Freedom in the World 2011

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Djibouti (2011)

Capital: Djibouti

Population: 864,000

Political Rights Score: 6
Civil Liberties Score: 5
Status: Not Free

Status Change Explanation

Djibouti’s political rights rating declined from 5 to 6 and its status from Partly Free to Not Free due to constitutional changes that will allow President Ismael Omar Guelleh to run for a third term in office.


Djibouti’s parliament amended the constitution in April 2010, clearing the way for President Ismael Omar Guelleh to run for a third term. Meanwhile, a growing insurgency by ethnic Afar rebels led to fears of a renewal of the country’s 1991–94 civil war. Tensions with neighboring Eritrea were reduced in June, when both sides agreed to negotiate a solution to their border dispute.
Djibouti gained independence from France in 1977. Its people are divided along ethnic and clan lines, with the majority Issa (Somali) and minority Afar peoples traditionally falling into opposing political camps. An Afar rebel group, the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD), launched a guerrilla war against Issa domination in 1991. In 1994, the largest FRUD faction agreed to end its insurgency in exchange for inclusion in the government and electoral reforms.
President Hassan Gouled Aptidon controlled a one-party system until 1992, when a new constitution authorized four political parties. In 1993, Gouled won a fourth six-year term in Djibouti’s first contested presidential election, which was considered fraudulent by international observers.
Gouled stepped down in 1999, but his nephew, Ismael Omar Guelleh, won that year’s presidential poll with 74 percent of the vote. It was regarded as Djibouti’s first fair election since independence. In 2001, a peace accord was signed with the remaining Afar rebel groups. A bloc of four parties under the umbrella Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP) ran against a four-party opposition bloc, the Union for a Democratic Alternative (UAD), in the 2003 parliamentary elections. The UMP captured all 65 seats.
In 2005, Guelleh won a second six-year term. The only challenger withdrew from the election, citing government control of the media and repression of the opposition. Legislative elections in 2008 were boycotted by the main opposition parties, which complained of government abuses including the house arrest of opposition leaders and manipulation of the electoral process. Also in 2008, an Eritrean military incursion along the disputed border resulted in the deaths of a number of Djiboutian soldiers. Eritrea ignored a UN Security Council resolution calling for a withdrawal. The standoff continued until June 2010, when both sides agreed to a Qatari offer of mediation and Eritrea pulled its forces back from the contested area.
Meanwhile, unresolved grievances among the Afar led to a revival of the FRUD insurgency. In the worst of many armed clashes between government troops and rebel forces in 2010, three government soldiers were killed in an ambush in May. Afar grievances were augmented by political developments. In April, Guelleh, a member of the Issa majority, pressured the parliament into passing a constitutional amendment that overturned the two-term limit for presidents. The change cleared the way for him to run for a third term in 2011.
Guelleh has used Djibouti’s strategic location on the Gulf of Aden to generate millions of dollars in state revenue by renting military bases to his allies. Since 2001, Djibouti has been home to large U.S. and French bases, and in May 2010 Japan announced plans to build a $40 million naval facility in the country.
Recurrent drought in 2010 posed serious hardships for many residents. An assessment by UN agencies found that half of the rural population needed emergency food aid, while the World Food Programme estimated that a quarter of the population was malnourished.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Djiboutiis not an electoral democracy. The formal structures of representative government and electoral processes have little relevance to the real distribution and exercise of power. The ruling party has traditionally used state resources to maintain itself in government.
The constitutional amendment passed by the parliament in April 2010, in addition to removing the existing two-term limit for presidents, reduced presidential terms from six years to five and specified that candidates must be aged between 40 and 75. Incumbent president Ismael Omar Guelleh announced in December his intention to stand for a third term in 2011.
The 65 members of the unicameral parliament, the National Assembly, are directly elected for five-year terms. Opposition parties are disadvantaged by electoral rules and the government’s abuse of the administrative apparatus. In the 2003 legislative elections, the ruling UMP coalition won 62 percent of the vote. It captured all of the National Assembly seats, however, because the election law stipulates that the winner of the majority in each of the country’s five electoral constituencies is awarded all seats in that district. Opposition parties boycotted the 2005 presidential election and the 2008 parliamentary polls.
Political parties are required to register with the government. In 2008, Guelleh issued a decree that dissolved the opposition Movement for Democratic Renewal party, whose leader had reportedly voiced support for that year’s Eritrean military incursion.
Efforts to curb corruption have met with little success. Djibouti was ranked 91 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Despite constitutional protections, freedom of speech is not upheld in practice. The domestic media sector is very limited. The government owns the principal newspaper, La Nation, as well as Radio-Television Djibouti (RTD), which operates the national radio and television stations. Strict libel laws mean that journalists generally avoid covering sensitive issues, including human rights, the army, the FRUD, and relations with Ethiopia. The opposition-oriented Le Renouveaunewspaper was closed in 2007 over an article alleging that a businessman had paid a bribe to the national bank governor, the president’s brother-in-law. Registered political parties are allowed to produce their own newspapers, and the opposition National Democratic Party took up the opportunity during 2010, publishing La Republique.Foreign radio broadcasts are available from the British Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America, and Radio France Internationale. The government places few restrictions on internet access, although the Association for Respect of Human Rights in Djibouti (ARDHD) claims that its site is regularly blocked.
Islam is the state religion, and 94 percent of the population is Muslim. Freedom of worship is respected. While academic freedom is generally upheld, higher educational opportunities are limited.
Freedoms of assembly and association are nominally protected under the constitution, but the government is intolerant of criticism. The Interior Ministry requires permits for peaceful assemblies, and police have dispersed several demonstrations, including protests against high food prices. Local human rights groups do not operate freely. In 2007,Djibouti League of Human Rights chairman Jean-Paul Noël Abdi was found guilty of “defamation and spread of false information” and sentenced to six months in prison. An appeal before the Supreme Court was pending in 2010. Workers may join unions and strike. In practice, thegovernment discourages truly independent unions and has been accused of meddling in their internal elections and harassing union representatives.
The judicial system is based on the French civil code, though Sharia (Islamic law) prevails in family matters. The death penalty was abolished as part of a series of constitutional amendments approved by the parliament in April 2010. The courts are not independent of the government. Allegations of politically motivated prosecutions surfaced in June following the conviction in absentia of Djibouti’s richest businessman,Abdourahman Boreh,on charges of terrorism.A friend-turned-critic of the president, he was accused of directing a grenade attack in Djibouti City. He was not represented by a defense lawyer. Boreh claimed that his 15-year sentence was intended to derail a potential presidential bid in 2011.
A lack of resources often delays legal proceedings. Security forces frequently make arrests without a proper decree from a judicial magistrate, in violation of constitutional requirements. Prison conditions are harsh, but there have been some improvements in recent years.
Minority groups including the Afar people, Yemeni Arabs, and non-Issa Somalis suffer social and economic marginalization.
Women face serious discrimination under customary practices related to inheritance and other property matters, divorce, and the right to travel. Female genital mutilation is widespread, though women’s groups working to curb the practice have reportedly achieved some progress. An estimated 50 percent of girls are now receiving primary education following efforts to increase female enrollment. A law requiring at least 10 percent of elected offices to be held by women has also had a positive effect. The 2008 parliamentary elections resulted in a record nine female lawmakers, representing 14 percent of the legislature. Women are also well represented in the judiciary, as more than 50 percent of serving magistrates are female.