The results of Djibouti’s 9 April presidential elections seem unrealistic given evidence of ballot burning by the country’s aggrieved population. Despite prospects of a swift economic recovery this year, there remain serious concerns over debt affordability, especially to China. Meanwhile, the country’s entrenched elite and the security forces are increasingly implicated in regional arms trafficking allegations.

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Djibouti’s long-time President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh won a fifth term in office with more than 98 percent of the vote at presidential elections held on 9 April. The vote was boycotted by the main opposition and suffered from low participation – only 215,000 of Djibouti’s almost one million population were registered to vote, and officially only 177,000 ballots were cast. Immediate reports from the country, from both local sources and social media, showed evidence of ballot stuffing and ballot burning. The only opposition candidate who participated in the vote, Zakaria Ismael Farah of the Mouvement pour le Dévelopment et l’Équilibre de la Nation Djiboutienne (MDEND), dismissed the results as “far-fetched and incorrect — impossible”. (See Financial Times (FT))

The run-up to the vote was marred by frequent protests in Djibouti City, as well as outbreaks of political violence in the coastal town of Tadjourah in January. Public resistance to Guelleh, who has been in power since 1999, has grown steadily in the past year, as his legacy comes under fresh scrutiny. The strategically located country is increasingly implicated in regional arms smuggling to militant and terrorist organisations, while the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic crisis has been tainted by corruption allegations, an unsustainable debt outlook, and intensifying state repression.

The tense political and security climate in Djibouti ahead of the vote would indicate that the government panicked and exaggerated President Guelleh’s electoral victory. Evidence of mass ballot burning by opposition supporters in parts of Djibouti City, such as Arhiba, would indicate that far fewer people actually voted in the poll than officially claimed and that participation was purposefully inflated by authorities. PANGEA-RISK unpacks the events leading up to the election and assesses the evidence of vote manipulation. This report also provides new evidence of arms trafficking in Djibouti and Djibouti’s political implication in the illegal arms trade in the Horn of Africa and Yemen, thus building on previous reports delivered by our legacy company EXX Africa.

Tense build-up to Djibouti’s elections

PROTESTS IN DJIBOUTI

Public resistance to President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, who has been in power since 1999, and his ruling Rassemblement Populaire pour le Progrès (RPP) party has grown steadily in the past year. Over June and July 2020, street protests broke out following the arrest and alleged torture of Fouad Youssouf Ali, a former Lieutenant in the Djiboutian Air Force. Youssouf Ali had been detained and charged with “treason” after making public allegations of corruption against a high-ranking Djiboutian military officer. Security forces responded to the protests with force, reportedly employing batons, tear gas, and live ammunition against the demonstrators. It remains unclear how many were wounded or killed. The security forces also reportedly detained numerous journalists who were covering the unrest.

Although Djibouti has a multi-party-political system and opposition parties can exist, government handling of political dissent frequently attracts criticism from international organisations like Human Rights Watch and western governments. Public demonstrations in Djibouti are rare, and seldom last more than a day or two. As such, while Youssouf Ali’s arrest served as the trigger for the June-July protests, their duration in the face of a forceful response from the security forces indicates a significant degree of anti-government sentiment and public anger over perceived widespread corruption. Alongside the lack of opposition representation in Djibouti’s parliament and socio-economic frustrations stemming from the COVID-19 crisis, this appears to have contributed to an increasingly widespread willingness amongst both opposition elements and the broader Djiboutian public to engage in street protests.

In September 2020, Djibouti’s main opposition coalition, the l’Union pour le salut national (USN), stated their intent to mobilise against Guelleh running for a fifth term, calling for elections to be delayed until the government honoured a 2014 agreement to reform the country’s electoral commission, and for the formation of a transitional administration to govern in the interim. Guelleh’s administration responded by dismissing the USN as illegitimate and having “no legal existence.” The USN last competed in the 2013 elections, when it won 21 out of 65 parliamentary seats in the national assembly. Although the opposition party has since boycotted all elections, independent polling suggests that the USN is Djibouti’s most popular political party and could attract at least a majority of the electorate before the pandemic.

On 20 December 2020, President Guelleh announced his intention to run for a fifth term in office. The announcement came as a surprise since some observers had assumed that the president’s close advisor, Naguib Abdallah Kamil, would take the reins ahead of the 2021 election. On 6 January 2021 the ruling RPP party confirmed that Guelleh was their officially designated candidate, formalising the president’s intent. Local sources state that Guelleh had indeed intended to step down this year, due to his low popularity ratings and mounting anti-government dissent. However, the RPP became concerned that the socio-economic crisis during the pandemic, raging regional conflict in Ethiopia and Somalia, and outbreaks of political unrest in Djibouti itself would destabilise the country and thus persuaded Guelleh to remain in office and to seek another term to avoid a potentially messy political transition at a time of destabilisation.

PROTESTS IN DJIBOUTI

In response, Djiboutians began a campaign of weekly protests in Djibouti City from 2 January, which were often brutally repressed by security forces. On 15 January, fighters from the Front pour la Restauration de l’Unité et de la Démocratie (FRUD) armed opposition group attacked several security installations in the coastal town of Tadjourah, killing at least one person, in the first major such incident recorded since 2016. According to local sources, the attack was both related to increased “harassment” of FRUD forces by the military in preceding weeks, as well as the RPP’s announcement that Guelleh would seek re-election. The lead-up to the vote and violent unrest earlier this year was outlined in a previous analysis briefing by PANGEA-RISK on 27 January (see DJIBOUTI: PROTESTS AND DEBT RESTRUCTURING PAVE THE ROAD TO ELECTIONS).

COVID, nationalism, and terrorism added to the mix

Just weeks before the presidential election, the tense climate was further marred by several developments, including a warning of a threatened terrorist attack just two weeks before the elections (see break-out box). The terrorist warning fed into nationalist and populist rhetoric in the country that was intensified by pledges made just days before the election by President Guelleh to capture the Awash River, which flows through neighbouring Ethiopia. The Awash water rights are contested by Djibouti and the president’s Twitter post on 3 April suggested that his government would take military action to capture the river, which flows into Lake Abbe, which is some 100 kilometres from the head of the Gulf of Tadjoura. Although there was no official response from Ethiopia to Guelleh’s belligerent statement, the Twitter post was clearly a war-mongering call to rally his supporters and inflame simmering nationalism in the restive region.

TWITTER POST BY DJIBOUTI PRESIDENT GUELLEH CALLING FOR THE CAPTURE OF THE AWASH RIVER ON 3 APRIL

From late March, the number of COVID-19 infections also began to spike after a series of lockdown regulations in June and July 2020 ended the country’s first coronavirus wave. The second wave was almost certainly triggered by political campaign events held by the ruling RPP. Guelleh’s only opponent in the presidential election, local businessman Zakaria Ismail Farah, held no campaign events from late March (in fact, he did not even vote). Meanwhile, RPP rallies were attended by thousands of government supporters wearing no face masks.

The second wave of coronavirus infections took the government by surprise and authorities are ill-prepared for the current spike in confirmed cases. As a result, the government feared that its record of dealing successfully with the first wave last year would be undermined by an RPP-induced second wave just weeks before the election. The second coronavirus wave and pre-election terror threat were also factors in the government’s hasty and panicked actions on polling day.

Islamist terror warning ahead of elections

Then, on 27 March, the leader of Islamist militant group al-Shabaab, Abou Obaida Ahmad Omar, called for attacks on “American and French interests” in Djibouti, less than two weeks before the country’s presidential election. Ahmad Omar, also known as Ahmed Diriye and Abu Ubaidah, has been the leader of the Somalia-based Islamist group since 2014. That same year, al-Shabaab last attacked Djibouti, claiming responsibility for a suicide attack on a restaurant in Djibouti City that was frequented by expatriates, particularly French nationals. On 30 March, PANGEA-RISK assessed that even though al-Shabaab might have an aspirational wish to again attack Djibouti, which has deployed soldiers against the militant group in Somalia, the terrorist group does not have the capability to launch such an attack (see DJIBOUTI: TERRORIST WARNING IS AIMED AT UPSETTING THE REGIONAL BALANCE OF POWER).

Moreover, it seems improbable that al-Shabaab, which is currently fighting a determined campaign in Somalia and taking advantage of political instability there, would even wish to extend its campaign to Djibouti at this time. Based on multiple reports, including by PANGEA-RISK (legacy EXX Africa), the government of Djibouti and its military supply trafficked weapons to militant groups such as al-Shabaab, which is further explained below. It would therefore seem highly unlikely that the militant group would target Djibouti at a time when the fragile state faces political destabilisation. Some social media reports even alleged that the al-Shabaab terror warning was instigated by Djibouti’s military ahead of the elections. In any case, the terror alert allowed Djibouti’s security forces to crack down even more heavy-handedly on political dissent and opposition protests ahead of the April elections.

Djibouti’s elections marred by ballot burning

TORN UP BALLOTS IN THE APRIL 2021 DJIBOUTI ELECTION

The tense build-up to the April elections, including the al-Shabaab terror warning, resulted in a panicked state in Djibouti’s government and security forces. Pledged boycotts by opposition parties, violent anti-government unrest, and calls to burn voter ballots by disaffected Djiboutians raised fears among the country’s entrenched elite that the election would be seen as illegitimate due to record low participation. On polling day on 9 April, there were indeed several instances of ballot burning in a statement of civil disobedience. Social media platforms such as Facebook showed images and videos of ballot burning in the district of Arhiba in Djibouti City, as well as Balbala. A quarter of the country’s population live in Balbala, which is a massive densely populated and poor suburb to the south of the city itself, where 80 percent of housing remains temporary or crude. The former shantytown has long been considered a bulwark of anti-government sentiment and opposition support with a history of riots and political unrest.

In response to these acts of civil disobedience and voter non-participation, security forces began a hastily prepared campaign of ballot box stuffing and voter intimidation in Balbala and elsewhere. The ballot box stuffing was confirmed to PANGEA-RISK by local sources who were in Balbala on polling day, as well as social media posts. As a result, it is strongly assumed that voter participation in the elections and Guelleh’s margin of victory were highly inflated. Officially, voter participation was 69 percent, which is based on a low number of registered voters. However, low levels of voter registration ahead of the election meant that less than 17 percent of the country’s population voted in the presidential vote, according to official numbers.

The stuffing of ballot boxes on polling day with thousands of tampered ballots would indicate an even lower participation rate, with perhaps as many as 90 percent of Djiboutians refusing to vote on 9 April. It was initially expected that 500,000 Djiboutians would turn up to vote. However, even the official records state that just 177,000 ballots were cast, and it is unknown how many of these can be verified. At the last presidential election in 2016, BBC reporters were detained and expelled from the country. (See BBC) Restrictions on international observers and election monitors this year has limited reliable information from Djibouti. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), which is an eight-country trade bloc in Africa that includes Djibouti, called the elections “”peaceful and orderly””. Based on the PANGEA-RISK evidence of election manipulation in Djibouti in April, IGAD’s statement calls into question upcoming elections in other Horn of Africa states such as Somalia and Ethiopia.

Djibouti’s National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) is itself run by an ethnic Mamasan-Issa, who is loyal to President Guelleh. It is therefore unlikely that the result will be scrutinised by the courts or observers given the entrenched centralised power structure created by President Guelleh and his inner circle, as well as the lucrative patronage structure that encompasses the judiciary and security forces.

PICTURES OF BALLOT BURNING IN BALBALA, DJIBOUTI

Djibouti’s growing role in regional arms trafficking

There are further factors to consider, namely Djibouti’s role in the war in Yemen and regional arms trading. The trade of illegal weapons in the Horn of Africa remains highly lucrative and is comprehensively entwined with transnational terrorist groups, drug smuggling, and the conflict in nearby Yemen. The focus of the regional arms trade remains volatile Somalia and its semi-autonomous regions where demand for weapons remains unabated despite various embargoes and other sanctions. Over the past few years, Djibouti has emerged as an increasingly important hub for weapons trans-shipment to armed groups in the region. There is growing evidence that Djibouti is acting as a strategic transit location for weapons derived from Houthi-held territory in Yemen, which it then ships to the Awdal region of northern Somalia through its peacekeeping deployment in the AMISOM mission.

EXAMPLES OF WEAPONS SYSTEMS BROUGHT INTO DJIBOUTI’S PORTS VIA YEMEN BY TRAWLERS FLYING UNDER CHINESE AND SRI LANKAN FLAGS

Djibouti’s enhanced role in regional arms trafficking is occurring at the same time as the country’s government is seeking fresh foreign investment in its important marine port sector and related industries. Many Djiboutian companies that are engaged in the country’s thriving marine sector have been implicated in the illegal weapons trade, raising reputational risks for foreign investors seeking to participate in Djibouti’s economy. The proliferation of weapons in Djibouti is also raising concerns over armed criminal activity and rising risk of terrorist attacks in a location frequented by foreign military personnel.

DJIBOUTI PRESIDENT GUELLEH AT THE RUSSIA-AFRICA SUMMIT, 2019

Based on latest intelligence reports, the Presidential Guard unit, which is under the command of Colonel Mohamed Djama Doualeh, conducts weapons shipments that pass Djibouti’s Doraleh Port and are bound to three primary groups: Houthi rebels in Yemen, Somali-Issa militias operating in Ethiopia’s Afar region state, and Islamist militant group al-Shabaab in Somalia. To accommodate trade with the latter, Djibouti’s Presidential Guard has since last year been housing al-Shabaab members in Djibouti (specifically in the Harambous district). Recent weapons shipments from Djibouti destined for al-Shabaab and Mamassan militias at pick-up points at the border of Loyada with Somaliland include Russian-made Kalashnikov assault rifles and grenades. President Guelleh attended the 2019 Russia-Africa summit in Sochi, where multiple arms deals were signed. (See TRT World) It is believed that Djibouti’s weapons trade in the Horn of Africa is supplied by Russia, based on defence and security deals signed at Sochi in 2019.

Based on this intelligence, it seems unlikely that al-Shabaab would have carried out a terror attack in Djibouti just weeks before the presidential election given the level of support from the current Djibouti administration, including from Moustapha Handillé, who is the current military adviser to President Guelleh.

Regional dynamics in the Horn of Africa

Djibouti’s role in regional arms trafficking is set to grow even further as old foes Eritrea and Ethiopia seek to agree a lasting peace that will have significant ripple effects on the arms trade supply chain in the Horn of Africa. Armed groups in Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Sudans, as well as al-Shabaab, have long relied on Eritrea to supply weapons. As Eritrea seeks rapprochement with Ethiopia and a return to the international community, its role of arms trafficking hub will become significantly diminished.

Djibouti, which favours a weak Somalia and an isolated Eritrea, is likely to step into the gap and leverage its existing arms trafficking networks to continue to supply illegal weapons to armed groups in the Horn of Africa as Eritrea potentially steps out of the trade. Since seizing control of the Doraleh port terminal, the Djiboutian government seems to be preparing to increase shipments through the country’s main port. Most shipments of illegal weapons through Djibouti were previously done by smaller dhows via the fishing communities on the south-east coast and via the Garacad port project. It is now becoming apparent that larger weapons consignments are being shipped through Doraleh Port originally from ports in Russia and China.

Debt sustainability and the role of China

The IMF projects that Djibouti’s GDP growth will climb back to 7.1 percent in 2021, driven by the recovery of global demand for transhipment and logistics services, as well as Ethiopia’s economic recovery. Since the end of May 2020, domestic economic activity has reportedly gradually been returning to normal levels, and employment rates have increased. Nonetheless, several challenges lie ahead. Notably, Djibouti’s logistics and transportation sectors are likely to face increased competition from regional port development initiatives, notably in neighbouring Somaliland and Eritrea. Notably, since the signing of a peace agreement between the two countries in July 2018, Eritrea has dramatically improved its relations with Djibouti’s primary trading partner, Ethiopia.

If economic recovery is slower than anticipated, sustained budgetary pressures are likely to push the government to increasingly look to its development partners and international financial institutions for additional funding over the coming year. This is likely to exacerbate the country’s debt situation. While total public debt and publicly guaranteed external debt were starting to drop in the two years before the pandemic – estimated to have reached around 66 percent of GDP in 2019 – debt was still deemed to be too high. In this regard, financial support in the form of grants is required as is debt restructuring with external creditors, including China. To this end, Djibouti has already been in discussions to restructure a railway loan with Exim Bank of China.

However, concerns still abound over whether Djibouti will be able to pay back its loans to China for the many other infrastructure projects in the country. Since 2019, Djibouti’s annual debt service due to China has increased by 120 percent, coming in at USD 104 million in 2021. Moreover, Chinese loans account for some 80 percent of the country’s debt service payments, which is likely to offset the positive impact of future IMF debt relief efforts directed at Djibouti. Much of the debt consists of government-guaranteed public enterprise debt and is owed to China Exim Bank. This high level of debt has raised concerns about Djibouti’s vulnerability to Chinese influence or manipulation, which have been partially realised in the control of the Doraleh Container Terminal and the rapid increase in China’s military presence in the country (see DJIBOUTI: CHINA TILT HAS IMPERILLED DEBT SUSTAINABILITY AND POLITICAL STABILITY).

Djibouti’s sovereign wealth fund, which has been touted as a key legacy achievement by backers of President Guelleh, has remained mostly dysfunctional and taken a side-lines approach on debt restructuring negotiations. As a result, there have been fresh concerns that China will again seek strategic assets, such as ports infrastructure, as collateral in debt restructurings.

Rule of law and contract risks

DORALEH PORT, DJIBOUTI

China’s heavy presence in Djibouti has raised concerns over the rule of law and the outlook for contract risks. In 2018, Djibouti seized ownership of the Doraleh Container Terminal from the United Arab Emirates-owned Dubai Ports World (DP World) maritime freight company (see DJIBOUTI: NATIONALISATION OF PORT TERMINAL HERALDS NEW ECONOMIC NATIONALISM). The terminal sits within the Chinese backed free trade zone, is the largest employer in the country, and is the biggest source of revenue for the government. The decision constituted a severe nationalist act on behalf of the Djiboutian government as DP World was originally awarded the concession in 2006.

POSTER OF PRESIDENT ISMAÏL OMAR GUELLEH OUTSIDE DJIBOUTI’S AIRPORT

After nationalising the terminal, however, Djibouti transferred a stake of more than 23.5 percent to China Merchant Holdings and engaged a Singaporean company with links to China Merchants to expand the facilities at the site. Djibouti is also believed to have since granted China Merchants Holding additional rights to operate the Terminal in exchange for investments and loans. Earlier in January, China’s biggest port operator, China Merchants Group, agreed a deal with Djibouti to turn its port into a regional hub in a USD 3 billion development agreement, which has further cemented the bilateral relationship. As the biggest revenue earner in the country, some have alleged that this inclusion of China in the Terminal occurred as Djibouti was unable to pay back its debt.

The Doraleh confiscation incident is a rare instance of contract cancellation and asset expropriation, and this has put Djibouti at the top of the list of contract frustration risks on the continent. Foreign courts have on multiple occasions reprimanded Djibouti’s government and judiciary for breaches of the rule of law. Most recently, the UK Royal Courts of Justice Commercial Court ordered the Djibouti government to pay damages to the founder of Doraleh terminal, businessman Abdourahman Boreh, and found that a “concerted campaign” had been waged against Boreh and his business interests.

INSIGHT

The results of Djibouti’s 9 April presidential elections seem unrealistic given evidence of ballot burning by the country’s aggrieved population. Despite prospects of a swift economic recovery this year, there remain serious concerns over debt affordability, especially to China. Meanwhile, the country’s entrenched elite and the security forces are increasingly implicated in regional arms trafficking allegations.

As such, the political opposition looks likely to take a greater role in organising and pushing for protests in the coming months, with a focus on Djibouti City. For instance, Mohamed Daoud Chehem, head of the Parti djiboutien pour le développement, has declared that the opposition’s electoral boycott has not worked, and signalled that protests may be a more effective way to force President Guelleh to accept a political transition. Triggers for spontaneous widespread protests are likely to include the arrest of opposition politicians, as well as the deaths of protesters due to violence by the security forces. The security forces are likely to respond rapidly and forcefully to any instances of civil unrest, and there is a high likelihood that demonstrations will devolve into violence.

Protests are likely to have a significant short-term impact on commercial activity in affected areas. For instance, demonstrators in Djibouti City have previously erected roadblocks using burning tyres and other obstacles on major transit corridors. In coming months, there is also an elevated threat of attacks on the security forces as well as sabotage of construction projects by FRUD elements in the areas surrounding the coastal towns of Obock and Tadjourah. Nonetheless, the prospects for a sustained co-ordinated protest campaign will be limited by the fragmented and disorganised nature of the opposition, as well as government-imposed restrictions.

While Djibouti grapples with these political and economic challenges, the country remains largely insulated from deepening political and security crises in the Horn of Africa region. Even though the longer-term outlook remains more uncertain, in the short-term there is a low likelihood of spill-over, which may threaten energy infrastructure and development projects in Djibouti’s border areas. At the same time, the reliance of Djibouti’s transport and logistics sectors on Ethiopian customs means that growing instability in Ethiopia threatens to affect commercial operations in Djibouti. For instance, previous bouts of inter-communal ethic violence and related protests in Ethiopia’s Afar region have resulted in blockades of critical overland routes carrying goods from Ethiopia to Djibouti’s ports. This threat is likely to endure over the coming year.

After the elections, interest will inevitably return to political succession scenarios. With President Guelleh having been in power since 1999, calls for a succession plan have only mounted. The list of potential successors includes family members, with the most favoured candidate being the president’s stepson, Naguib Abdallah Kamil. Regardless, with Kamil being a close relative and even senior advisor to the president, any succession plan is likely to be mere window dressing as President Guelleh is unlikely to give up any hold on power. This is particularly the case as the president’s family dominates the construction, logistics, telecommunications, and tourism sectors throughout the country. Moreover, despite the potential for anti-government grievances this year, the ruling administration is likely to retain its hold on power, particularly as opposition parties have been successively weakened by the heavy-handed approach of the government over the past two decades.

SEE COUNTRY OUTLOOK: DJIBOUTI