Djibouti: A Dictator-for-life Moves To Destabilize Democratic Somaliland Impervious of the Consequences


An Africa Intelligence report has revealed Djibouti’s alleged involvement in training anti-Somaliland pro-Somalia rebels to destabilize Somaliland. These rebels are reportedly receiving military training at the Guestir military base, located approximately 50 kilometers south of Ali-Sabieh. Djibouti’s motivation appears to stem from a dispute with Somaliland over the latter’s decision to grant Ethiopia access to a leased land along the Red Sea. By supporting these rebel groups, Djibouti seems to be pursuing a possibly miscalculated strategy to assert influence and undermine Somaliland’s control over the Awdal region.

Somaliland, a yet-to-be-recognized republic seeking international recognition, has condemned Djibouti’s actions as provocative and destabilizing. President Muse Bihi Abdi of Somaliland previously accused Djibouti of hosting a separatist rebel group intending to create chaos in the western regions of the breakaway state. Djibouti, however, dismissed this claim as groundless. The situation raises concerns about regional stability and potential conflict dynamics involving Somaliland, Djibouti, and Ethiopia. Diplomatic efforts and dialogue may be crucial in preventing further escalation.

Envious of the Ethiopia-Somaliland Link-up?

It is clear, however, that Djibouti has unreasonably taken umbrage against Somaliland since the latter signed a memorandum of understanding with Ethiopia on January 1st, 2024 and the publication of the  World Bank’s Container Performance Report 2023 which placed Djibouti and Mogadishu at 379 and 166, respectively, against Somaliland’s Berbera ranked at 106.

 While the port deal offers economic benefits and supports Somaliland’s sovereignty aspirations, Somalia and Djibouti make it appear as it is an action that intentionally seeks to antagonize regional them which further exacerbates security tensions in the region. President Guelleh’s opposition reflects these complexities and he believes that he is justified to poke the fire with multi-pronged rods – an action that may yet boomerang on him and his overstaying dictatorship.

Observers contend that, inherently, among the many implications and resultant outputs of the Ethiopia-Somaliland deal are significant geopolitical implications and security considerations for the Horn of Africa, namely:

    • Ethiopia and Somaliland Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) grants Ethiopia access to Somaliland’s ports, including Berbera.
    • In exchange, Ethiopia is to formally recognize Somaliland’s
    • Berbera, an established city with an existing port infrastructure, was chosen over Zeila due to perceived safety and pragmatism.
    • The deal eases Ethiopia’s landlocked trade and security constraints and secures maritime access.
    • Al-Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda-linked group, opposes the deal and accuses Somalia and Djiboutian leaders of complicity with Ethiopia and the West.
    • The group could exploit tensions arising from the agreement to strengthen its position in Somalia.
    •  Somalia’s President called on international bodies to condemn Ethiopia’s actions.

Djibouti-Somalia Crush

President Guelleh has for a long time been showing his hand in blocking Somaliland’s quest for independence. President Guelleh has consistently opposed Somaliland’s pursuit of independence. Notably, he aligned openly with Somalia, a country that does not recognize Somaliland. Djibouti deployed troops to Somalia for peacekeeping and hosted conferences aimed at reinstating a unified Somali government, excluding Somaliland. He made several ill-fated attempts to bring Somalia and Somaliland together clearly advocating for Somalia’s ‘recolonization’ of a Somaliland it looted, bombed, massacred, and blockaded developmentally for over 60 years.

Guelleh went on record at the time stating that even if the whole world recognized Somaliland he would be the last to do so.

Guelleh’s efforts to reunite Somalia and Somaliland have been controversial, given the historical conflicts and challenges faced by Somaliland during its development. These actions have strained relations between Djibouti and Somaliland.

May be an image of 2 people and dais
Guelleh poses with Las Anod rebel leader to spite and provoke a Somaliland reaction

President Guelleh just concluded meetings with Somaliland’s SSC-Khatumo leader and Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud signaling a coordinated effort and a declaration of war against the 34-year-old Republic of Somaliland. ‘Djibouti aims to mediate talks between Somaliland and Somalia, seeking stability and regional dialogue’ was the line Guelleh toted before. However, their actions also serve their interests. These latest actions invite trouble to his doorstep as he fully well knows that opposition to his long-serving dictatorship no longer rests on popular support.

Just a few days earlier, the Djibouti government hosted leaders of a pro-Somalia movement supported by the Diaspora, known as the Awdal State, at the Kempinski Hotel. This group aims to remove Somaliland’s control over the Awdal region. It is widely believed that the Guelleh government provided financial support to them before announcing their ‘deportation.’ The training of armed rebels to be smuggled back into the Awdal region resulted directly from secret meetings held during the rebel leaders’ stay in Djibouti.Despite Djibouti’s denials, the ASM leaders’ stay in Djibouti was very conspicuous with them holding press conferences and making threats against Somaliland, and with them openly engaging in activities supporting their cause for Somalia’s unity and against Somaliland’s control over the Awdal region.

Somaliland Role in Djibouti Independence

During the struggle for Djibouti’s independence, the people of Somaliland played a notable role in supporting their neighboring territory. Djibouti, formerly known as French Somaliland, sought independence from French colonial rule, which was achieved on June 27, 1977. The movement for independence in Djibouti was fueled by a desire for self-determination and resistance against colonial oppression.

The people of Somaliland, sharing cultural, historical, and ethnic ties with Djibouti, provided various forms of support to their neighbors. This support included political solidarity, logistical assistance, and moral encouragement. Many individuals from Somaliland participated in demonstrations, provided refuge to Djiboutian activists, and helped to smuggle information and resources across the border. Women all over Somaliland sold their jewelry to finance the Djibouti struggle selflessly putting their own aside. Men volunteered to lend Djiboutians a hand wherever needed even if it came to losing their own lives. The tousing poetry and songs that curdled nationalism blood to action were largely of Somaliland’s composition and delivery.

The Somali National Movement (SNM), which was primarily focused on the liberation of Somaliland from the Siad Barre regime, also expressed support for Djibouti’s independence efforts. This mutual solidarity highlighted the broader regional desire for independence and self-governance among Somali-speaking populations in the Horn of Africa.

The collaboration between the people of Somaliland and Djibouti during this period underscored the interconnectedness of their struggles against colonial rule and the pursuit of national sovereignty. This shared experience fostered a sense of unity and collective identity among Somali communities across borders, contributing to the eventual success of Djibouti’s quest for independence.

During the 1980s, however, as Siad Barre’s regime intensified its persecution of the Isaaq clan in Somaliland, leading to widespread human rights abuses and massacres, Djibouti succumbed to diplomatic pressure from various sides. The Barre regime sought to ensure that Djibouti would not become a base for opposition groups, such as the Somali National Movement (SNM), which was fighting against Barre’s government. Djibouti, seeking to maintain its sovereignty and avoid conflict with Somalia, took measures to limit the activities of opposition groups within its borders.

Djibouti, under the leadership of President Hassan Gouled Aptidon, generally adopted a stance of political neutrality regarding the internal conflicts in neighboring Somalia.

Somalilanders were not impressed by the so-called neutral stance of a country they fought for without reservation. Djibouti, also, wholly credited Siyad Barre for the attainment of its independence later thus sidelining the colossal support of Somalilanders to the effort.

Today, Djibouti sheds that pretense and is out to wipe Somaliland – as it stands today – off the world map. It is leading a replay of Mogadishu’s genocide drive which failed in the late 80s, according to the street belief in Somaliland cities.

What Djibouti Stands to Lose in Rash Move

Djibouti stands to lose much in the escalation of tensions with Ethiopia and Somaliland that the latter now appears to favor over the players in the region.

In 2022, Djibouti exported goods worth $306,000 to Ethiopia. The main products Djibouti exported to Ethiopia included Palm Oil ($299 million), Seed Oils ($26.7 million), and Scrap Iron ($2.43 million). However, it’s worth noting that Djibouti’s exports to Ethiopia have decreased over the past five years partly due to the emergence of Berbera port as a formidable competitor.

Ethiopia’s exports to Djibouti have been on the rise, growing at an annual rate of 16.4% over the past five years. In 2022, Ethiopia exported goods valued at $82.2 million to Djibouti. Key export items from Ethiopia to Djibouti included Other Vegetables ($42.7 million), Cassava ($21.1 million), and Dried Vegetables ($3.97 million).

Over 95% of Ethiopia’s import-export trade (by volume) relies on the Addis-Djibouti corridor. The corridor connects landlocked Ethiopia to the port of Djibouti, facilitating trade and economic activities.

Guelleh the Corrupt, ruthless Dictator

Ismael Omar Guelleh, commonly known as IOG, has held power in Djibouti since May 1999. His 22-year rule has been marked by endemic corruption, human rights abuses, and thoroughly rigged elections. Let’s delve into the allegations against him and their impact on Djibouti.

In 2010, Djiboutian lawmakers removed term limits, allowing Guelleh to run for a third term in 2011. Since then, elections have been farcical exercises, with no genuine competition. In the most recent “election,” Guelleh claimed victory with over 97% of the vote, facing only a family relative as an opponent. The removal of term limits solidified his grip on power.

Under Guelleh’s regime, human rights and civil liberties are routinely violated. Djibouti ranks 176 out of 180 countries in press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders. Freedom House consistently rates the country as “Not Free,” citing authoritarian governance. Poor prison conditions, denial of fair trials, and restrictions on freedoms of the press, assembly, and association persist.

Despite Djibouti’s strategic port locations and income from foreign military bases, poverty remains rampant. The country generates substantial revenue, but its citizens continue to suffer. Poverty increased from 41% in 1996 to nearly 80% in 2012, and unemployment affects over 60% of young people. Corruption allegations have plagued Guelleh’s administration, hindering economic progress and exacerbating inequality.

A slum outside the capital of Djibouti | Pictures by Paul Ed… | Flickr
A slum outside the capital of Djibouti | Pictures by Paul Ed… | Flickr

Ismael Omar Guelleh’s legacy is one of authoritarianism, corruption, and human rights violations. Djibouti’s citizens deserve better.

As the world watches, the question remains: How long can Guelleh maintain his grip on Djibouti?

On its part, Somaliland has not yet taken any steps to counter Djibouti’s open war against its ‘sovereignty’ and ‘territorial integrity’ or the opposition to efforts to develop its economy and infrastructure. Somaliland, however, is keenly monitoring the situation and may not sit back with folded hands for long. Only, how its reaction will manifest itself is not yet clear.