High expectations

Djibouti: Can IOG ‘finish the job’ during his last term in office?

By Olivier Caslin

Posted on January 20, 2022 13:14

Firefox_Screenshot_2022-01-19T14-34-50.068Z Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh at the presidential palace during an interview with Jeune Afrique, on 18 and 19 October 2020. © Vincent Fournier for Jeune Afrique
Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh at the presidential palace during an interview with Jeune Afrique, on 18 and 19 October 2020. © Vincent Fournier for Jeune Afrique

In the very troubled Horn of Africa, the small Republic of Djibouti is an island of stability. Although Ismaïl Omar Guelleh (IOG) was re-elected thanks to a positive economic record, the expectations of the population – three-quarters of whom are under 35 – remain high.

On 9 April, 73-year-old Ismaïl Omar Guelleh (IOG) was re-elected for a fifth term, with more than 97.3% of the vote. To ensure a fifth consecutive five-year term, the Djiboutian president proposed that his compatriots “continue together” on an adventure that began in 1999. In addition to his backers’ unwavering support, IOG also had the benefit of not having any real opponents during this election, as the official opposition had decided to skip it.

The results would not have been any different, as this election was above all a plebiscite for the head of state. He used this campaign to highlight his undeniable achievements, from ensuring Djibouti’s stability in an increasingly troubled Horn of Africa to his largely positive economic record, like Djibouti’s GDP, which has multiplied sevenfold during the 22 years of IOG’s reign, to reach more than $3bn in 2020, not to mention his effective management of the health crisis, which was praised by the WHO.

IOG has thus been given five more years ‘to finish the job’, according to those close to him. For them, this mandate is about redistributing the fruits of growth, particularly towards the youth, the famous ‘IOG generation’ that begged the president to run again.

Social rebalancing

In this respect, much remains to be done, because even though the pandemic is running out of steam and the country’s economy seems to be bouncing back, with growth expected to be at around 5% for 2021, unemployment still affects nearly 60% of the population, three quarters of whom are under 35 years old.

Appointed on 24 May, the first government of this five-year term reflects candidate IOG’s stated priorities: continuity in the prime minister’s office in the regal ministries; employment and youth, with the creation of a vast ministry of social affairs and solidarity, which is supposed to be one of the main instruments of the inclusive development that IOG promised.

This social rebalancing comes at a time when Djibouti is facing an external context made very uncertain by the crisis that has shaken Ethiopia for over a year. The stakes are high for the small republic, which over the past decade has tied its economy to that of its powerful neighbour in order to become the principal maritime gateway to a landlocked market of 120 million people.

Electricity and water, which Ethiopia provides to Djibouti in exchange for its port services, continue to arrive and the common borders are not yet being overrun by waves of refugees. On the other hand, some bilateral infrastructure projects have been frozen, and the first significant declines in traffic have been recorded in recent months at Djibouti’s various port terminals, whose volumes (nearly 90%) are destined for Ethiopia.

Fear of a new conflict

The war with Tigray has both economic and communal consequences for Djibouti. The old hostility between the Afar and Somali populations in Eastern Ethiopia have crossed the border. On 3 August, Djibouti’s Afar and Issa communities came to blows in some of the capital’s working-class neighbourhoods. In addition to a few fires, these events have rekindled fears of a new conflict between the country’s two main communities, as was the case in the early 1990s.

IOG is determined not to allow the internal situation to become worse, especially at a time when his country is seen as the last island of stability. In fact, the sub-region is dominated by a host of problems: growing tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan, Somalia’s internal demons, Eritrea’s frequent interventions in Tigray and the civil war in Yemen. In this highly inflammable context, IOG appears – more than ever – to be the guarantor of peace and development in his country, during what should be his last term. By 2026, the head of state will pass the age limit, set at 75 years by the Constitution, which he committed to respecting in May.

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