Sunday, 8 May 2016

Chad and Djibouti: Elections and dictatorships


Questionable elections in Chad and Djibouti have put long-time leaders back in power, with world powers turning a blind eye, writes Haitham Nuri

In April, two African rulers in power for more than 15 years managed to extend their terms in office. Although popular opposition against them is growing every day, it was not enough to remove them from power.


In the former French colony of Chad, President Idriss Déby, in power since 1990, won another five-year term, while in Djibouti, also a former French colony, President Ismail Omar Guelleh won a fourth term in office, which he first assumed in 1999.


In Chad, the election committee announced that Déby had won a fifth term with 61.5 per cent of the vote; his closest competitor took just 13 per cent. According to the committee, 76 per cent of the country’s six million eligible voters turned out for the poll.


For years, Déby has based his presidential appeal on one issue, apparently successfully: that he is the only person who can prevent Chad’s defeat at the hands of the Nigerian Boko Haram, which carried out a suicide bombing in a crowded market and security headquarters in the capital of N’Djamena, leaving dozens of people dead and wounded.


Déby has won all the country’s elections since 2001 by a landslide.


For the last year, the French-backed Chadian army and security forces have played an effective role in confronting Boko Haram as part of a five-state coalition with Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Benin.


Chad is home to the main operations centre of the coalition against Boko Haram and also hosts one of the largest deployments of French forces in Africa, which twice helped protect the regime from a Sudanese-backed invasion, as well as quell domestic popular movements.


Western media reports consider the Chadian army the best equipped to confront Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region, and N’Djamena played a key role in supporting France in its operations in Mali against Al-Qaeda, which occupied the north of the country in 2013.


Nevertheless, the country faces major challenges that have stoked popular anger at the regime. Prices have been steadily rising due to a cessation of trade with neighbouring countries, especially Nigeria and Cameroon, as a result of the war against Boko Haram.


Depressed oil prices, too, have had a sharp impact on the state budget, which relies on petroleum exports, keeping the country near the bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index at 186, making it one of the least developed countries in the world.


The country also has a poor human rights record. Freedom House classifies it as “not free”, and it ranks 127 of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders index.


“The West sees Déby as a dependable ally in the war on terrorism, so it supports him,” said Hussein Adam, a Chadian journalist residing in Cairo. “The regime also promotes itself as the backbone of stability in the country, pointing to actions by Islamists in Libya and Mali.”


Adam continued: “I don’t anticipate any genuine popular uprisings against Déby, and I don’t expect him to step down, but the situation in Chad will remain unstable due to religious and ethnic divisions and regional tension.”


In Djibouti, Guelleh succeeded his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who was the country’s first president after independence from France in 1977. Guelleh won two presidential elections before amending the constitution in 2010 to allow him to run for two additional five-year presidential terms.


In the elections of April, Guelleh won 87 per cent of the vote, exceeding the 80 per cent of vote he took in the 2011 elections, but less than the 100 per cent of vote he won in the election of 2005, after his rival, Mohamed Daoud Chehem, withdrew from the race.


“We did not advance. The only thing we did was enable the ruling party to win without a competitor or challenger,” Chehem told AFP last month, assessing the decision.


Chehem won no more than one per cent of the vote this time around, while Omar Elmi Khaireh, a former fighter in the war of independence who was detained by French occupation forces, came in second in the race with less than seven per cent. Khaireh was the candidate for the opposition Union for National Salvation.


According to the election committee, all of whose members were appointed by Guelleh, there were 191,000 registered voters, or about 20 per cent of the country’s population, estimated at 906,000 in 2014, according to the UN.


Enjoying a significant strategic location, Djibouti sits at the southern entrance to the Red Sea, on the western bank of the Mandeb Straits. The small African nation is thus connected to the Suez Canal in the north and the Gulf of Aden in the south, which has been threatened by Somali pirates in recent years.


It is Ethiopia’s sole outlet to the sea, linked to Addis Ababa by an old railway line built under Emperor Haile Selassie. China is currently building a new rail line. Djibouti is also the closest piece of territory in Africa to the Arabian Peninsula, with its pivotal importance to the global energy industry.


For all these reasons, France has maintained a military base in Djibouti since independence, before the US joined it to set up its largest naval base in Africa, which houses more than 4,000 soldiers.


Italy, along with Spain, established its first military base on the Horn of Africa here after Ethiopian imperial forces expelled it in the 1930s with British assistance, followed by its defeat and exit from Italian Somalia after World War II.


The area is also Germany’s first base in Africa since its defeat in World War I, while Japan set up its first military base outside its own territory since 1945 here.


China is currently building its first base outside Asia, to house 10,000 troops, paying Djibouti $100 million for 10 years, as well as offering assistance in infrastructure projects. The projects are expected to facilitate China’s trade with the African continent, which was valued at more than $200 billion in 2015. African-US trade does not exceed $74 billion annually.


China has already deployed some 700 peacekeeping troops, as part of the UN Mission in South Sudan, to protect its oil investments in South Sudan.


All these countries use their bases to protect their ships from piracy in the Gulf of Aden. The US base in Djibouti is also used in counterterrorism operations, largely in Somalia and Yemen.


Because of its vital position and the heavy international presence, no Western power has wanted to take punitive measures against Djibouti for its poor human rights record. According to Reporters Without Borders, Djibouti ranks 170 on its press freedom index, ahead of only 10 other countries, including its northern neighbour Eritrea (ranked last) and western neighbour Ethiopia. Last month, Djibouti deported a BBC crew that came to the country to cover the presidential elections.


According to a government report, all these international bases provide jobs for thousands of citizens. One-quarter of Djibouti’s population is poor, while the unemployment rate among the working-age population is nearly 50 per cent.


Djibouti ranked 168 of 190 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index in 2015.


Guelleh’s government is seeking investments of more than $12 billion from 2015 to 2020, to build airports, roads, railways and infrastructure to support the expansion of commercial and tourist activity in the country.


Since most of Djibouti’s land is covered in volcanic rock, it is a poor country for agriculture. The port is therefore the country’s principal source of income and the largest employer.


With Guelleh firmly ensconced in power, bigger projects appear to loom on Djibouti’s horizon, but rising popular anger may put a dent in the completion of his plans.

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