A Friendly Little Dictatorship in the Horn of Africa

Why the world doesn't care about Djibouti's autocracy.

In the shadow of the extraordinary events under way in the Middle East, Djibouti's presidential vote was always going to struggle for attention. Indeed, the plight of this tiny country, sandwiched between Somalia and Yemen, remains almost completely ignored. But as the primary seaport to 85 million landlocked Ethiopians, the center of anti-piracy efforts in the Horn of Africa, and a reliable Western ally in the war on terror, Djibouti is a strategically vital country in an unstable neighborhood.

And with Nigeria's potentially tumultuous national vote coming this week, the relative quiet of the Djiboutian electoral process, which culminated with a ballot on April 8, might be considered a pleasant surprise compared with the electoral chaos of Africa's largest democracy. Djibouti boasts fewer than a million inhabitants -- voters in one district of the Nigerian city of Lagos outnumber its entire electoral roll.

But Djiboutian democracy is deeply flawed. The national parliament has not a single opposition legislator. The only national broadcaster, Radio-Television Djibouti, is the mouthpiece of the ruling party, slavishly reporting on the president's visits and appointments. There are almost no independent civil society organizations, and, with almost all possible employment controlled by the state, criticism of the regime is a bad career move. In this environment, this year's electoral campaign was little more than an exercise in hero worship of the incumbent president, Ismail Omar Guelleh.

Facing a two-term limit, Guelleh changed the constitution in April 2010 to allow him to stand for another five years in office. Guelleh came to power in 1999, succeeding his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who served as Djibouti's first president since independence from France in 1977. His administration has brought trade deals and investment to Djibouti, but it has done little to address the country's massive unemployment, which by some estimates exceeds 60 percent. He ran again in 2005 and officially won 100 percent of the vote. Facing a single independent challenger and a complete opposition boycott of this year's vote, Guelleh's reelection is certain.

If the story ended there, Djibouti would be a sad if predictable tale of autocracy -- little different from Gabon, Syria, or Azerbaijan. With no natural resources to speak of, this microstate, more famous for its scuba diving than its diverse politics, is barely a footnote on the world agenda.

But to the West, and particularly the United States and France, 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 U.S. 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. The CIA is rumored to maintain facilities in country: One former detainee is suing the Djiboutian authorities for allegedly being complicit in his extraordinary rendition from Tanzania to Djibouti, and then to a network of clandestine CIA prisons in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan, according to the Washington Post.

And France has interests there, too: Its largest overseas military presence remains in this former colony, which hosts a half-brigade of the Foreign Legion. French fighter planes sit at Ambouli airport. A mutual defense treaty remains in force between the two states.

But Djibouti, a full member of the Arab League, has not been immune to the unrest sweeping the region. The largest demonstration in years, numbering about 4,000 people, was held outside Djibouti's national stadium on Feb. 18 to protest the likelihood of Guelleh's third term. With no international media present in the country and with no free local press, the popular demonstrations were quickly suppressed. And as the French ambassador told me after the pro-democracy protests, during which the police tear-gassed and stormed the crowd to disperse the gathering, "These local events don't worry us. Terrorism, piracy, those are the real issues."

Djiboutians pay the price for the West's apathy. As Human Rights Watch noted this week, the government has imposed an unconstitutional ban on public assembly, criminalizing any gathering in public. Rather than subjecting the electoral process to independent scrutiny, the government of Djibouti has jailed human rights activists and expelled international observers. An unconfirmed number of political activists remain in custody and held without charge.

Djibouti may be a small country and a valuable Western ally in a volatile region. But it should be subject to the same scrutiny and standards as those applied to other countries with dubious track records. Though Djibouti may not be in the headlines, its relationship with the West is equally in need of re-evaluation.



After Gbagbo, Then What?

As the end of the Ivory Coast presidential conflict draws near, the real crisis looms: how to rebuild.

It's been a tortuous few weeks in the Ivory Coast -- but the turmoil would appear, at least at first glance, to be reaching a conclusion. After a loss in last fall's long-delayed presidential elections, the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, stubbornly refused to accept defeat and step down. Frustrated and tired of waiting for talks, armed forces loyal to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally supported president-elect, decided to depose Gbagbo by force. Over days of fierce fighting in the economic capital of Abidjan, Gbagbo has seemed close to negotiating his departure on several occasions, only to recant and re-entrench. Nevertheless, it is believed that Gbagbo's days are numbered, and everyone is eagerly awaiting the cathartic moment of his departure.

Cathartic it may be, but Gbagbo's final ousting, whenever it comes, will not resolve all of the country's problems, and the biggest hurdles for Ouattara's new government are yet to come. Even under the best of circumstances, Ouattara will have an incredibly difficult task in trying to reunite the country and reconcile a polarized nation. The incoming president seems at least to understand what he's up against. Speaking on Ivorian television on Thursday evening, he told the nation that he wanted to be the "president for all Ivorians, the protector of all the people." The question now is whether his fellow citizens give him the chance.

The Ivory Coast has suffered through more than a decade of ethnic tension that has more than once burst into civil strife. Minority groups with ethnic, cultural, and religious ties to Burkina Faso, Mali, and Guinea have long been marginalized from political (and at times economic) life, considered less Ivorian than their fellow citizens. In 1994, the Ivorian-majority National Assembly under then president Henri Konan Bédié introduced a rule to prevent such minorities from reaching the presidency, a mechanism designed to exclude Ouattara, a former prime minister said to be of Burkinabe origin, from running in the 1995 and 2000 elections. That legislation opened the floodgates for a wave of racism, which engulfed every aspect of national life. Stricter rules for the acquisition of citizenship and land rights were introduced, for example, requiring that an applicant be Ivorian by birth and have two Ivorian parents.

By 2002, the frustrations that arose from these exclusionist and xenophobic policies broke out into a full-fledged civil war, splitting the country into the rebel-held north and the government-controlled south. Even today, many Ivorians in the south believe that Ouattara, a Muslim from the north, is not a true Ivorian. He will have to persuade many of the 46 percent of voters who marked Gbagbo on their ballots, most of whom reside in the south and in Abidjan, that he can legitimately represent them.

Over the last four months, the rebel troops that controlled the north in the last conflict backed Ouattara -- a fact that will certainly not help the president-elect's national image, since it fuels long-held suspicions, shared by Gbagbo's supporters, that he was behind a failed military coup in 2002. More generally, Ouattara's collaboration with the rebels and the use of military force to depose Gbagbo have stained the new president's image as a peaceful, democratic leader. Even more damaging are reports of a massacre in the western town of Duékoué, in which forces loyal to Ouattara allegedly killed hundreds of civilians. The killings not only delegitimized the troops' democratic cause but may also inspire reprisal killings in the future.

If Ouattara is to represent all Ivorians, he will need to promptly investigate and seek punishment for any crimes against civilians during this conflict, even if his supporters are found to be at fault. On April 7 in his address to the nation, he promised to do so, saying that anyone who used violence against the civilian population would be brought to justice. But in practice, that won't be easy. A highly diverse group of people are currently fighting for Ouattara, many of whom are ad-hoc militias rather than professionally trained soldiers.

Ouattara will also need to find a way to explain his amicable relationship with France, another factor that could spark mistrust among Gbagbo backers. Ouattara's wife is French, and the president-elect is rumored to be a friend of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The former colonial power in the Ivory Coast, France is widely resented -- a fact that became all the more true after November 2004, when Gbagbo launched an unprovoked attack on a French military base and the French retaliated. Anti-French and anti-imperialist rhetoric was Gbagbo's primary tool as he consolidated his regime and broadened his support base beyond his Bété ethnic group; this was clearly part of France's reluctance to assume a more active role in the resolution of the Ivorian crisis. But when U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote to Sarkozy on April 3, requesting French military help in protecting civilians, Paris did step in to enforce the peacekeepers' mandate.

The United Nations and France claim that the recent decision to bomb Gbagbo's strategic positions was taken when Gbagbo's troops started to use heavy weapons, such as mortars and rocket launchers, against civilians and the U.N. headquarters in Abidjan. However, it has been lost on no one that their military operation coincided with an unsuccessful siege of Gbagbo's presidential palace led by Ouattara's troops. Gbagbo's supporters may easily interpret France and the U.N.'s intervention primarily as assistance to Ouattara, rather than an operation aimed at protecting civilians.

France's central role in negotiations to force Gbagbo out -- Paris insisted that he sign a document recognizing Ouattara's presidency -- certainly did not help in countering this impression. Evidently, such an intervention was warranted, as the crisis began to get bloodier and more entrenched. And the regional economic body of West Africa, ECOWAS, wouldn't have been able to pull it off with the speed and agility that the French did. But an ECOWAS-led rather than U.N. and French-backed military operation would have sent, perhaps, a more conciliatory message to the Ivorian people.

And so Ouattara is in a pickle. One possible solution would be to form a unity government that includes members of Gbagbo's cabinet. But Gbagbo himself must be excluded. Coalition cabinets in Kenya and Zimbabwe -- where post-electoral crises originating from an incumbent's refusal to step down were resolved with the creation of a unity government -- have proved disastrous. In both cases, sharing power between the incumbent and the main opposition leader turned out to be little more than the prolongation of an uneasy status quo. In fact, since the first military coup in December 1999, the Ivory Coast itself has gone through several more or less inefficient interim unity governments. The last one, resulting from the signature of the Ouagadougou peace agreement in 2007, should make clear how dangerous a unity government could be. Then, Gbagbo successfully sidelined every other political leader, ensuring that he set the terms of the country's future. In many ways, he was just buying time to prepare for the elections that he has just lost.

Other options to overcome the crisis include a constitutional change that would move the country from a presidential to a parliamentary system, with more room for diverse ruling coalitions. Decentralizing the country to empower local and regional governments could also help reduce regional tensions between ethnic groups. But neither of these options is seriously considered by Ivorian politicians in the short-term.

So Gbagbo's removal, when it finally comes, will be an important step in the resolution of this crisis -- but it will be just the first. Ouattara will have to rebuild economy, put a stop to impunity (including among his own ranks), and build strong democratic institutions in the hopes of preventing similar scenarios in the future. Above all, he will have to convince Gbagbo's supporters that he is their leader -- a fellow Ivorian.