A small country maintaining good relations with both of its neighbours and a range of global powers, Djibouti is often referred to as an island of stability in a sometimes-troubled region. Despite domestic challenges related to the country’s economic and infrastructural development, political life has been relatively peaceful in recent years, with strong continuity in government and economic growth.
POLITICAL SYSTEM: Djibouti is a unitary, democratic republic with a constitutional and legal system based on the French Napoleonic Code. The country has universal suffrage, under which the president, as the head of state and chief executive power, is directly elected. It also has a unicameral National Assembly in which the government is led by the prime minister. Laws may be proposed by either the president or by members of the assembly, and are passed by absolute majority, with no presidential veto. They may, however, be referred to the Constitutional Council for assessment of their constitutional compliance.
The president is directly elected for a five-year term, with no limitation on the number of terms that can be served. He or she then appoints a Council of Ministers, or cabinet, and the prime minister who will lead it. Traditionally, the president has been from the Issa ethnic and linguistic grouping, while the prime minister has been an Afar, with a customary division of cabinet posts between these two main groups of the Djiboutian population. The president also serves as commander-in-chief of the Djiboutian Armed Forces, which include army, navy, air force and National Gendarmerie units.
The presidency is currently filled by Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, while Abdoulkader Kamil Mohamed is the current prime minister. President Guelleh has won every presidential election since assuming office in 1999, with the last election having taken place in 2016, when he won 87% of the popular vote. The next presidential elections will take place in 2020.
The unicameral National Assembly, meanwhile, consists of 65 members, elected for five-year terms from multi-seat constituencies. The assembly elects a president, who convenes sessions, may propose bills, and nominates two of the six members of the Constitutional Council. Since 2015, the president of the assembly has been Mohamed Ali Houmed.
The current chamber was voted in following scheduled elections in February 2018, which were held for the first time using a closed-list system, under which 80% of the seats in each constituency were awarded to the party with the most votes, with the remainder distributed proportionately to all those other parties achieving more than 10% of the total vote. There is also a 25% quota for female members.
The election, which was boycotted by the Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development, saw the Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP), take an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly, winning 57 seats. A coalition of the opposition Union for Democracy and Justice and Djibouti Party for Development won seven seats, while the Centre of Unified Democrats won one seat.
The UMP, whose main constituent parties have dominated Djibouti’s political landscape for decades, is a coalition comprising the People’s Rally for Progress (RPP), whose members are predominantly of the Issa clan, and the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD), which is mostly made up of Afar – and three other parties, namely the National Democratic Party, the Social Democratic People’s Party, and the Union of Reform Partisans.
DOMESTIC AFFAIRS: Administratively, the country is divided into five regions and one city, the capital, with these regions further subdivided into 20 districts. The regions are Ali Sabieh, Arta, Dikhil, Obock and Tadjoura. The 20 districts are then further subdivided into municipalities and communes, although Djibouti City has 21 city sub-districts of its own. The neighbouring suburb of Balbala is now also considered part of Djibouti City, and has 14 sub-districts.
Decentralisation was firmly placed on the country’s political agenda as part of the 2001 settlement that put a formal end to civil conflict between pro-RPP and pro-FRUD forces. This unrest first broke out in 1991, but had largely come to an end by 1994. The first elections for regional assemblies were then held in 2006, with the RPP and FRUD dominating the victories. Since then, however, other parties have made inroads, with opposition candidates winning seats in Djibouti City in the February 2017 municipal polls.
The country has a minister in charge of decentralised governance, Mohamed Aramis, who is overseeing the potential further devolution of powers to the regions. Decentralisation, the government argues, can help increase political participation and efficiency, and to spur regional economic growth.
COURTS OF LAW: The judicial system brings together French law, Islamic law and local customary law, with three separate court systems in place. Civil matters are referred to customary courts, which exist at the trial level in each region and in the capital district, with an appeals court in Djibouti City. Family matters that fall under the jurisdiction of Islamic law are dealt with in shariah courts, with a similar system of trial and appellate bodies in place. The third, French-modelled system deals with criminal and civil cases, with the Supreme Court (SC) at its head. The SC may hear appeals from the customary and shariah branches.
The members of the SC are appointed by the president, on the advice of the Superior Council of the Magistry. The latter also joins with the president and the speaker of the national assembly to pick the six-member Constitutional Council. This holds the power of judicial review, and is a court of last resort, with its members serving for eight-year terms.
KEEPING SECURE: Bordering Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, Djibouti’s relations with its immediate neighbours have been key in establishing stability and peace within the country. Fortunately, these relations have largely been a success story, with Djibouti staying out of the long-running armed conflicts between the three. In contrast, Djibouti has periodically become a refuge for many people displaced by turbulence in their home countries.
An exception to this relative neutrality came in 2008, when a long-standing disagreement with Eritrea over boundary demarcation in the Dumeira Mountain and Island region led to two days of armed clashes, with the United Nations Security Council concluding Eritrea was the aggressor. The dispute was eventually referred to Qatar for mediation, but Qatari peacekeepers were withdrawn from the region in 2017. Djibouti’s request for an African Union fact-finding mission was met with no response from Eritrea. The border remains quiet today, although the dispute still lacks a clear resolution.
Djibouti also lies close to conflicts across the Red Sea in Yemen and next door in Somalia, while the Gulf of Aden and seas off the Somali coast have been flashpoints for piracy in recent times. As a safe haven strategically located within this sphere, Djibouti has thus become a base for many international operations and global powers. The port is now home to military bases for the US, China, Japan, Italy, and France, with the French base also housing German and Spanish troops. These foreign missions serve both as a testament to Djibouti’s ability to steer a path of friendship between many competing powers, and as a welcome injection of foreign investment into the country’s growing economy.
MOVING FORWARD: Since the effective end of civil conflict in 1994, Djibouti has successfully maintained a key alliance in government between its main ethnic and linguistic groups. Its political landscape has also changed from single-party rule to multi-party democracy – an often difficult transition, though one Djibouti has achieved largely peacefully.
Challenges like unemployment and poverty, however, still present difficulties for individuals and the government alike. Meanwhile, low voter turnout and the election boycott by some opposition groups have raised questions of representation and inclusion.
Nonetheless, the economy has expanded significantly under the current government, with growth reaching an estimated 6.8% in 2017 and the African Development Bank predicting consecutive years of 6.9% expansion in 2018 and 2019.
Infrastructure development and attracting growing levels of foreign direct investment are major economic policy goals. To this end, the government’s Djibouti Vision 2035 development blueprint aims to consolidate the country’s regional integration objectives while also boosting Djibouti’s role as a major base for communications and trade within the Horn of Africa and lower Red Sea regions. The plan targets achieving middle-income country status by 2035, which if achieved will ensure that Djibouti stands on a solid foundation for continued development.
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