President of Djibouti
Born November 27, 1947, in Ethiopia; son of Omar Guelleh and Moumina Rirache; married; children: four.
Addresses: Office —Office of the President, La Presidence BP 6, Djibouti, Republic of Djibouti.
Began career as a civil servant with the French colonial administration of Djibouti, 1968, and rose to become a police inspector by 1970; worked as an independence activist for Lingue Populaire Africaine pour l’independence (LPAI), a pro-independence political group, after 1975; launched pro-independence newspaper, Djibouti Today , and served as a foreign delegate representing the LPAI cause until 1977; served as chief of staff to President Hassan Gouled Aptidon, c. 1977-99; elected president of Djibouti, 1999; reelected, 2005.
Ismail Omar Guelleh serves as president of the Republic of Djibouti, the small East African nation strategically located just across the Arabian Peninsula. First elected to office in 1999, Guelleh rules over a nation troubled by longstanding ethnic hostilities between his own people, the Issa, and the minority Afar group. The internal troubles have led to political strife, which eventually resulted in the two main opposition groups boycotting the 2005 presidential election. Guelleh was reelected to another six-year term in that contest, but he was the sole candidate in the election.
Born in 1947, Guelleh originally hails from Dire-Dawa, a city in Ethiopia. He was born into the Mamassans clan of the Issa, who are also known as Somali and are an indigenous group of the Horn of Africa, as the area surrounding Djibouti is called. Djibouti is a tiny, predominantly Muslim nation carved out of territory once known as French Somaliland. It shares borders with Eritrea in the north, Ethiopia on the south and west, and Somalia on the southeast. It was known as the French Territory of Afars and the Issas until it gained formal independence in 1977.
In his youth, Guelleh attended a traditional Islamic school, and entered the civil service in 1968, when it was still under French colonial administration. He rose to the position of police inspector, but quit in 1975 to join the independence movement. Djibouti’s push for self-rule was organized around the Lingue Populaire Africaine pour l’independence (African People’s League for Independence, or LPAI), which was headed by his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon. Guelleh worked for the LPAI, ran his own pro-independence newspaper, and even traveled abroad to advocate for Djibouti’s independence. When that occurred, Aptidon became president, and Guelleh served as his chief of staff for the next 22 years. He also had special responsibility for overseeing the domestic-security forces.
By 1979, LPAI had evolved into a political party, the Rassemblement Populaire pour le Progrès (Peoples’ Rally for Progress, or RPP), and Guelleh held positions within the party as well as his other posts in the government. But the earliest years of independence in Djibouti were marked by hostilities, with the majority Issa gravitating toward the RPP, which dominated the country. Though some Afar were named to cabinet positions in Aptidon’s first government, disenchantment and longstanding rivalries escalated, and civil war broke out in 1981. Behind the strife was the rebel group, Front Pour la Restauration de l’Unite et de la Democratie (Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy, or FRUD), which was largely Afar in makeup. Aptidon outlawed all political parties, but international pressure forced multiparty elections in 1993, and Aptidon was reelected president with 75 percent of the vote.
Guelleh took on an increasing list of duties for his uncle, who was 81 years old when he won reelection again in 1997, as the president’s health declined. He was named his successor when Aptidon formally stepped down in 1999, and Guelleh bested opponent Idris Moussa Ahmed in a presidential election called that year. The opposition groups claimed vote fraud had occurred, however. A year later, Guelleh fired the head of the Djibouti national police force, Yacin Yabeh, who later led an attempted coup that was quelled by Guelleh’s security forces. In 2001, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon reawakened U.S. interest in Djibouti, and U.S. Special Forces troops were deployed there. The country lies about 13 miles distant from Yemen, an Arabian Peninsula nation believed to harbor operatives of Al Qaeda, the militant Islamic group that claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks.
Despite the rather warm relations between Djibouti and the United States, Guelleh publicly opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March of 2003. His country is the beneficiary of large aid packages from the United States and other countries, and retains strong ties with France, which oversees the largest deployment of French troops anywhere on the African continent. The foreign aid is sorely needed: Djibouti has an average per-capita income of $1, 200; an infant mortality rate higher than Rwanda, one of Africa’s poorest nations; and a life expectancy rate of just 51 years for men and 53 years for women. The unemployment rate hovers near 50 percent, and many of the country’s 721, 000 citizens live in desperately poor conditions.
Guelleh’s government has been criticized by human-rights groups because of his regime’s determination to maintain political stability. Members of his family’s Mamassans clan hold positions of power in the cabinet and government, the RPP remains the dominant political force, and there have been charges that opposition groups, such as FRUD and the Union of Democratic Alliance (UAD), are unable to operate freely. FRUD has called upon other nations, especially the United States and France, to back a more aggressive transition toward democracy in the country. To his credit, Guelleh has made some efforts to lessen tensions with the Afar minority, but the potentially troubling situation was not diminished in the election of 2005. He ran on campaign promises to reduce poverty and increase women’s rights and roles in the country, but the UAD called for a boycott of the election, and FRUD subsequently issued a statement of support for the boycott.
Guelleh, who is commonly referred to in Djibouti by his initials, “IOG, ” dismissed claims that his government had harassed its political challengers. “I accuse the opposition of not having the courage to give voters the right to choose between several candidates, ” Guelleh told the French newspaper Le Figaro , according to a BBC News report; the same account noted that opposition banners against Guelleh and the election read “We would rather die standing than follow on our knees.” Two days before the April of 2005 election, government troops fired tear gas on protesters in Djibouti City, the capital. Guelleh was the only candidate on the ballot, and not surprisingly took 100 percent of the vote. He asserted afterward that he would not run for a third term in 2011.