Voting has begun a Gibuti, where presidential elections are held today with the outgoing head of state, Ismail Omar Guelleh, as the huge favorite. In the small but strategic country of the Horn of Africa, in fact, the 73-year-old Guelleh - who runs for a fifth term - has been the strong man of the country for more than two decades and his hold on power has never been seriously put in place. discussion ever since he took over from his uncle in 1999 Hassan Gouled Aptidon, the first Djiboutian president elected since the country's independence from France in 1977. To challenge the head of state, without great hopes, will be the neophyte of politics Zakaria Ismail Farah, A 56-year-old businessman specializing in the import of cleaning products, who will be his only rival after the traditional opposition parties have decided to boycott the elections. Guelleh, flanked by his wife and government officials, concluded his election campaign last Wednesday in a stadium packed with supporters of the Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP), the ruling party. "As I see you in large numbers today, I am sure that you will also flock to the polling stations in large numbers," said Guelleh, addressing his supporters.
What Guelleh is running for will be his last term, based on a constitutional reform approved in 2010 that abolished mandate limits but introduced an age limit of 75, which - at least in theory - will exclude him from future elections being close to turning 73. Opposition candidate Farah - who had to renounce his dual French citizenship to participate in the electoral race - for his part held small demonstrations before canceling the others scheduled in the ten days preceding the vote, complaining that he had not been offered adequate security services for the conduct of the rallies. The challenger, who called himself the "standard bearer of the poor", appeared with his wrists tied and his mouth bandaged last month in one of his rallies to protest the "unequal treatment" by the electoral authorities.
Djibouti is a largely desert country but located in a strategic geographical position, on the banks of the Red Sea and along one of the busiest trade routes in the world, at the crossroads of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula and a short distance from war-torn Yemen. Under the Guelleh presidency, Djibouti exploited this geographical advantage by investing heavily in ports and logistical infrastructure, although the country has seen in parallel a progressive erosion of press freedom and a crackdown on dissent as it opened its doors to presence. - military and economic - foreign. In 2020, the head of state also faced an unusual wave of opposition protests, all brutally repressed, after the arrest of an air force pilot who had denounced clan-based discrimination and corruption. In addition, the police stopped several spontaneous protests against Guelleh's fifth term in the run-up to the elections.
Djibouti, which gained independence from France in 1977, has remained substantially stable over the years in an often troubled region, attracting foreign military powers such as France, the United States and China - but also Italy, which is present there with 117 soldiers and 18 land vehicles employed at the Italian military support base (Bmis) providing logistical support for anti-piracy activities, as well as the Italian personnel employed in Somalia - to establish their bases there. In 2018, the country, with the aim of becoming a commercial and logistical "hub" for the entire region, also launched the first phase of what will be the largest free trade area in Africa, financed by China. The Asian giant - which sees Djibouti as a key part of its 'Belt and Road Initiative' - has also funded the construction of a railway linking Djibouti to Ethiopia's capital Addis Ababa.
Unlike neighboring Somalia, Djibouti has always remained substantially stable and impermeable to terrorist infiltrations, except in sporadic cases such as that of May 24, 2014, when a double suicide explosion in a restaurant frequented by Westerners caused the death of three people. The attack was claimed by the Somali jihadist group al Shabaab which just recently, in view of the elections on 9 April, returned to threaten Djibouti by launching an appeal to carry out attacks against "Western military targets" in the country. In an audio broadcast on the group's propaganda channels, the leader of al Shabaab, Ahmed Omar Abu Ubaydah, also accused the Djiboutian authorities of wanting to transform the country into a military base "from which to plan the war against Muslims in East Africa ”And invited his militants to“ carry out single operations of martyrdom of the lone wolf to expel the French and the Americans ”. "Make American and French interests in Djibouti the top priority of your goals," reads the audio, according to Somali website Garowe Online. Abu Ubaidah then added that al Shabaab is ready to offer "safe refuge" and "prepare and train" those who wish to migrate from Djibouti if they cannot fulfill their "individual obligation of jihad".
The threats have been taken seriously since US Command for Africa (Africom), whose spokesman Christopher Karns stated that to Shabaab "It remains a persistent threat to US interests in East Africa" and that "this is why it remains important to apply continued pressure on the al Shabaab network and isolate the threat it presents to the region and beyond". Africom has a base in Djibouti from where troops are trained and deployed to strategic locations in support of allied governments. Somalia is a beneficiary of the Africom training program, however US troops announced their withdrawal from the country at the end of 2020 and completed it in January following an executive order from then President Donald Trump, however Africom continues to lead air strikes in Somalia.