Djibouti Leader Poised for New Term Amid World Army Buildup

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  • Incumbent has ruled tiny Horn of Africa country since 1999
  • Global powers have bases due to strategic Red Sea location

Djibouti voted Friday in a presidential election that incumbent Ismail Omar Guelleh looks certain to win, extending his 17-year rule over the tiny African nation that’s emerged as a military hub for international powers.

Guelleh, 68, faces little serious competition, with some opposition parties boycotting the election and the country’s main human-rights group saying the electoral commission lacks independence. Six candidates are running for the presidency.

Home to about about 906,000 people, Djibouti is smaller than the U.S. state of Massachusetts yet hosts the largest U.S. military base in Africa. Its $1.6 billion economy relies on services related to its strategic location on the Red Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, with the country serving as the only access to the sea for neighboring landlocked Ethiopia. China has begun work on a military facility, while Saudi Arabia in March expressed interest in building one.

Guelleh has led Djibouti since 1999, succeeding Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who was the country’s first president after it gained independence from France in 1977. In March 2010, Guelleh amended the constitution to allow him to extend his rule by two more six-year terms. At his swearing in after elections in 2011, Guelleh said he was taking his oath of office for the “third and final time.”

Regime Control

Zakaria Abdillahi, chairman of the Djiboutian Human Rights League, said the elections “will neither be free nor transparent” because the government hasn’t established an independent electoral commission.

“The current commission is composed exclusively of senior officials appointed by the president,” he said in an e-mailed response to questions from the capital, Djibouti City. “Djibouti has no free media. Everything is controlled by the regime.”

Foreign Minister Mohamoud Ali Youssouf didn’t respond to phone calls seeking comment on the elections.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Djibouti 170th in its press freedoms index, 10 places above the lowest-ranked, neighboring Eritrea. Last week, Djibouti expelled a British Broadcasting Corp. crew visiting to cover the run-up to the elections. Activists and opposition members face arbitrary detention, Abdillahi said.

“The right conditions are not in place in Djibouti to conduct free and fair elections,” said Maki Houmed-Gaba, a representative of the opposition Union for National Salvation, based in France. He cited factors including restraints on opposition rallies and the lack of an independent electoral commission.