May 9, 2021

How Guelleh emerged as president of Djibouti, the fifth term

How Guelleh emerged as president of Djibouti, the fifth term

By Moses Nosike

Abel Abate Demissie, a Chatham House associate fellow of the Africa Programme and Expert Researcher, whose extensive experience and knowledge of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa Region can help your audiences to further understand the impact of the Djiboutians elections in the region, across the Continent and in the world.

Abel also worked as a political advisor for the British Embassy in Addis Ababa from 2015-2019, and as a senior researcher and latterly, programme head at the government-run think tank the Ethiopian Foreign Relations and Strategic Studies Institute between 2012-2015.

What were your expectations for the Djibouti elections and results? Have they been met now that the results are in?

Djibouti had its national election on 09 April, Ismail Omar Guelleh has been a veteran and president of the country since independence in 1977 and ran for a fifth term. He competed against a fragmented and extremely weakened opposition, with most of the opposition parties in Djibouti having boycotted the election, claiming not a levelled field and authoritarian tendency in the government side. All in all, it was no surprise that Guelleh and his party won the fifth term, as many had predicted. However at what cost to democracy?

With Djibouti being a country known for its strategic geographical trade location, the election results finally in and Guelleh serving his fifth term, will this impact or change trade and foreign direct investment in the country?

It is important to note that until recently, Djibouti was believed to be one of the few countries in the region with some sort of stability, its strategic location makes it attractive for regional and international players to use it as ground for their military base and the country is also an ideal place to fight piracy. Having mentioned the above, the elections were certainly of interest to the international community, to see whether they would be conducted democratically, especially with Djibouti being the first country in the Horn of Africa to go to poll, this election set the tone for the rest of the elections to take place in Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan this year.

Djibouti’s strategic position at the entrance to the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden makes it a country favoured by international partners such as France and China, which has intensified its investments.

This election proved to be one that aimed to signal legitimacy but lacked proof, as political parties boycotted the vote on the day of elections and many claiming that the 97.4% votes that Guelleh won by were “incorrect”, especially with 20% of its 1 million people living in poverty. Such perceptions and allegations could be dire for investment and the economic stability of the region.

With the Djibouti elections done and dusted, what are your thoughts about the Guelleh and his government taking the office for the fifth term and how will this past election affect the elections that are to still take place in the neighbouring countries (Somalia, Ethiopia and South Sudan) this year?

Despite the election, the government of Djibouti continues to flaunt international law: for example, Djibouti’s Doreleh port has such a strategic relevance, however, the government does not seem to be fully in acceptance and hesitant to implement rulings, despite DPWorld rightfully winning the concession for the Doreleh port. The lawyer, Peter Gray who was also hired by the Djiboutian government to represent them in the dispute with the facilitator of the concession between the Djiboutian government and DP World, has been struck off, due to deliberately misleading the court and allowing falsified evidence to be submitted. These types of actions from the standing Djiboutian government might have a detrimental effect to their reputation and in turn, deter international Foreign Direct Investment.

Regarding the elections, it was claimed that the opposition was marginalized and fragmented. However, with the government still holding office, they continue to have lingering issues which cause reputational discomfort to them as time goes, such as allegations of corruption, Chinese debt entrapment and illegal governance.

What were your hopes for the Djibouti elections and the country?

The election results certainly did not surprise us, but the number of votes that he won by took everyone by surprise. Guelleh’s re-election could have a detrimental impact on the country’s future and well-being of the citizens of Djibouti. According to the World Bank, Djibouti is becoming a worse place to do business, having slipped from 99th to 112th in the Ease of Doing Business Index and clearly there is an argument that seizing assets in breach of commercial agreements could deter other investors and perhaps have a negative impact on the country, limiting opportunities of foreign investment.

As the elections have concluded, I think it would be best for the government to address the magnitude and nature of their debt to the Chinese, and the country’s reputation amongst the international investment community, if the people of Djibouti are to reap the benefits from its strategic location along global trading corridors.

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