Djibouti: ‘I will not let anyone touch the constitution,’ says President Guelleh

By François Soudan

Posted on Monday, 11 April 2022 09:18
President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh at the Ras Dika presidential palace in Djibouti, in October 2020. © Vincent Fournier for JA

Re-elected just one year ago to a fifth term, Djibouti's President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh talked to us about instability in the Horn of Africa, the situation in Ethiopia and his stance on the war in Ukraine, and also about his own ambitions and his hopes for the country.

Guelleh points to his recent achievements: The World Health Organization hailed Djibouti for its meticulous management of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government has used the country’s geo-strategic location to build an attractive logistical hub for military bases and foreign direct investment, and the economy has been buoyed by a 6% growth rate as well as a €12bn ($13bn) national development plan.

Despite the country’s successes, it still has its points of fragility. These include its trade dependence on Ethiopia (a country that is currently in crisis), the risk of over-indebtedness, the still difficult business environment, endemic poverty and unemployment, as well as restrictions on freedoms.

These are many challenges for a 74-year-old president who has been in power since 1999 and who was re-elected to a fifth term just a year ago. Guelleh began his career as a French colonial police official. He was eventually dismissed for having pro-independence sympathies before becoming the right-hand man and then successor of the first head of state, Hassan Gouled. He was also a pious advocate of ‘Middle Way’ Islam, whose iron fist in a velvet glove resisted the jolts of the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood’s plans.

In this interview, which was conducted at the end of February at the Ras Dika Palace, Guelleh touches on all these subjects – including the most sensitive ones from the point of view of this modest and secretive man.

One year after a re-election centred around the themes of ‘continuing together’ and reducing inequalities, where do you stand on the promises you made to fight against extreme poverty, which is extensive in Djibouti as it affects 18% of families in the country?

Ismaïl Omar Guelleh: This has always been a priority for me. The reason I decided to run again in 2021, despite the heavy burden of the task that I have been carrying out for nearly 23 years, was above all to answer the call of this group of the population: the poor, the hungry, the disabled, the young unemployed, those who are deprived of everything. This legion of the underprivileged wanted me to continue and intensify my efforts to lift them out of precariousness, and that is precisely what I am doing, with results that everyone can measure.

Today, 85% of families in extreme poverty benefit from the Programme National de Solidarité and healthcare help. Included in this programme is the right to decent housing and aid granted to pupils and students from poor families. More generally, universal health insurance now covers 300,000 of our compatriots: this is a great achievement of which I am particularly proud.

Djibouti enjoys a significant growth rate of between 6% and 8% forecast for 2022, and GDP per capita well above that of its neighbours. However, the unemployment rate for the working-age population – especially for those under 35, who represent three quarters of the population – is more than 12%. This is a problem…

Yes, and we are working to solve it. Our young people are worried but also creative and imaginative. I was surprised to see the extent to which our young people were able to manage on their own on a day-to-day basis, by resorting to the informal sector and the ‘système D’, launching small local start-ups with their motorbikes and makeshift stalls.

The state had to help them, so we created a guarantee fund specifically for them. To date, nearly 4,000 of them have also benefited from the Initiative pour l’Emploi project, which was launched in October 2020 on the basis of recruitment commitments from companies. The initial target of 5,000 will be reached this year. No one, least of all the younger generation, should be left out of the national community.

Due to lack of water and therefore arable land, Djibouti is almost totally dependent on imports to feed its population. How can this state of permanent water stress be mitigated?

This is a key question for us, especially during this period of severe drought in the Horn of Africa. From the south to the north, more and more boreholes are being drilled, and water supply pipes from the Eritrean and Ethiopian borders constructed and extended. In addition, there are plans to install seawater desalination units in Djibouti City and Ghoubet.

All of this not only requires a great deal of public spending, but also educational efforts, including each school’s obligation to have its own farm land. Djiboutians must learn not to expect everything from the increasingly unpredictable rain.

Just like you must aim for energy self-sufficiency…

Absolutely. Although there is no oil or gas in Djibouti, we are not short of ideas when it comes to the field of alternative energy. The Ghoubet wind farm is up and running, and its first supplies of electricity into the national grid will start this year. The same goes for the Grand Bara photovoltaic plant, which was taken over by an Emirati group following the French company Engie’s withdrawal. The interconnection between Assal, Tadjourah and Djibouti is almost complete.

In August 2021, you signed an agreement with Turkey to explore for and mine minerals. Is this sector promising for Djibouti?

It is more than likely to be. Since 2019, we have been exporting significant quantities of sodium bromide to China. Thanks to deep geothermal drilling, we will have access to other minerals, such as lithium and sodium silicate. We also have a large deposit of black sand, which belongs to the rare earths category and seems like it will be very profitable to develop.

What is the status of your international telecommunications hub project?

It is in the implementation phase. A dozen undersea cables run offshore in our territorial waters and Google has just acquired land alongside a local company to establish a large data centre associated with a digital campus.

The fact remains that Djibouti’s economy revolves around ports – for the moment at least. You recently launched a project to establish a new commercial airport in connection with the port developments. Doesn’t the internal crisis in Ethiopia, for which you are the main market, risk slowing down your ambitions?

It has had a negative impact, of course, but not as much as we feared. The drop in the volume of import and export traffic has been manageable. We’re not doing too badly, and our port development projects continue.

Another problem is the emergence of serious competition with the modernisation of the ports of Berbera in Somaliland and Assab in Eritrea. Ethiopia is clearly seeking to reduce its dependence on Djibouti. Does this worry you?

No. It makes sense for Ethiopia to think in these terms, but the competitive advantage remains and will remain in our favour for a long time to come.

Assab and Berbera are 1,000km from Addis Ababa, Djibouti is 760km away with a functioning railway. Ethiopian businessmen come here without visas, and the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia has set up a large branch here. We are unfazed.

For the past four years, you have been fighting with the Emirati mega-port operator DP World, from whom you withdrew the management of the Doraleh container terminal. In January, the London Court of Arbitration once again ruled against you. When will this legal battle end?

I don’t know. DP World should stop trying to bring Djibouti to its knees, to suffocate us. That is why they are investing so much money in the ports of Berbera, Assab and Lamu. We have been patient, but they have not wanted to admit that we are defending our rights and interests.

DP World is trying to put out backs against the wall by demanding that we give up on a sovereign decision. This is unacceptable, and we will not tolerate it.

Behind DP World is the United Arab Emirates (UAE), an increasingly influential financial power in East Africa. It’s a bit like David versus Goliath!

I make a distinction between the two. Of course, the UAE is in solidarity with DP World, but we have no issue with Abu Dhabi. I recently spoke about this with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, and he has agreed to help us renew dialogue by putting the DP World issue to the side.

In 2020, you launched a sovereign wealth fund that is supposed to be endowed with $1.5bn by 2030. However, its Senegalese director, Mamadou Mbaye, who was recommended by President Macky Sall, was sacked less than a year after taking up his post, following an unfavourable audit. Is this a bad sign for the fund’s viability?

Not at all. The desire remains intact. There was a governance problem – it happens. Slim Feriani, a former Tunisian minister and an international finance specialist, has been appointed as the new director. I am optimistic.

According to the results of the investigation that the Djibouti prosecutor’s office opened after the ministry of budget embezzled funds, this portfolio’s holder, Abdoulkarim Aden Cher, is the “the main instigator of this fraudulent system”. As a result, this minister has now joined his predecessor, who is also in prison. How could such malpractices be repeated without raising suspicion?

Everyone must understand that we are determined to bring all those who cheat the state and plunder the treasury to justice. It is true that we need to improve transparency and control revenue and expenditure, better regulate and supervise ad hoc contracts, and improve the computerisation and automation of processes.

To this end, we will establish external and independent control mechanisms for public finances and ensure that the Inspection Générale de l’État carries out more random audits, without waiting for any suspicions of wrongdoing. Creating a financial and economic prosecutor’s office, as well as specialised anti-corruption courts, is also on the agenda.

Your government has six women out of 26 ministers. And in the national assembly, 10% of the members of parliament are women. That is not very equal….

Not yet, but when you consider where we’ve come from and our cultural constraints, considerable progress has been made. Women are 46% of our teachers, and paid maternity leave has been increased to 26 weeks, 10 more than in France. Changing mentalities takes a long time. In our country, men still claim to be in charge of everything, even though women have an important role to play in economic and social life.

Is a female prime minister or head of state possible in Djibouti?

Why not?

You like to stress the virtues of Djiboutians living together. However, in August 2021, inter-community clashes between Afars and Issas in neighbourhoods of Djibouti replicated violence that had broken out in Ethiopia. There were deaths, injuries and looting. Why do these divisions persist, 45 years after independence?

These are not things that can be settled with decrees or orders. National cohesion is built over time, by increased marriages between Afars, Issas and Somalis, urban mixing, modernising the economy and anchoring the idea of the nation through education.

I see the events that you are talking about as jolts from the past. The progress my compatriots have made in appropriating their common citizenship is phenomenal, but the devil is always there because when a group of individuals wants to light a fire, the easiest and quickest way to do so is by igniting an ethnic spark.

A year ago, Ahmad Omar, leader of the Somali jihadist group Al-Shabaab, called on his followers to carry out attacks on the US and French bases in Djibouti. Should we take this risk seriously?

There is no such thing as 100% safe. The proof of this lies in the fact that the terrorists who blew themselves up at the Chaumière restaurant in May 2014 came from Mogadishu. The Al-Shabaab bases are far from here, in southern Somalia, and we know that they cannot operate without internal help. We are therefore extremely vigilant, which involves surveillance, of course, but also a meticulous study of how these organisations operate. We have the right people for this.

What do you think of the deep internal crisis that your Ethiopian neighbour has been experiencing since November 2020? Can federalism withstand civil war?

I think the West and international media have taken the wrong approach. Putting a rebellion and a government led by an elected prime minister on the same level was a mistake. To ensure that Ethiopia’s unity is preserved, it is essential that the constitution be respected and that regional demands be made through legal, official channels, not through rebellion, especially since there is no evidence to suggest that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front represents the entire Tigrayan people.

As for the federalism put in place by former prime minister Meles Zenawi, which is based on voluntary membership in order to allow each region and ethnic group to be manage its future, this is the only way for Ethiopia to exist. I note that no one is advocating secession.

The dispute between Djibouti and Eritrea is ongoing. Does that mean your meeting in Saudi Arabia with your counterpart Isaias Afwerki in September 2018 and then Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s attempted mediation were pointless? 

Yes, it does. Afwerki continues to refuse to hand over the Djiboutian prisoners of war to us, just like we did with the Eritreans. Four of them were returned to us through Qatar. There are about 10 left, whose identities we have provided.

Even if they are dead, at least let us have their remains, so that the families can mourn. But the authorities in Asmara insist that they do not exist. We must settle this preliminary issue before we can move on to the next dispute: the Eritrean army’s occupation of Cape Doumeira, which is in violation of the 1897 treaty signed between France and Menelik II’s Ethiopia.

Observers note that the Al-Shabaab Islamist rebels in Somalia have become more active and dangerous in recent months. Djibouti is directly involved in this conflict, as it has a contingent of nearly 2,000 troops in AMISOM, the African Union force. Is this also how you see the situation? 

I’m worried, that much is obvious. Al-Shabaab is getting stronger and better equipped every day via Yemen. They have become a real mafia that practices racketeering on a large scale among traders and the population. Yes, there is a real risk the little government that exists in Somalia will collapse if this situation continues, especially since the government’s electoral process has not yet been completed, so there is a kind of vacuum that lends itself to anarchy. This has been going on for 30 years; life in this country has had no value for 30 years.

Djibouti is one of the African countries that has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations (UN). Can you explain the reasoning behind your vote? 

It is the same as the 141 countries that voted in favour of this resolution. We are against using force to the detriment of a neighbouring country’s integrity and independence, the violation of international law and the UN Charter’s provisions and for the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Civilians must be protected, and the parties must reach a negotiated settlement as soon as possible.

Djibouti’s opposition seems to be fragmented and weakened, particularly since the last presidential election, in which it boycotted the process. Can we say that you have succeeded in dividing it in order to rule better?

Why is that? Not at all. Power in Djibouti is not obtained by force or trickery, but by demonstrating what one is capable of for the good of all. As we say in Somali: “Here is the ground, and here is the horse”, it is up to each person to prove themselves and the people to decide.

Djiboutians do not like adventures and uncertainty, they choose the person who advocates peace and tranquillity, who respects human life, favours tolerance and living together and defies all clan and tribal considerations. Djiboutians may either love or hate each other, but when they see what is happening in neighbouring countries, they know that their survival and development depend on their unity.

The UN Human Rights Committee asked you to re-authorise the opposition party founded by Daher Ahmed Farah that was dissolved in 2008, the Mouvement pour le Renouveau Démocratique et le Développement (MRD). Why did you refuse to do so?

The courts dissolved this party because of its leader’s pro-Eritrean stance. At the time, we were in a conflict with the Afwerki regime. Any other court in the world would have done the same thing. That being said, nothing would have prevented its leaders from changing their party’s name, but they are stubborn and their stubbornness is met with equal obstinacy. We look at each other in the mirror, we challenge each other, and no one moves forward. I’m not interested in participating in this tug-of-war. If they were intelligent and really wanted to do their job, they would change their name.

Your opponents denounce what they call the “Mamassanisation” of power, i.e. the preferential treatment given to members of your Mamassan community in key sectors, such as defence and security. What do you have to say for yourself?

This is pure bad faith. We are talking about two people here: my security adviser, Hassan Said Khaireh, and General Zakaria Cheikh Ibrahim. They were already in important positions before independence. All the population is with me. What interest would I have in favouring a small clan? Here, appointments are made based on merit. I have never been a tribalist, it is not in my genes.

The next presidential election is scheduled for 2026, four years from now. Are you already thinking about it?

Not really. I’m not obsessing about it.

In the event of a sixth term, you will have passed the 75-year age limit set by the constitution. Are you thinking of changing it?

So that I can stand for re-election? Certainly not. I will not let anyone touch the constitution.

Are you preparing your succession?

Listen: the 2026 elections will take place as normal. The political party that I chair will hold its congress in due course, choose its candidate, and we will all go into the campaign. The person who will represent us will be chosen unanimously by the central and executive committees.

It will not be a difficult decision to make as we are a small country, so everyone knows what the other is capable of, but don’t expect me to give you a name in advance. God forbid that I should have the same problems as my friend Alassane Ouattara, whose two designated successors died.

Your state of health is the subject of speculation on social media. How are you doing?

Ah, social media! The reality is that I am in perfect health, except for a bit of arthritis, which is almost inevitable at my age. As for the rest, I only fear one thing: an operation that would reduce my ability to work. However, this is not on the agenda, rest assured!

A little over a century ago, your grandfather signed a historic treaty with France as a prominent Issa and almost a century ago, in the early 1930s, your father became one of this country’s very first teachers. Would they be proud of you?

That’s a difficult question. I don’t think that I have damaged or sullied their name. I believe that Djibouti’s progress is in line with the hopes they had for this country’s future. We are a small country with big dreams, so yes, I hope – in my modest way – that my ancestors are happy with me. Alhamdulillah.

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