Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh is expected to extend his term of office by more than 20 years when the country goes to the polls on Friday.
Guelleh, 73, faces political newcomer Zakaria Ismail Farah, his only rival after mainstream opposition parties decided to boycott the election.
A businessman specializing in importing cleaning supplies, Farah, 56, is seen by observers as unlikely to pose a significant challenge to the man who holds power in the nation of the Horn of the United States. Africa for 22 years.
Guelleh, surrounded by his wife and government officials, concluded his campaign on Wednesday with a last colorful rally in a stadium filled with enthusiastic supporters and traditional dancers.
“As I see you in large numbers today, I am sure you will also come in large numbers to the polling stations,” Guelleh said in front of the crowds wearing T-shirts bearing his initials, IOG.
Djibouti is a largely desert country strategically located on one of the world’s busiest trade routes and at the crossroads between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, a short distance from war-ravaged Yemen.
Under Guelleh, the country exploited this geographic advantage by investing heavily in ports and logistics infrastructure.
“He gave hope to young people and built ports for this country. Thanks to him, we are no longer unemployed, ”said Halima Saad, 23, one of 25,000 people who attended Wednesday’s rally.
But the country has also seen an erosion of press freedom and a crackdown on dissent as it courted foreign interests.
“Little by little, there has been a hardening of the regime since 1999”, declared Sonia Le Gouriellec, political scientist.
“The more it opened up to the world, the more it closed internally.”
Guelleh’s planned fifth term will be his last after a 2010 constitutional reform removed term limits while introducing an age limit of 75, which would exclude him from future elections.
Djibouti’s election campaign took place as the country saw COVID-19 infection rates soar 38% last week, with around 200 cases per day in the country of nearly one million people, and the positive test rate of 23%.
Nonetheless, thousands turned out for rallies for the ruling Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP), and few wore masks in the crowded booths during Guelleh’s latest campaign speech in the capital.
Farah – who had to give up his dual French nationality to join the race – organized a few small rallies before canceling the rest in the 10 days leading up to the poll.
He complained that he was not provided with security services for his gatherings.
The challenger, who presented himself as the “standard bearer of poor Djiboutians”, appeared with his wrists tied and his mouth taped last month at one of his rallies to protest “unequal treatment”.
In 2020, Guelleh faced an unusual wave of opposition protests, which were brutally suppressed, following the arrest of an Air Force pilot who spoke out against clan discrimination and corruption.
Police dispersed several small spontaneous anti-Guelleh protests in the run-up to the elections.
Dependence on China
Djibouti, which gained independence from France in 1977, has remained stable in an often troubled region, attracting foreign military powers such as France, the United States and China to establish bases there.
The country, seeking to become a trade and logistics hub, launched in 2018 the first phase of what will be Africa’s largest free trade zone, funded by China.
The Asian powerhouse – which sees Djibouti as an essential part of its Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative – has also funded the construction of a railway to Ethiopia.
“Previously, there were many alliances… What happened during the last term is that they fell into… total dependence on China,” Le Gouriellec said.
On the international scene, Djibouti suffered a setback in its diplomatic ambitions in 2020 by losing to Kenya for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
The country’s economy shrank 1% in 2020, but is expected to grow 7% this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Djibouti’s per capita GDP is around $ 3,500, higher than in much of sub-Saharan Africa, but around 20 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty and 26 percent are unemployed, according to the World Bank.