Le Grand Soir 22 February 2016
After 17 years in power, Ismail Omar Guelleh confirmed in early December 2015 his wish to run for a fourth presidential term. Re-elected with 100% of the votes in 2005 thanks to a lack of competitors and re-elected with 81% of the vote in 2011 when pitted against an opponent labelled a “dummy” by the opposition, Guelleh had sworn that he would not stand in 2016. But, just as in 2011, he was finally forced to “bend to the will of Djibouti by accepting to seek re-election” (sic).
Critics of Ismael Omar Guelleh have obviously not been touched by this “sacrifice”. The opposition coalition Union for National Salvation (USN) refuses instead to participate in the presidential election, saying that the framework agreement signed with the government in 2015 which included a reform of the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) has not been respected.
This framework agreement, which brought an end to two years of violent political crisis driven by the contested results of the legislative elections of 2013, was designed to convert the CENI into a joint body. Yet, reactivated in January 2015, CENI is still governed by a 2010 decree. Its members are chosen by the government, the Parliament, the judiciary and include representatives of the party and civil society. For Daher Ahmed Farah, spokesman for the USN, the matter is clear: “No CENI, no elections. These are people (CENI) loyal to the regime who’ve just been put under different hats. In fact, the CENI is just a form of security, a piece of junk which is there and serves as an alibi. That’s all.”
Ismail Omar Guelleh’s announcement comes at a time when there’s been an increase in repressive measures taken against the opposition in Djibouti. Last December, violent clashes with police left at least seven dead (including a six-year-old girl) and 73 wounded (fifty of which were police). The opposition says the violence erupted when police tried to disperse the crow during a traditional ceremony near the capital. If the Interior Minister says that armed people were among the crowd, USN assures in turn that that police beat up “19 civilians” and then fired live bullets and threw tear gas at the meeting organised by the USN in order to discuss the situation.
This was not, however, the government’s first abuse of power. On November 20th 2015, several journalists and activists were arrested at a rally organised by the USN, while two two people were killed during a peaceful gathering in 2011, just weeks before the Presidential election. The suppression of a demonstration during the legislative elections in 2013, however, claimed 8 victims and led to the arrest of 900 people by security forces.
In January, two journalists were arrested without reason or the charges made known to them. Reporters without Borders (RSF) denounced the violence the police inflicted on the reporters. One in particular was forced to sign a statement against his will and provide his Facebook details so that insulting images could be published against the opposition using his name. In a country where any form of political opposition, from either the people or the press, is muzzled, the case of these two journalists is not unique. Djibouti, I had already noted here before, was given 170th place in the 2015 ranking of 180 countries’ Press Freedom standards by RSF. The public press, compliant with the powers that be, is almost the only accepted media outlet. Private newspapers have all been closed one after the other and foreign press has enormous difficulty in gaining access.
But the government targets more than just the freedom of the press. The government has decided to do away with all freedom of thought and speech. Just like journalists and political opponents, all citizens know they can fall victim to a regime that does not hesitate to eliminate its opponents. The complicit silence from the international community encourages it. Indeed, Djibouti takes advantage of its geographically strategic position in the Horn of Africa, between the African continent and the Arabian Peninsula. It hosts several foreign military bases which are used in particular in the fight against terrorism and sea-piracy. Key partner to the west, it could yet sink into long-lasting violence and political instability on the back of continuing violations of human rights.