Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh is a strategic thinker who has used his country’s unique position in the Horn of Africa to attract investors and foreign military powers, while maintaining an iron grip on power.
The portly, 73-year-old polyglot with the salt and pepper beard has been in power since 1999, and most Djiboutians only refer to him by his initials, IOG.
He was the handpicked successor to his parent Hassan Gouled Aptidon, the country’s first president after independence from France in 1977.
Born in 1947 in neighboring Ethiopia, where his father was a railway worker, Guelleh returned home as a teenager, later joining the police.
He quickly became the chief of staff of Aptidon, a powerful role with control over the security forces and intelligence services he held for 22 years.
In 1999, Aptidon resigned, passing the torch to Guelleh, elected without a struggle.
Cunning political operator who promised in an election ten years ago that it was “my last race”, Guelleh is now running for a fifth term, without constitutional limits.
He speaks six languages: Italian, French, English, Somali, Arabic and Amharic.
– ‘Seeker of power’ –
From his early years in power, Guelleh seized Djibouti’s unique geographic location on the Red Sea to develop the small arid nation of one million people into a reliable international military and maritime hub.
The third smallest country on the African continent in terms of area, and sandwiched between unstable neighbors, Djibouti has embarked on an infrastructure blitz, seeking major investments in its quest to become the “Dubai of Africa” .
It is also home to military bases for world powers such as France, the United States, Japan, and China.
“IOG is open to new things, especially when it comes to digitization, fintech and new technologies,” said Benedikt Kamski, Addis Ababa-based researcher for the Arnold Bergstraesser Institute, a German think tank.
“I think he’s a strategically thinking politician who understands Djibouti’s strength and uses the country’s potential,” said Kamski, who also described Guelleh as a “power seeker”.
Guelleh relies on both his sub-clan, the Mamasan, and his extended family to control the levers of power.
His wife, Kadra Mahamoud Haid, is an influential figure while relatives, near and far, occupy many key positions in the administration.
Despite a plethora of infrastructure projects – funded largely by massive loans from China – many Djiboutians still live in extreme poverty.
Guelleh’s government has also been accused by human rights groups of suppressing dissent, restricting free speech and suppressing opposition parties.
– Age limit –
While Guelleh is considered a candidate for re-election on Friday, this race is set to be his last, at least on paper.
When a presidential term limit was removed in a 2010 constitutional review, an age limit was introduced, requiring candidates to be under 75.
“I now see this election as a starting point for the post-Guelleh era,” Kamski said.
Guelleh should anoint a successor within his own circle of trust, much the same way as his own appointment.
md / np-fb / jz / gd