FRUD claims to represent the interests of the Afar people, an ethnic minority that has lacked representation and support under Guelleh, an Issa Somali who has elevated his ethnic compatriots throughout his presidency. Although a large faction of FRUD signed a peace agreement with the government in the 1990s, a radical armed wing has maintained its opposition to the government, though is mostly inactive in recent years. FRUD notably launched a complex set of attacks on Tadjoura in January after weeks of government harassment of Afars and those perceived to be associated with the rebel group. A subsequent government crackdown appears to have forced them to retreat. FORECAST: While this attack suggests that FRUD does maintain some capabilities, they are most likely unable to escalate their activity and security incidents in Tadjoura will remain sporadic.
  3. Although the opposition has sought international support and attention to their plight, the Guelleh administration is enabled by Djibouti’s highly strategic location on the Bab al-Mandab Strait. This has led to a large presence of foreign military bases and personnel, which includes the US, Japan, Italy, China, and France, with the French base also hosting Spanish and German contingents. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are additionally heavily invested in the country and its infrastructure and thus wield their own economic influence. Djibouti’s importance to a wide variety of countries has meant that the international silence is relatively silent regarding events in the country and do not act to constrain the government’s behavior.
  4. Djibouti’s close relations with various foreign governments coupled with the upcoming elections likely prompted al-Shabaab to release a video on March 27 calling on people to conduct attacks in the country. There is little to indicate that the jihadist group is ideologically resonant in the country in a way that would inspire an attack, nor is it evidence that the militants are able to organize and execute an attack on the ground. FORECAST: This may have elevated local authorities’ state of alert, which translates to heightened security measures particularly in Djibouti City. This was expected regardless due to the elections, and there may be additional security forces in the vicinity of polling stations and other election-related facilities. More broadly, election day itself is likely to take place generally without incident. The days following the polls and particularly when the results are announced may see limited unrest.

Recommendations

  1. Those operating or residing in Djibouti in the coming days are advised to maintain vigilance and avoid the vicinity of gatherings due to tensions over the upcoming elections.
  2. Travel to Djibouti City may continue while adhering to standard security protocols regarding criminal activity.

Executive Summary

  • Djibouti will hold presidential elections on April 9, during which President Ismail Omar Guelleh is expected to secure a fifth term in office. His government has taken steps to undermine the political opposition and ensure they remain small, fragmented, and unable to mobilize.
  • Small opposition protests have recurred in Djibouti since January and may increase somewhat in the aftermath of the election, though this is not expected to escalate and will likely halt completely within weeks.
  • A coalition of opposition parties, a rebel group, and other NGOs and activists signed a “Charter for the Democratic Transition” in France as a plan for a future in which Guelleh is removed. The fact that it was written in exile and has no clear execution is a reflection of the irrelevance of much of the opposition to the situation on the ground.
  • The Somalia-based al-Shabaab called for attacks in Djibouti, though this is not likely to manifest as anything significant. The militants’ interest in Djibouti and the general political environment in the country remain enabled by the heavy foreign military presence in the country due to its strategic location on the Red Sea.
  • Those operating or residing in Djibouti in the coming days are advised to maintain vigilance and avoid the vicinity of gatherings due to tensions over the upcoming elections.

Please be advised

  • Djibouti will hold presidential elections on April 9, with a second round scheduled for April 23 if no candidate receives a majority of the vote.
  • President Ismail Omar Guelleh is seeking a fifth term. He will face Zakaria Ismael Farah of the Movement for the Development and Balance of the Djiboutian Nation (MDEND) party.
  • The main opposition parties, namely the Union for National Salvation (USN) and the Rally for Action, Democracy, and Ecological Development (RADDE), announced on February 1 that they intend to boycott the polls, citing alleged bias by the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) in favor of Guelleh.
  • The Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development (MRD) and the Republican Alliance for Democracy (ARD) have held more than a dozen small-scale protests in Djibouti city since Guelleh officially announced his candidacy in January.
  • On April 1, the ARD, two other parties, the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD), four NGOs, and a dozen activists formed a coalition and signed a “Charter for a Democratic Transition” in Nantes, France. In the announcement, they stated that the government would fall after the elections and thus require a transition plan to avoid violence.
  • On March 27, the Somalia-based jihadist group al-Shabaab released a 20-minute video entitled “A message to the people of Djibouti” in which the group’s leader Abu Ubaidah called upon local Muslims to strike against US and French interests in Djibouti.

Assessments & Forecast

  1. President Guelleh came to power in Djibouti’s first multiparty elections in 1999. After he was re-elected, he introduced a constitutional amendment to remove the two-term limit on the presidency. Although there was domestic resistance to these efforts, Guelleh has nonetheless consolidated his hold on the country’s institutions and, in the previous elections in 2016, secured 85 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. However, discontent after the 2016 polls led to violent opposition demonstrations during which security forces killed at least 27 protesters. Since then, the government has used legislative and judicial measures to undermine Guelleh’s political opponents, including arresting members and heavily regulating media freedom. This has left them fragmented and generally unable to mobilize supporters, reducing public pressure on Guelleh in general as well as even during election campaigns. To this end, the only opposition candidate in the April 9 polls is Zakaria Ismael Farah, who is known to be aligned with Guelleh.
  2. Nonetheless, Guelleh’s official announcement that he would be seeking a fifth term led the ARD and MRD parties to organize more than a dozen protests, mostly in Djibouti City. These were typically small gatherings, which likely reflects the fear and difficulty of anti-government mobilizations rather than indicating any real decline in anti-Guelleh sentiment. FORECAST: It is likely that there will be continued small-scale protests associated with the elections in the coming days, potentially ahead of the polls as well as in reaction to the outcome. Although Guelleh is certain to secure a victory, the ARD, MRD, and other opposition elements are expected to use this as another opportunity to allege bias and fraud. However, it is unlikely that the demonstrations will substantially increase in scale.

  1. The marginalization of the opposition is further evident by the announcement of the coalition on April 1, which was made in France rather than Djibouti. The inability to gather or announce such plans in the country is indicative of the restrictive political environment. The fact that their stated aims are not to participate in elections further illustrates the degree to which the elections are not a true competition. However, the coalition’s decision to push forward a “Charter for Democratic Transition” for a vague future in which Guelleh has been removed from office, without any clear mechanism by which he leaves power, further suggests that these opposition groups are not a substantive or relevant political force.
  2. This is the case despite the fact that the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD) rebel group is apparently involved in the coalition. FRUD claims to represent the interests of the Afar people, an ethnic minority that has lacked representation and support under Guelleh, an Issa Somali who has elevated his ethnic compatriots throughout his presidency. Although a large faction of FRUD signed a peace agreement with the government in the 1990s, a radical armed wing has maintained its opposition to the government, though is mostly inactive in recent years. FRUD notably launched a complex set of attacks on Tadjoura in January after weeks of government harassment of Afars and those perceived to be associated with the rebel group. A subsequent government crackdown appears to have forced them to retreat. FORECAST: While this attack suggests that FRUD does maintain some capabilities, they are most likely unable to escalate their activity and security incidents in Tadjoura will remain sporadic.
  3. Although the opposition has sought international support and attention to their plight, the Guelleh administration is enabled by Djibouti’s highly strategic location on the Bab al-Mandab Strait. This has led to a large presence of foreign military bases and personnel, which includes the US, Japan, Italy, China, and France, with the French base also hosting Spanish and German contingents. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are additionally heavily invested in the country and its infrastructure and thus wield their own economic influence. Djibouti’s importance to a wide variety of countries has meant that the international silence is relatively silent regarding events in the country and do not act to constrain the government’s behavior.
  4. Djibouti’s close relations with various foreign governments coupled with the upcoming elections likely prompted al-Shabaab to release a video on March 27 calling on people to conduct attacks in the country. There is little to indicate that the jihadist group is ideologically resonant in the country in a way that would inspire an attack, nor is it evidence that the militants are able to organize and execute an attack on the ground. FORECAST: This may have elevated local authorities’ state of alert, which translates to heightened security measures particularly in Djibouti City. This was expected regardless due to the elections, and there may be additional security forces in the vicinity of polling stations and other election-related facilities. More broadly, election day itself is likely to take place generally without incident. The days following the polls and particularly when the results are announced may see limited unrest.

Recommendations

  1. Those operating or residing in Djibouti in the coming days are advised to maintain vigilance and avoid the vicinity of gatherings due to tensions over the upcoming elections.
  2. Travel to Djibouti City may continue while adhering to standard security protocols regarding criminal activity.