May 12th, 2021, 12:06 PM

Djibouti’s opposition establishes Charter for a Democratic Transition

By Bileh Dougsiyeh
A group of women dance while carrying the national flag in the village of God Daawo, Djibouti. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A roadmap for a democratic future in Djibouti

In Djibouti, a coalition of political parties, civil society organizations, and politically active citizens established a Charter for a Democratic Transition before Djibouti’s 2021 presidential election, calling for institutional changes to end a legacy of authoritarianism and lay the foundation for a democratic transition. The Charter includes a list of demands for democratic reform, including the end of President Ismail Omar Guelleh’s regime, which they describe as a monarchical and dictatorial presidency. Notably, the Charter included a call for citizens of Djibouti to boycott the April 9th, 2021 presidential election and to stand against the fifth term of the incumbent. To no surprise, however, Guelleh won the election, by a significant margin, securing his fifth term as president. Guelleh’s only opponent was Zakaria Ismael Farah, a businessman who is largely unknown in the political sphere of Djibouti.

Nonetheless, Mohamed Moussa Aïnaché, a founder of The Union of Democratic Djiboutians and signatory of the Charter, made clear in a press release published on the Djibouti Libre website, that the results of the April 9 election do not change the mission of the Charter.  As Aïnaché said, “on the contrary, it will be the signal, for all of us, to rise up, to set in motion, and to work to restore the honor and the pride of our nation.” On this point Aïnaché is right on.  The Charter for a Democratic Transition provides the framework and pathway to a more free and democratic Djibouti. It is both a call to action and an operational framework by which the nation can avoid chaos after the end of Guelleh’s regime. However, the Charter and its supporters must commit to seeking a peaceful transition of power to avoid potential violence.

A Legacy of Authoritarianism

The ruling party, the People’s Rally for Progress (RPP), has dominated the politics of Djibouti for 44 years. The enduring legacy of authoritarian rule by the RPP has its roots in the regime of Hassan Gouled Aptidon, Ismail Omar Guelleh’s uncle. The RPP has led the nation from its independence in 1977 until the present day. The RPP instituted a one-party rule in 1981, which lasted until 1992 when a new constitution allowed for multiparty elections. At the time, the RPP was the only legal party that could select candidates to run for office, including for the position of president of the nation. The single-party state ended in 1992 when a new constitution allowed for multiparty elections.

Ismail Omar Guelleh came to power in 1999 when Aptidon stepped down after 22 years. When Aptidon retired, the ruling party, the RPP selected his nephew, Guelleh, as the presidential candidate. Guelleh won a decisive victory in 1999, receiving 74% of the vote. In his re-election bid in 2005, he was the sole candidate. At the time, the constitution of Djibouti limited the president to a maximum of two six-year terms. In April 2010, however, 59 out of 63 members of Parliament voted to remove term limits, allowing Guelleh to run for a third term. The constitutional amendment also reduced the term length from six years to five. The president received more than two-thirds of the vote from Parliament, which was more than he needed to change the Constitution. To no surprise, Guelleh won his third bid for president with a landslide victory against opposition candidates Omar Elmi Kaire of the Union for National Salvation (USN) and Mohamed Daoud Chehem of the Djiboutian Party for Development (PDD).

In 2016, Guelleh dominated the polls once again, when he received 87% of the vote and secured a fourth term. The 2016 presidential election was rife with controversy however, notably demonstrated by the government detaining a BBC reporter for 16 hours and subsequently expelled them from the country.

Empty Promises of Democratic Reform

A common trend in each of Ismail Omar Guelleh’s presidential campaigns has been his repeated commitment to reforming the nation to pave the way for democracy. The reality, however, has hardly reflected those commitments. In December 2020, when Guelleh announced his bid for a fifth term in office, Africa Times reported Guelleh’s declaration to “keep working to realize the aspirations of [Djibouti’s] youth for a better future.” Guelleh shared the following quotes in a BBC phone interview: “I didn't want to, but people forced me […] The youth told me 'stay, don't go'”. Whether any meaningful reform will take place during Guelleh’s fifth term is unclear, but history suggests this is unlikely.

Media outlets and international human rights groups have uncovered numerous human rights violations, and the United States Embassy has reported on human rights violations by the National Police, including but not limited to unlawful or arbitrary killings by government agents, harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, and violence against women and girls. Guelleh’s government has also violently cracked down on public dissent. In the summer of 2020, former Djibouti Air Force lieutenant Fouad Youssouf Ali, after releasing a video calling out corruption in the Djibouti military, was detained and tortured. This sparked peaceful protests in June and July 2020, where protesters demanded the release of the imprisoned Air Force Lieutenant. Authorities arrested journalists, and others went into hiding after attempting to provide coverage on the ground of the protests.

Preparing for a Democratic Transition

The Charter explicitly warns that unpreparedness can lead to the unintended consequence of “an equally anti-democratic and brutal regime.” In the last year, the opposition has created the Charter to ensure preparedness after the ruling party’s authoritarian regime comes to an end. According to the Charter, a democratic transition is only possible “if the dictatorship is overthrown by all means necessary [including] peaceful demonstrations, civil disobedience, diplomatic pressure from friendly foreign governments, popular insurrection, and armed struggle.” Authors of the Charter warn of the possibility of chaos and disorder if the nation is not prepared for the democratic transition.

Envisioning a post-Guelleh Djibouti

At 73 years old, Guelleh is not expected to run again, based on the 2010 constitutional amendment which instituted an age limit of 75 for the President. As the end of Guelleh’s longstanding rule approaches, proponents of the Charter will work toward establishing a transitional government called the Transitional National Unity Government. According to the Charter, the transitional government will include the President of the Transitional Charter, a Prime Minister, and a National Transitional Council. The Charter notes that the transitional government will be responsible for implementing “Democratic reforms, reforms of the army, security [forces]…, citizenship and electoral lists as well as … decentralization of the regions [and] the reconstruction of the zones destroyed by the war, the repair of the crimes and massacres and economic and social reforms.” Whether Guelleh’s rule will come to an “inevitable” end, as the writers of the Charter have boldly claimed, is yet to be seen. However, as founder Aïnaché of the Charter has written in the Djibouti Libre, a radical revolution is underway “to put in place the essential conditions for collective and individual development.”