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Ismaïl Omar Guelleh on his way to a fifth term

In Djibouti, the UMP still exists and, unlike its French namesake, it seems firmly anchored at the top of the state. After twenty-two years in power, its champion, President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, is seeking a fifth term on Friday April 9. A ballot that the indestructible tenant of the Haramous Palace is, once again, guaranteed to win.

While he had to face six other candidates in 2016, the head of state, 73, is competing this year against a single opponent, businessman Zakaria Ismaïl Farah. Newly arrived in politics and relatively unknown, the latter is perceived as a screen of the regime. The main opponents are in exile and their formations, some united under the banner of the Union for National Salvation (USN), have called for a boycott.

Djibouti remains a rentier state led by a patronage and nepotism regime ”, points out Sonia Le Gouriellec, specialist in the Horn of Africa. If demonstrations of a few dozen people have punctuated the campaign, the country has not experienced an outbreak of fever comparable to the protest that erupted in June 2020 to protest against the conditions of imprisonment of the lieutenant of the army of the air Fouad Youssouf Ali. The soldier, who had fled to Ethiopia before being extradited, had made himself known a few months earlier by posting a video in which he denounced the discrimination he suffered because of his tribal origin. It has since been forgotten.

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“Despite the virulence shown by the opposition on social networks, a certain weariness dominates on the spot, observes Sonia Le Gouriellec. The power manages to buy social peace with some funding and distributions of “khat” [une plante très consommée dans la Corne de l’Afrique et au Yémen, dont les feuilles mâchées ont des effets psychotropes]. But the population is under no illusions: when they evoke the beautiful houses under construction in the capital, Djiboutians speak of the “thieves’ quarter”. “

Neither “African Singapore”, nor a simple “barracks country”

This is the paradox of this 23,200 km territory2 populated by nearly a million inhabitants: despite its diplomatic surface and the economic ambitions displayed by the presidency, the country has not become, far from it, an “African Singapore”. Although the activity held up in 2020 (- 1%), it still appears in the 166e place out of 189 in human development. Unemployment, endemic, affects more than 60% of the population, particularly those under 30.

Ismaïl Omar Guelleh – the second president since independence in 1977 – has undeniably capitalized on Djibouti’s privileged location facing one of the busiest maritime corridors in the world, at the junction of the Gulf of Aden and the sea Red. No less than five foreign states have military influence there: France, a former colonial power, but also the United States, Japan, Italy and, since 2017, China. Elements of the German and Spanish forces are also present.

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However, the former French Territory of Afars and Issas is no longer just a “barracks country”. Drawn by the industrial dynamism of the great Ethiopian neighbor – for which it has been the main maritime outlet since the independence of Eritrea – and by the development of logistics and port infrastructures, its GDP has grown in fifteen years from 700 million to more than 3 billion dollars (more than 2.5 billion euros). This growth is reflected in the gigantic multi-purpose port of Doraleh, the rise of free zones and, more recently, the construction of a seawater desalination plant which should eventually provide 250,000 people with access to drinking water.

“One of the challenges of the next five years will be succession”

“The face of Djibouti has changed, notes Sonia Le Gouriellec. However, by wanting to get out of the tete-a-tete with France and by bringing into play foreign rivalries, the country fell into another dependence, vis-à-vis China this time. “ As elsewhere in Africa, the infrastructure boom has indeed resulted in colossal debt. After reassessment, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated at the end of 2019 that Djiboutian debt was now around 70% of GDP. According to the latest report from the African Development Bank (ADB), 57% of these loans are held by interests close to Beijing, or nearly $ 1.2 billion.

This is little compared to the loans taken out by a country like Ethiopia, but enormous for a small state 90% desert and whose resources depend almost entirely on the vitality of trade. However, regional trade suffered from the health crisis linked to Covid-19 and the war started in November by the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, in the Tigray region. A slowdown that weighed on port activity.

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If the Djiboutian authorities have kept away from the Ethiopian conflict, Ismail Omar Guelleh has everything to fear from the ongoing rapprochement between Addis Ababa and Asmara. Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki is a “Poison”, Hassan Gouled Aptidon repeated to him, its predecessor at the head of Djibouti, and the port of Assab, on the Eritrean coast, could become a serious competitor if Ethiopia considers securing new access to the sea.

The Djiboutian president will therefore have a lot to do to consolidate his balance sheet at the end of what promises to be his last term. The Constitution, because it limits the age of presidential candidates to 75 years, theoretically will no longer allow “IOG” to stand for re-election. “One of the challenges of the next five years will be the succession, emphasizes Sonia Le Gouriellec. We talked about his son-in-law, the Minister of the Economy … For several months, there has been talk of the head of the port, the one called “the man of the Chinese”. “

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