Results from the election on April 8th were swift and predictable: President Ismail Guelleh of the People’s Rally for Progress, who has ruled since 1999 (when he took over from his uncle), was re-elected by a landslide. According to Djibouti’s electoral commission, around 80% of the votes were cast for Mr Guelleh, slightly down on the 100% he officially achieved in 2005. Turnout was also reported as high, with 70% of the 150,000 registered turning up to vote. Polling day itself was, according to most accounts, a serene affair by sub-Saharan African standards.
Closer examination reveals a less serene picture. Mr Guelleh’s victory came in the face of weak opposition with only one candidate, an independent, standing against him. Last year, he forced through constitutional changes to allow himself a third six-year term in office. Opposition groups had called for a boycott of the election after the suppression in February of Middle-East-inspired protests, partly provoked Djibouti’s high rate of unemployment, in which two people were killed. In early March, the president kicked a team of international election observers out of the country.
All sad, but should the world worry? Despotic behaviour is hardly unusual in Djibouti’s neighbourhood. But as the presence of all those troops suggests, it should. Aly Verjee, one of the observers evicted in March, spells it out in an article in Foreign Policy:
Djibouti matters. It matters a lot. As the forward operating base of U.S. Africa Command, Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier is a friendly piece of real estate in the Horn of Africa, which includes Eritrea, Somalia, and Yemen. Approximately 2,000 U.S. troops are based at Lemonnier, in addition to the naval forces that periodically call at the port of Djibouti. With the nearest friendly African port located in Mombasa, Kenya—1,700 miles away—the United States, NATO, and the European Union have no alternative to using Djibouti’s harbor as a sanctuary to conduct anti-piracy operations.
Its unfettered cooperation on anti-piracy operations has endeared Djibouti to many other members of the international community. A score of countries—including Japan, Germany, and Russia—rely on the port of Djibouti to sustain their naval presence in East African waters. At the mouth of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti is strategically located to protect some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, which have become increasingly vulnerable to ever more ambitious pirates. And the problem is not going away. Despite some success in disrupting “pirate action groups,” as they are termed by the multinational forces, 14 ships have already been hijacked in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean this year, according to figures from the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center.
As the only US military toehold on the continent, Djibouti is also a vital link in the war on terror. Unmanned anti-terrorism drones are deployed from Lemonnier against targets in the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia.
With the likes of Human Rights Watch lining up to condemn Mr Guelleh, and after the collapse of friendly regimes in the Middle East, the West may want to take a bit more interest in the actions of one of its few allies in a no less volatile and equally vital region further south too.