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In this small country on the Horn of Africa, it is likely that a constitutional amendment will secure the sitting president for a third term in power. Critical voices are silenced by the regime, in a country where human rights violations largely go unnoticed by the West because of the country’s strategic position. The ports in the country have been characterized as the ideal gateway to Africa, and its development is expected to give the country economic growth in the future. The ports are also crucial for the population of the cities, which have few sources of food other than foreign imports.

President Ismaël Omar Guelleh belongs to the Rassemblement populaire pour le progrès (RPP), which until 1981 was the country’s only legal party. He heads the Union for the Majority Presidential Coalition (UMP). The president completely dominates the political landscape – executive, legislative and judicial power are all controlled by the president and his supporters. The opposition is suppressed and divided, nor is it represented in any institutions. All 65 seats in the National Assembly are held by members of the UMP coalition. Thus, there is no democratic scrutiny of government power and the legitimacy of the political system is built around personal services.

The media is also largely controlled by the state. Djibouti is one of the few African countries where no privately owned newspapers are published regularly. The newspapers are state-owned La Nation and Arab Al Qaran, which is supported by RPP. The country’s only opposition newspaper, Le Renouveau Djiboutien, was halted by the president in 2007. The governing powers also have a monopoly on domestic radio and television broadcasts. Radio France International was long the only source of information with criticism by the government, but the president shut down broadcasts in 2005.

President’s wife Kadra Mahmoud Haid is now being criticized for having more power and influence than any of the other government members. Among other things, the director of the country’s radio and television company (Radio télévision de Djibouti) was fired, and then replaced by a member of the president’s family. President Guelleh’s response to the criticism has been to silence the opponents. In 2009, he struck down people who spoke negatively, such as popular singer Nima Djama Miguil, who was jailed in June, and poet Ahmed Darar Robleh, who was sentenced to six months in prison after writing poems criticizing the regime. It is feared that further attempts to crack down on what can be characterized as legitimate opposition or peaceful opposition to the president’s ambitions will eventually result in more violent revolts.

Clan and ethnic group important

Affiliation within the clan or ethnic group plays an important role in the Djiboutian society. The government claims that half the population is Issa, the group to which the president also belongs, and that a somewhat smaller proportion belongs to the Afargroup. This is a sensitive topic, and certain numbers do not exist. The Afars have traditionally strong ties to Ethiopia, and the Issa is similar to Somalia. Although both the Issa and Afar have traditionally been nomads, the last century has seen strong urbanization growth. About 84 percent of the population lives in urban areas, and about two-thirds of them live in the capital. 10-15 percent of the population still lives as nomads. It is estimated that as much as 43 percent of the population is under 15 years old. Djibouti has an Arab minority of about 12,000 people. The European minority has shrunk considerably and is now around 5000 people.

Unlike most African countries, where the majority of the population work in agriculture, most Djibouters are employed in the service industry. Employment raises concerns, with figures showing up to 50 percent unemployment. Future jobs depend to a large extent on the country’s ability to further develop the ports and to improve trade and transport links with Ethiopia. Exports, or re-exports through the harbor, are the mainstay of the country’s economy. The Economist ranks Djibouti as one of the world’s worst countries to do business in. The government, in turn, markets Djibouti as a trade-friendly country in an otherwise unstable region. More recently, the government has also tried to profile the country as a tourist destination.

Volcanic desert

The volcanic desert of much of the country is poorly suited for agriculture. The country’s own food production covers only 3 percent of the total need, and the danger of hunger is great. Djibouti therefore relies on importing food, especially to the cities. Much of the food imports come from Ethiopia, and when production there is low, it has major consequences for Djibouti.

The border dispute with Eritrea, which started in 2008 after reports of an invasion of Eritrean forces in the north of Djibouti, does not appear to reach a swift resolution. The UN’s attempt to negotiate with Eritrean forces, which are still stationed in the border areas against Djibouti, has not arrived. There is still some uncertainty about the driving forces behind and what has actually happened in this neighborly conflict, but to some extent it seems to be due to Eritrea’s supposed support for the Afar rebels in northern Djibouti. The tense relationship between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and Djibouti’s close economic ties to Ethiopia, make this conflict part of the greater underlying unrest in the region.

Ethiopia is Djibouti’s closest ally in the region. During the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, Djibouti became Ethiopia’s connection to the outside world in terms of supplies. As a result, the economic ties between the countries became strong, and the ports of Djibouti emerged as the country’s main source of income. The alliance was tested when Djibouti in 2006 hesitated to support Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia, but fears of being isolated led Guelleh to allow US air strikes on Somalia from Djiboutian soil. Djibouti considers itself an Arab state and seeks new alliances and trading partners in the Middle East. Dubai investors largely control the development of the port and airport in Djibouti.

1,200 American soldiers are stationed in the country, forming the so-called Africom force. Following the September 11 terrorist attack, Djibouti was selected as one of the bases of the international war on terror. In addition, Djibouti receives more US assistance per capita than any other sub-Saharan African country. The country is also the base for both the European and Japanese ships fighting the pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Precisely because of Djibouti’s strategic position in one of the world’s most unstable regions, the West has so far chosen to overlook the human rights violations taking place in the country. Neither has the recent crackdown on critics who do not want to extend Guelleh’s presidential term has generated reactions.

Country facts:

Area: 23,200 km2 (47th largest)

Population: 849 000

Population density: 37 per km

Urban population: 87 percent

Largest city: Djibouti – approx. 583 000

Per capita GDP: $ 1156

Economic growth: 5.8 percent

HDI Position: 155