February 22, 2011 § 1 Comment

dijiboutiWho lives there?: 750,000 people – half of whom live in the capital. About 60% are ethnic Somali, 35% ethnic Afar and the rest ethnic European – nearly 5,000 (about a fifth) of the latter are assumed to be European in that they are officially classified as French because they are members of the French Foreign Legion which is largely stationed in Djibouti but, given the nature of the Légion, these people are in fact everything and anything but French.

Almost all the population are Sunni Shafi Muslim. About 80% of men and 50% of women are literate and almost all of these can speak one (and usually both) of the official languages: French and Arabic. However the first language of almost all Djiboutians is their ethnic one – either Somali or Afar.

How does the system work? (the theory): Djibouti has a strong President, a less strong Prime Minister, and a legislative which, whilst not entirely toothless, can be heavily leant on by the President.

The President is elected for a five year term by FPTP with runoff (although there has never been a runoff). There are no term limits. Parliament is also elected to a five year term. There are 65 seats elected in multi member constituencies that vary in size between electing 4 and37 seats each. Elections are held by winner-takes-all party bloc voting whereby the leading party in any constituency takes all those seats. Laws stipulate how many members of a given ethnic group can be on the part list with the effect of guaranteeing that 32 seats will be held by ethnic Somalis (split between the tribes 26 Issa, 3 Gadabursi and 3 Isaaq), 30 by ethnic Afar and 3 by “Arabs” which is used as a catch all term for everyone else but in this instance predominantly means Yemenis.

Whilst not a law there is a strong convention that the President should be Issa; the Prime Minster Afar; that the Cabinet should contain at least one Arab, one Isaaq, and one Gadabursi; that the Afar should outnumber the Issa by one in Cabinet; and that the head of the supreme court should be an Issa.

Since 2006 Djibouti has been split into regions and Djibouti city is split into communes. Whilst they do not have much power beyond some theoretical autonomy they are the only part of the Djibouti electoral system that is in any way competitive.

Elections are held for regional or communal councils by a unique two round version of first past the post: If – summed across the entire region or commune – one party (or list if independents) gets more than 50% of votes cast and more than 25% of the support of total voters (in other words and if turnout is also more than 50%) then there is declared to be no need for a second round and the leading party within each component constituency within the region or commune wins that seat. In other words provided this criteria is met then the system is identical to a straightforward first past the post election featuring many single member constituencies.

However if this criteria is not met, then the first round is discarded a second round is held – also under FPTP with single member constituencies – and it is the results from this second round which determine who wins the seats in the assembly/council. Crucially, however, this second round is only open to political parties and independent lists who got more than 10% of the vote in the first round.

It may seem needlessly complicated but the logic is quite simple: The government want regions and communes to be run by just one or two strong parties. So they introduce a rule which says that if one party is dominating a given election then all is well and there is no need to interfere; but if they are not and the result is fragmented, then the election must be rerun between fewer parties to ensure that power is only shared between a handful of large parties

How does the system work? (the practice): Some elections have been remarkably free and fair. Others have been considerably less so. It doesn’t matter to be honest because the result is in any case the same – the winner takes all system makes it impossible for the opposition to establish themselves even on the rare occasions when elections are fair. Throw in the fact that the government is not averse to splashing some cash around come election time and a rating for press freedom that is mid-table at best, and it is small wonder that Djibouti is a one party state in all but name.

In truth the elections are slightly irrelevant and real power is held in the tribes – and funnelled through tribal loyalties to political leaders who enjoy the confidence of the powers that be within the tribe. The largest Somali tribe – the Issa – dominate the nation, but the smaller Gadabursi also punch above their weight. The Afar have fought hard for a share of power but are still very much second class citizens.

How did we get here?: The area was home to various Afar and Somali based regimes but by the mid 1850s or earlier it was firmly in the hands of the Somali sultans. During the Rush for Africa the area came to the attention of the French, who made various moves in the area, and the Russians, who made their one and only attempt at establishing a Russian Colony in Djibouti. They were seen off by the French, who saw this as an interference with their sphere of influence. In order to avoid any repetition of Russo-African ambition the French then moved in in force, establishing a strong colony in 1894.

At exactly this time the rest of the Somali area was enveloped in a war between its foreign rulers (Italy and the UK) and the rebel Dervish Kings. However, as the French had just moved into the area in force, the locals thought better of joining the popular uprising. This marked the start of the differing in the circumstances of Djibouti (or French Somaliland as it was called until 1975) and the rest of Somalia. After WW2 France gave Djibouti quite considerable autonomy, again making it somewhat different from the rest of Somalia (in all probability this was an entirely deliberate long term ploy to retain greater influence over the nation once it inevitably broke free).

In 1958 a series of referemdums were held to determine if a new independent nation of Somalia should be created, and if so who should be in it. British Somaliland and Italian Somaliland voted emphatically to create and join the new entity, but French Somaliland voted no by 75% to 25%. The differing colonial experiences probably contributed to this result. The sizeable Afar ethnic minority (far larger than any other Somali minority) also would have helped (the Afar voted almost 100% against incorporation for fear as to how they would be treated in a totally Somali dominated country). But even more than that it appears that widespread vote rigging by the French Government was the main reason for the no vote – most controversially the French expelled many thousands of ethnic Somalis from the country in the run up to the election to prevent them voting.

There was another referendum on independence in 1968 which was again defeated – this time by 60% to 40%. Again Afar fears, a well funded French backed no campaign, and rigging (albeit not quite on the same scale) were thought to account for the result. But demands for independence didn’t disappear and in 1977 a third and final referendum on independence was held. Free from interference the result (99.8% in favour, only 180 people voting against) left little doubt as to the public view, and only increased suspicions about the earlier referendums. By then however joining with Somalia was already looking less appealing and the new leadership decided that the boat on reunification had sailed.

Long term independence campaigner Hassan Gouled Aptidon became the first president, and his authoritarian centre left RPP have ruled ever since. The only change to government came in 1999 when Aptidon handed over to his nephew Ismail Omar Guelleh who has ruled ever since. Other political parties were legalised in 1992 but none have ever won a seat.

In 1992 an Afar rebellion was launched against Somali-Issa dominance. Called the FRUD and campaigning for Afar rights and greater autonomy, they plunged Djibouti into civil war for many years. In 1995 a peace treaty was signed whereby the moderate elements of FRUD ceased their rebellion and received two cabinet posts in return. The radical members of FRUD however continued their insurrection until finally laying down arms in 2001. Whilst both sides of this 1995 schism call themselves FRUD there is a very real difference between the two – moderate FRUD have supported the RPP and Guelleh since 1995, whereas radical FRUD still oppose him – albeit they now do so peacefully

Who’s in charge?: The RPP, Guelleh, and his current Prime Minister Dileita Mohamed Dileita. When the opposition run and elections are fair they can get up to 40% of the vote – as they did most recently in 2003. However since even this is not enough to win any seats most have now given up and either call for election boycotts or have joined with the governing party. As a result the last Parliamentary (2008) and Presidential (2005) polls were entirely unopposed.

On the basis that it is better to have your opponents on the inside pissing out the RPP have created a governing electoral alliance  – the UMP – which they invite all opposing parties to join. On the basis that if you can’t beat ’em you might as well join ’em, a lot of these parties have. However the RPP are firmly in charge of the UMP and other parties quickly lose their identities within the coalition.

Perhaps the most successful opposition party were the moderate pro-democracy party: the National Democratic Party. They have come closer than anyone to wining seats – missing out by just 500 votes on the 6 seats of Ali Sabieh Region in 1997. They then gave in and joined the UMP in 2003. The other major parts of the UMP are: the moderate FRUD, their offshoot the UPR, and the centre left Social Democratic People’s Party.

When the opposition do run in elections they run as an anti-RPP umbrella group called the Union for Democratic Change (UDC). Key members are radical FRUD, the Republican Alliance for Democracy (moderate Islamist democrats), the  PRD (an Afari party), and two small local parties: the Djibouti Party for Development and Djibouti Union for Democracy and Justice.

When it comes to seats at local elections the parties no longer stand in coalitions. The RPP have 162 local representatives, moderate FRUD 26, “Citizen” – an independent list in central Djibouti city 6, Djibouti Union for Democracy and Justice  3, Together for the Future (who nobody seems to know anything about) 2, UPR 2, Social Democratic People’s Party 2, and Arta and Damerjog (a regional party – these being the names of two small towns) 1. So that’s (give or take some wondering FRUD) 192 pro Government representatives, just 3 affiliated with the opposition and 9 unaligned.

And them as we said before there is the far harder to quantify and identify issue of tribal power.

What does it look like?: Semidesert on the red sea coast. The capital city is on a peninsula sticking out into the sea.

Djibouti Lac Assal camels

What are the issues?: The wars of the neighbours have dominated governmental concerns: Djibouti is in the unfortunate position of being sandwiched between the Eritrea-Ethiopia war and the Somali civil war. As such the government has been working hard to broker peace in the region. Fortunately the peaceful unrecognised de facto state of Somaliland lies in between Djibouti and the rest of Somalia. There’s a good series on that whole disaster over at Think Africa.

Domestically there are of course powerful ethnic tensions, and we are less than a decade on from civil war. Even more seriously there has also been a severe economic downturn of late. The economy – trade based – might be kick started by Tarek bin Laden’s (yes it is his brother) $20 billion plan to build a bridge to Yemen, and his $200 billion plan to build twin cities with a combined population of 2.7 million on either side of that bridge. The only problem is that this idea is almost certainly as crazy as it sounds. Still the seem to be going ahead with it. Here’s a posh brochure and here’s an absolutely ridiculous promotional video:

Even if it happens it won’t be until 2020 and at the moment the unemployment rate is 40%. Small wonder patience with the regime is wearing thin, and some Sidi Bouzid style protests have been seen of late.

A good source of impartial information is: hard to come by. La Nation is pretty much Govenmental propaganda although not quite as Pravda-esque as some. There’s some good stuff on the African World Politics site.

A good book is: Djibouti and the Horn of Africa is old but apparently still good. More up to date but rather niche is Afar Politics and Its Implication In The Horn of Africa: In the Interstate Relations of Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea. The only more recent thing I know of on Djibouti’s politics is Djiboutiand that is a novel. Apparently it’s quite a good novel though: it is funny and it has pirates.

The next elections are: We get Presidential and Regional elections this year which could be rocky. Guelleh claims he won’t stand but nobody believes him. Parliament is next up in 2013


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