DJIBOUTI – Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh has used his nation’s strategic spot on the Horn of Africa to unlock international investment while keeping a firm hand on the reins of power since taking over in 1999.
The portly polyglot was re-elected in polls Friday, having broken his promise not to run for a fourth term.
Another mandate for the wily political operator — who in 2011 had pledged: “No, it’s over. It’s my last race” — will allow him to continue his drive to remake his poor country of some 800,000 souls with the help of foreign capital.
Djibouti is little more than a port with a country attached, but has leveraged its position at the entrance to the Red Sea and one of the world’s busiest shipping routes to attract powers such as the U.S., France and China.
Born in the Ethiopian town of Dire-Dawa in 1947, Guelleh grew up in the shadow of his relative, mentor and predecessor as president, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, regarded as the father of Djibouti’s independence.
After his family moved to Djibouti, Guelleh joined the police and quickly rose to become Aptidon’s chief of staff at the former French colony’s independence in 1977.
Known in Djibouti by his initials IOG, Guelleh held the position for the next 22 years, giving him control over security forces and the intelligence service. He eventually took over from Aptidon in 1999.
Like other long-ruling African presidents, Guelleh went back on his announcement that he would step down after the current term, claiming the Djiboutian people had pressured him to stay in power.
Guelleh, 68, holds on to that power jealously, sharing it only with his influential wife, Kadra Mahamoud Haid, and members of his extended family who occupy many important government positions leading to accusations of cronyism and tribalism.
While Djibouti has seen many large infrastructure projects begun or completed during Guelleh’s 17-year rule — including new ports, railways and oil and gas facilities — critics say the economic benefits have been restricted to the ruling elite.
The vast majority of the tiny country’s population lives in grinding poverty.
To finance the string of projects, Djibouti has largely turned to loans from China, widening his country’s public debt, which could reach 80 percent of GDP in 2017, according to the International Monetary Fund.
But Guelleh is also credited with solving a long-standing dispute between his own Issa clan and the Afars, Djibouti’s other main ethnic group, in a 1994 peace agreement that ended an Afar rebellion.
His first term at the nation’s helm was defined by his successful courting of foreign capital, attracted by Djibouti’s strategic Red Sea location.
However, his second term met with controversy when he was accused of involvement in the 1995 death of French judge Bernard Borrel whose charred body was found outside Djibouti City.
Guelleh denied any involvement, but the unsolved death for years poisoned relations between Djibouti and France, which maintains a large military base in the country.