/ 26 June 2018

Djibouti’s squandered independence



June 27 marks 41 years of independence for my country, Djibouti.

So, 41 years of freedom, respect for human dignity and development for the Djiboutian people? This is a relevant question today.

The fight for independence from colonial rule was ostensibly fought to secure social change and ideals, to advance a better and more prosperous life for me and my fellow citizens. Indeed, these values were — in theory — the driving force, the very engine that propelled our sisters and brothers who stood up against the brutal colonial order. These are the goals and objectives that they had given their time, their energy and their material resources for. These national heroes risked their lives for this vision, suffering arrests and detentions, physical and psychological violence. This is what many of them, both well-known and anonymous, died for.

Freedom, dignity and the chance at a decent life. What about these values 41 years after independence? Are we in a better place, today, on June 27 2018? Let me take you a bit back before answering the question.

In 1977, the Cold War is in full swing. The Soviet Union and allied capitalist powers are competing, often through proxy wars, for influence and leadership on the world stage. In the Horn of Africa — and around the Red Sea — the two competing sides are ever-present. In this context, the newly independent Republic of Djibouti was anchored in the capitalist bloc, though without the democratic pluralism that proliferated in other quarters. Without the people’s consent, the new rulers in Djibouti quickly established a political system based on one-party rule. The rationale was that newly independent nation had to prioritise “unity in thought and action,” and thus, a single-party autocratic system was the most feasible way in which to advance this strategy.

In so doing the People’s Rally for Progress, and our first president, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, created a top-down structure that recognised one political party as the country’s rightful steward. It created a single trade union, a single chamber of commerce, a single women’s organisation and a single radio station, television and newspaper. Aptidon was recognised as the head of the ruling party, head of state and government and presided over the defence and security forces. The stage was set for dictatorship, with the acquiescence of the West and the region’s post-colonial leaders.

In Djibouti, we quickly lost the freedom we had bravely fought for and gained. As a country, we ended up under the boots of a repressive and corrupt cabal of politicians only concerned with their self-enrichment. United at independence, our country became divided, corrupt and increasingly impoverished.

This was the situation in my country in 1989, during the collapse of the Soviet Union, which put an end to the Cold War. On this occasion, my colleagues in the nascent political opposition and I stood up against, and faced down, the repressive one-party system. Some involved in the struggle took up arms, while others like me engaged in peaceful civil resistance. Together, we ultimately compelled the regime the adopt the term “democracy” — in theory — which had been banned since our independence.

In 1992, a pluralistic constitution was agreed to and ratified. To our great disappointment, it quickly turned into a façade — mere window dressing for an even more abusive and unaccountable dictatorship. While our constitution is sound and solid in writing, the old one-party system remained prevailed in practice. The agreed-to reforms and “pluralistic elections” proved to be an additional farce, proving that the Aptidon system once again prevailed. Democratisation had failed.

At the twilightof his life, in 1999, Aptidon unilaterally handed presidential power to his nephew, and the chief of intelligence and security forces, Ismael Omar Guelleh. Under his rule — currently one of the longest in Africa — corruption, poverty, widespread human rights abuses and repression has worsened. In Djibouti, we are confronted with a family dynasty built on the suffering of our less than one million inhabitants.

Today — 41 years after our independence — Djibouti is far from achieving the dream of freedom, dignity and development. We are poorer now than we were in 1977, we are deeply deprived of freedom and the respect for our basic human dignity remains lacking. Despite our lucrative geostrategic location, our beneficial port access, and the millions of dollars in aid our government has received, we are a beleaguered people.

Djibouti remains in this unacceptable and unsustainable situation because of a long-ruling regime that confiscates our land, our resources and our dignity with brazen impunity. Our creative energy and our ability to make progress has been systematically stifled. We are in this situation because the ruling regime has turned Djibouti into a family business, a mafia state that gains little outside attention.

Indeed, more than 41 years after our Independence, my country — full of latent potential and resources — has become an open prison, a prison encircled by the embassies and burgeoning military bases of some of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world. Djibouti is less than 9 000 square miles, but we have operational military bases run by the United States, France, Japan, Italy and China. Blinded by short-term “security” concerns, these competing powers are turning a blind eye to the abuses taking place in Djibouti, often in their full view.

READ MORE: Djibouti’s greatest threat may come from within

These world powers make the cold and calculated assumption that ‘Djibouti is stable’. On behalf of my impoverished and abused fellow citizens, I have to ask: stability for whom? And stability for how long?

Daher Ahmed Farah is a novelist and politician. He is the head of the Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development, Djibouti’s main opposition party.