Djibouti: Tensions Rise Ahead of Historic Legislative Elections


USN meeting in AyableyTo inflate its membership, the UMP buses in people and gives them cash or qat”Miguil Mata

Djibouti is undergoing a major change. For the first time since the independence of this small east African nation in 1977, the opposition party might be elected to parliament in the legislative elections taking place on February 22. To date, the electoral campaign, which started on February 8, has been unfolding calmly.

But the political discourse between supporters of the different parties has already soured.

A historic image: thousands of people gathering beneath the banners of the Union for National Salvation (USN), the coalition that brings together the Djiboutian opposition. After ten years of boycotting elections, these political parties are now participating in the legislative elections and running against the UMP, the Union for the Presidential Majority. After having been shut out from political life for the last 36 years, the opposition will now finally be able to sit in parliament.

For this occasion, the president of the Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development (MRD) and spokesperson of the USN, Daher Ahmed Farah, returned from Belgium where he had been in exile for the last nine years. He was arrested upon his return but released two days later.

The multiparty system is not completely foreign to Djibouti. In fact, it has existed in some capacity since 1992. At first, only four parties were allowed to run, but eventually, ten years later, all parties in the political sphere could legally run. However, until now, due to an electoral system that excluded small parties, the opposition had never been able to gain seats in parliament, which was dominated by the old ruling party (the People’s Rally for Progress) and other parties within the UMP coalition.

However, on November 28 of last year, due to a proposal made by President Ismail Omar Guelleh, the National Assembly voted through a law that keeps the first-past-the-post system but adds proportional representation for 20% of seats. This new system makes all the difference for the opposition.

Overall, the campaign has been calm, but some gatherings have become violent. On December 30 of last year, in the Obock region, policemen fired live bullets to disperse a protest about the lack of sports infrastructure. A 14-year-old boy was killed and several people were wounded.

NGOs often criticise Djibouti for curtailing civic liberties. For instance, Reporters Without Borders has spoken out against the country’s institutionalized censorship and the government monopoly over the news. In a column on Slate Africa from January 18, two human rights activists accused the Djibouti government of “killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, press censorship, being anti-union, and repressing peaceful protests”.

We asked two of our Observers to share their thoughts on the campaign. One of these Observers is on the opposition side, while the other is an activist for the ruling party. You can also share your opinions in the comments section.


UMP rally in Arhiba“To inflate its membership, the UMP buses in people and gives them cash or qat”

Miguil Mata is a USN activist and a blogger. He also studies biology at the University of Djibouti.

“There is a huge power imbalance. The USN has no funding; it runs all its operations on a shoestring budget. There is not a single cap, not a single T-shirt to hand out; it’s the belief in the party’s agenda that rallies people to our cause.

In contrast, the UMP does everything with taxpayer money. To inflate its membership, the party buses in people and gives them cash or qat [a popular drug in Djibouti] to get them on their side [the UMP, when contacted by FRANCE 24, denied these accusations]. But there is no genuine popular engagement.

The campaign has so far been fairly peaceful. There have not been any threats. The government has provided us with policemen to avoid any incidents. I am in fact very surprised by the absence of repression. But I’m not particularly reassured. I fear massive fraud come election day. Election fraud has always been a problem. Since 1999 and the first election of Ismail Omar Guelleh, each election has been plagued by fraud. But this time around, the people will not accept it.

I think that the presence of opposition party members in parliament is a very good thing. It will at least be more representative of our population.

“We don’t need an opposition party with a hate-based platform”

Bariq Rifki, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Djibouti, is a UMP activist.

I attend both UMP and USN rallies. The USN has no platform, it’s just a coalition of new parties that banded together two weeks ago. Their platform could be summed up in one sentence. Its leaders are people who have benefited from the system that they are now turning against. The people whose voices we hear are not legitimate [referring to Daher Ahmed Farah who is not eligible due to his dual nationality]. They are calling for a [Arab] Spring that has no place here.

They claim they do not have as much money as the UMP to help them in their campaign. However, they have Facebook and Twitter, and the TV channels have set up an allocation of air time for each side.USN rally in Hayabley

That said, I think this new proportional electoral system is a very good thing. Now there will be real debates, as well as measures and projects that won’t pass thanks to the opposition. We the youth have never been as happy. There are certainly certain areas where the government needs to make more of an effort. But we don’t need an opposition with a hate-based platform. Their talking points are very crass; they are only personal insults or an expression of religious beliefs by Islamic radicals, whose messages sound very similar to those of Al Shabaab [the opposition allows religious leaders in its ranks, but it claims that the UMP’s attempt to equate them with Al Shabaab Islamic radicals is part of an effort to demonise the opposition]. In order for things to really change, we need an opposition with intellectually mature leaders.

The election will be very close, and the election day itself will probably be very tense, especially when the results are announced.