On April 9, Djiboutians went to the ballot box to vote for their next president. Nobody knowledgeable of Djibouti politics would have bet on anyone else than Ismael Omar Guelleh (nicknamed IOG), the incumbent president who has been in power since 1999, to win. This is because Guelleh and his extended family have consolidated a strong grip on power which has enabled them to control the country’s political and economic space.
Guelleh ran largely uncontested. While the main opposition boycotted the presidential race, the only candidate opposing Guelleh was businessman Zakaria Ismail Farah. However, Farah, a newcomer to the political scene, also recognized the insurmountable task of challenging the incumbent appearing in his final rally in March with his hands tied and mouth taped.
It was therefore no surprise that when Djibouti’s Interior Minister Moumin Ahmed Cheick announced the preliminary results of the election, Guelleh had scored a resounding victory. According to provisional numbers, Guelleh obtained 167,535 votes which were initially accounted for 98.58 percent, and later amended to 97.44 percent of the total while Farah came in as a distant second with 4,408 votes. Approximately 215,000 voters had been registered which initially pointed to around 82 percent turnout. The final result is to be confirmed by the country’s Constitutional Council.
With a significantly higher voter turnout than in the previous 2016 election, Guelleh will start his fifth term as a president from a strong position. While critics point out that Djibouti’s leadership has chosen repressive stability over democratization, and election observers and the country’s western allies have voiced their preference for democratic reforms, calls for possibly destabilizing political change have been few. Major and regional powers find the small littoral country at the narrowest stretches of the Red Sea particularly strategically important.
In the past two decades in power, President Guelleh has successfully commercialized Djibouti’s strategic position in the Red Sea and as the main access route to and from Ethiopia. In this respect, Djibouti maintains an advantage against its neighbors; internationally ostracized Eritrea and the unrecognized de facto state, Somaliland.
Rents from foreign military bases, including those of the United States and China, as well as foreign partnerships, investment, and loans have benefited the president and his family enormously but also improved infrastructure, especially related to Djibouti’s port and logistics capacity. For example, Djibouti’s role as an important “pearl” China’s Belt and Road strategy has resulted in a strong partnership, but it has also cast some doubt on the strength of the US-Djibouti partnership. China’s influence in the country has grown enormously in recent years mainly through its economic engagement, while the partnership has left Djibouti severely in debt.
Indeed, although Djibouti has experienced impressive economic growth during the first two decades of president Guelleh’s reign, deeply entrenched economic and social problems remain. A large number, around 26 percent, of the country’s potential workforce remains unemployed. In particular, youth unemployment, hovering around the 60 percent mark, remains an important challenge and is compounded by the fact that approximately 75% of the country’s population is under the age of 35. Meanwhile, according to the World Bank, while Djibouti’s per capita income has experienced an impressive increase in recent years, with the country nearing to become an upper-middle-income economy, World Food Program estimates that up to 42 percent of its population lives in extreme poverty.
It is therefore unlikely that the final six years of Guelleh’s tenure will lead to a radical improvement of the country’s overall economic and social problems. It also remains to be seen how presidential succession will turn out because according to the current constitution in April 2026 Guelleh will have surpassed the age limit to run for the sixth term.
For Further Reading
World Food Program – https://www.wfp.org/countries/djibouti
The World Bank – https://data.worldbank.org/country/djibouti
“Djibouti President Guelleh wins election with 98%, provisional results” – https://www.africanews.com/2021/04/10/djibouti-president-guelleh-wins-election-with-98-provisional-results/
“Veteran ruler Guelleh re-elected Djibouti leader for fifth term” – https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/10/veteran-ruler-guelleh-re-elected-djibouti-leader-for-fifth-term
The opinions expressed in this text represent the views only of the author and do not bind the Centre for International Studies, its management or any other researcher. Djibouti's Flag / Via Wikipedia
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.