Saturday, June 12, 2010

Djibouti Fears Civil War

Djibouti, Djibouti Benjamin Joffe-Walt - The head of the military police is killed. An army ambush on rebels ends in the death of three soldiers. Everyday, a killing is splashed across the news as low-intensity armed clashes spread.

Sounds a bit like Iraq, Darfur, Afghanistan or the Congo?

Nope. It's the tiny, East African nation of Djibouti, which over the past week has teetered closer and closer to civil war.

The deepening crisis began on April 19, when Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh made various maneuvers to pressure the parliament into changing the constitution to allow himself a third term in office.

That led to significant political upheaval and the May 12th mysterious death of Col. Abdi Hassan Bogoreh, the head of the military police.

The incident was followed little more than two weeks later with the death of three soldiers during a raid on an insurgent hideout in the north of the country.

With almost daily deaths from ongoing low-intensity clashes in the north, public fear of a civil war is growing.

"The country is a bit unstable but it's hard to know what's going on," Yves Picaud, a European Union attaché in Djibouti told The Media Line. "We are in a pre-election period so things could happen from September through April, but you also cannot always link what happened one month ago with what is happening today."

Djibouti faces a number of challenges. With 60 percent unemployment and few opportunities available for the nation’s youth, the country also has the highest cost of living in the Horn of Africa.

Djibouti has been host to ongoing social tension between the Issa majority and the largely rural Afar minority. The Issa are a sub-clan of the Somali Dir clan, and the Afar, a group of mostly nomadic pastoralists found principally in Ethiopia.

In 1991 an Afar rebel group, the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD), launched an insurgency against the People's Rally for Progress (RPP) government over the lack of Afar representation in the national government. The FRUD rebels captured much of the country's north and the ensuing civil war, also known as the Afar insurgency, lasted almost four years. While the rebel leaders signed a peace accord with the government in late 1994, more radical Afar rebels have kept up the low-intensity hostilities.

Dr Jack Kalpakian, a Horn of Africa expert at Al Akhawayn University, said that the clashes were the latest in decades of unresolved conflict.

"There has been a low level insurgency since the country became independent," he told The Media Line. "The government is run by the Somali community, which makes up a very clear and heavy demographic majority. But most of the physical land mass of the country is inhabited by Afar. The Afars don't see themselves as the minority because they have about a half to 60 percent of the country, so they wonder 'why are these people from Djibouti the city governing us?'"

"There have been various compromises in which movements are bought off but it always come back with the same essential issue," Kalpakian said. "There needs to be a more permanent power sharing arrangement written into the constitution. This is something that is on the mind of the elites and there could eventually be a solution, but so far it has been elusive."

Djibouti is strategically important to major world powers as the East African base for various Western-allied armies, with large American, French and, soon, Japanese military installations in the country. The country serves as a base for anti-terrorism operations throughout the Horn of Africa and joint international naval operations against sea pirates based in Somalia, Djibouti's neighbor to the south.

"The reality about Djibouti is that it's a very small micro-state propped up by the very significant foreign military presence in the capital," E.J. Hogendoorn, Horn of Africa project director with the International Crisis Group, told The Media Line. "It's also a 'rentier state' -- meaning the elite essentially make most of their money off of rent or very focused sources of revenue - the money paid to the government by the different foreign military bases, the taxes off of the port, and so forth."

"What that means is there is a very significant income inequality because there is no large manufacturing base where lots of people are employed," he continued. "So there are large numbers of poor or destitute people. Not surprisingly that does lead to grievances and from what we understand some radicalization."

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