On 10 April 2021, Djibouti’s electoral commission declared incumbent President Ismail Omar Guelleh the winner of the 9 April presidential election with 97.44% of the vote. Guelleh’s only challenger, the independent candidate and political novice Zakaria Ismail Farah, took 2.48% of votes. Guelleh’s path to victory was paved by the main opposition candidates boycotting the election in protest of his government’s oppressive policies towards opposition parties and a lack of transparency within the electoral commission itself. This boycott was largely adhered to by voters as only 215 000 of Djibouti’s estimated 580 000 eligible voters registered of which only 171 944 voted on 9 April. This marks a real voter turnout of around 29%. It is clear that the electorate did not view the election as legitimate and considered it a rubber-stamping process for Guelleh’s leadership.
The president has been in power since 1999 rising to the presidency as the hand-picked successor to his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who ruled Djibouti since the country’s independence in 1977. Guelleh and his family have maintained tight control of Djibouti for 44 years and are unlikely to face a legitimate challenge to their power in the foreseeable future.
This is due to the fact that Guelleh maintains tight control over nearly all levers of state, especially the security forces, judiciary, and electoral authorities. In addition, his political party, the People’s Rally for Progress/Rassemblement populaire pour le Progrès (RPP), dominates the country’s legislature. Even the media remains under heavy state control and influence. Indicative of this was the limited coverage the frequent demonstrations by opposition parties received in the build-up to the election.
The Rally for Action, Democracy and Ecological Development/Rassemblement pour l’action, la démocratie et le développement écologique (RADDE) staged almost weekly protests since January which were frequently disrupted by security forces leading to the arrest of dozens of its supporters. The country’s largest opposition coalition, the Union for National Salvation/ Union pour le Salut National (USN) also had its demonstrations repressed. This oppression of the opposition was unsurprising, as political repression is commonplace in Djibouti and opposition boycotts marked both the 2011 and 2016 presidential elections.
However, notably, the lead-up to the recent election was marked by two significant security developments. Firstly, on 14 January, militants attacked multiple targets in the country’s third-largest city, Tadjoura, killing one person. The militants, who are believed to belong to a breakaway faction of the Afar nationalist group, the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD), targeted a military camp, a police station, telecommunications towers, and the local gendarmerie headquarters. This is the most significant militant attack in Djibouti in several years and has raised concerns that the FRUD faction may be intending to resume its armed insurgency which was largely suspended following the end of the 1991 Djibouti Civil War.
The second development occurred in the form of a statement released by the Somalia-based militant group, al-Shabaab, threatening to stage attacks in Djibouti. This threat was motivated by the presence of foreign security force bases in Djibouti. Al-Shabaab has the ability to conduct attacks across the Horn of Africa but has not staged a notable attack in Djibouti since 2014 when the group bombed a restaurant in Djibouti City killing two people.
These increased militant threats will provide a face-value justification for the state to heighten security and increase its repression of the political opposition and crackdown on anti-government protests.
This increased securitisation and repression is unlikely to receive any international pushback or condemnation. This is partly because Djibouti has utilised its strategic geographical position to make itself an invaluable ally for the world’s most significant powers ‒ the United States (US), China, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Italy, and Spain. These countries use Djibouti as a base from which to operate anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden and have the ability to operate throughout North Africa, East Africa, and the Middle East.
The presence of so many powers, including geopolitical rivals such as the US and China, has left Djibouti largely immune to criticism. This was underscored by the bland statement released by the US State Department on 12 April and published by the US Embassy in Djibouti on 15 April, in which the US stated its desire to continue working with Guelleh’s government and vaguely called on the country to “strengthen its democratic institutions”. While this statement did not praise the election, it failed to acknowledge the lack of transparency or true democratic processes which define a US State Department response to any other flawed election in Africa.
As long as Djibouti remains the host for the security forces of multiple nations’ security forces, Guelleh is unlikely to face any real pressure to institute true democratic reforms. However, Guelleh is currently 73 and it is possible that this could be his last five-year presidential term. At present it is unclear who his chosen successor is; although, the next most senior RPP member is the party’s vice-president and Djibouti’s Prime Minister Abdoulkader, Kamil Mohamed, who is also married to Guelleh’s cousin. Should the line of succession not be secured in the coming years, the RPP could face a power struggle between Mohamed, Guelleh’s sons, and other powerful party figures. Such a power struggle would cause political instability in the country, and instability is the one thing the foreign military powers based in the country cannot afford. In that scenario, active diplomatic and economic pressure would be applied to ensure a smooth transition. However, this itself could be vulnerable to interference as the various powers manoeuvre to ensure their preferred successor assumes the presidency.