Abdourahman Waberi, Ali Deberkale, Dimitri Verdonck

This article was originally published in La Règle du Jeu, Paris. Translation from French to English by Nathalie Fouyer. Click here for the original...

On the eve of the legislative election of February 22, 2013, in the Republic of Djibouti, Hafez Mohamed Hassan, a 14-year-old schoolboy, was shot dead by the secret service of President Ismaël Omar Guelleh’s regime while he was taking part in demonstration organized by a group of teenagers protesting the lack of sports facilities in their region of Obock. This is what happens when Djibouti is preparing for an election: Bullets and blood are meted out for those who demand free, transparent, and fair elections. The regime has had a monopoly on local media for the past 36 years, and the French media could not be bothered to deal with the undeniable question of repression in its former colony where France, in fact, retains its largest foreign military base.

For more than 10 years, and particularly at the dawn of each election, political opposition members, unionists, teachers, human rights activists and regular citizens in Djibouti have suffered brutal repression at the hands of the police and Djiboutian intelligence. During the presidential election of April 2011, the toll of this repression was the heaviest in the country’s history: Several dozen young protesters were killed, with hundreds arrested and detained for months. Former European Commissioner Louis Michel, who was in the region at the time, urged the European Union to condemn the repression. 

The legislative election was just held in Djibouti. For the first time in ten years, six opposition parties joined in an unprecedented coalition, the Union of National Salvation (UNS). In honor of the occasion, Daher Ahmed Farah, president of the Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development and a very active coalition spokesman decided to end a nine-year forced exile in Belgium, risking arrest and imprisonment by Djiboutian authorities that, quite rightly, fear the hope he represents for a population kept down by the dictatorship. 

During the electoral campaign season, the population overwhelmingly took to the streets of the capital and other cities to demand change. The situation in itself is quite remarkable, and already constitutes a small revolution. Given the magnitude of civilian mobilization, regime provocations multiplied, leading to numerous arrests and the banning of several public gatherings. However, the intimidation was nothing compared to what happened in previous elections, the last of which saw hundreds jailed in an effort to quash resistance. Just as the French media failed then to denounce the scandalous imprisonment of opposition demonstrators, today it did not highlight the regime’s unexpected position; one can legitimately wonder whether the regime is about to strike harder, upon the release of fraudulent election results, and if there is a risk of plunging the country into a scenario like Syria.

The day after the election, unanimously mimicking the AFP broadcast, some media unquestioningly reported the figures put forward by the regime and noted that the elections were conducted peacefully. Others, with a dash of paternalism, highlighted the maturity of the Djiboutian population. To complete the picture, they could even have added that the temperature was 104 Fahrenheit and the wind was light... 

With a little luck, then, some readers of French media know that elections just took place in Djibouti. Among them, some are still wondering what is at stake in this historical election. As for the viewers of TF1, France 2 and Canal+, they wouldn’t have heard of the election in Djibouti. None would have learned that the day after the election, the Djiboutian regime resorted to its old habits again, arresting demonstrators en masse, detaining those most in the way (some 300 people, including 37 women and a child, at the time of writing this) and trying, by any means necessary, to silence the voices of political opposition leaders under house arrest and any news of the unprecedented popular protests. Above all, when it is most needed (now!), no one seems have bothered to analyze the post-election situation of a country that’s seems off the map, alive only in the thoughts only a handful of divers attracted by the seabed and a few soldiers remembering women they slept with in our port city.

The European Union is the largest provider of funds to Djibouti, where it has decided to strengthen its presence. Like Japan and the United States, France pays 30 million Euros annually to the regime for the lease of its military base in conjunction with the bilateral and multilateral aid it provides to Djibouti. Meanwhile, embezzling of public funds is so commonplace in Djibouti that the World Health Organization was forced, a few months ago, to suspend aid allocated to combatting HIV/AIDS. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people continue to live in deplorable conditions, dying of AIDS and cholera. Half of the population lives without shelter as nine out of ten people are homeless in the rest of the country. Water is scarce due to a lack of distribution. Sanitary conditions are disastrous. Unemployment keeps rising. Corruption is widespread. Ultimately, humanity has disappeared at the hands of a dictator and his insatiable lust for power and money.

The maintenance of French authority in Djibouti requires an intensification of France’s attention to human rights and democracy. Similarly, there must be a requirement that no 14-year-old schoolboy is killed, no mother raped, no father tortured, no brother executed, that his sister is free to vote, and that the will of the people is valued when expressed with such conviction and clarity as it has been these past few days in Djibouti. Furthermore, it is time for France to understand that in the difficult regional context of the Horn of Africa, the present regime in Djibouti no longer offers a guarantee of stability. On the contrary, the regime is now a serious threat to the stability not only of the country and the region, but also the security of foreign assets. Djiboutian President Ismaël Omar Guelleh, who had wanted to invite one of his closest friends, Sudanese President (and fugitive from the International Criminal Court) Omar El Bashir to the country during his third inauguration in April 2011, has reached the end of his run. Having neither the stature nor the culture of Abdoulaye Wade, the former Senegalese president, who stepped down peacefully after his electoral defeat last spring, it is feared that the Djiboutian President considers Djibouti his personal property and will cling to it at all costs. There are real risks of seeing the regime kill, torture and harshly repress peaceful demonstrators in the coming days. 

Abdourahman Waberi is a novelist from Djibouti. Ali Deberkele is a representative of the USN (a coalition of six opposition parties from Djibouti) affiliated with the European Union. Dimitri Verdonck is the President of the Association for Culture and Progress (www.acp-europa.eu). 

Translator Nathalie Fouyer is currently teaching Comparative Literature at Queens College and Baruch College. She received her PhD in Comparative Literature and a certificate in Film Studies, from the CUNY Graduate Center.