Thursday, April 05, 2007
Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh tells Inas Mazhar about his country's achievements, and the challenges ahead
Ismail Omar Guelleh: 'On a path full of potential pitfalls, let us keep alive the legendary wisdom that characterises Djiboutians more than any other people in the world, and which constitutes its prime national resource'.
The Republic of Djibouti is situated at the junction of the rifts of the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea and East Africa. Most of the country is volcanic. Some sedimentary formations of the Mesozoic era -- Jurassic lime and chalky stones -- can be found in the southeast of the country, especially around the town of Al-Sabieh. Djibouti, comprising 710,000 inhabitants, holds huge mineral resources, most of which remain untapped.
Djibouti's current president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, was born on 27 November 1947 in Direwada, Ethiopia. He is the son of one of Djibouti's first teachers and the nephew of Djibouti's first president, Hassan Gouled Aptidon. It was during Djibouti's fight for independence that Ismail Omar cut his teeth as a militant. Early into his political career, Guelleh devoted much energy to breathing new life into the Popular African League presided over by Aptidon. In 1976 Guelleh was a member of the Ligue Populaire Africaine pour l'Indépendance charged with negotiating terms of independence with Paris.
When independence was officially proclaimed, on 27 June 1977, Ismail Omar was appointed as chief of cabinet affairs. Guelleh was only 30 years old. Guelleh had to manage two major challenges: internal and external security and the risk of ethnic violence. His role as head of the secret police enhanced his political clout. Following the founding of the Rassemblement Populaire pour le Progrès (RPP) in 1979, Guelleh climbed the political ladder to the highest echelons becoming vice-president of the RPP in 1994. In April 1999 Guelleh succeeded President Aptidon at the age of 52.
Considered a political, social and economic reformer, Guelleh won a second term in one-man presidential elections in April 2005. All citizens of Djibouti are free to form political parties within the limits of constitutional and democratic principles. Guelleh received 97 per cent of the 72 per cent of Djiboutis who voted in the elections. His campaign included promises to tackle poverty and reduce Djibouti's dependence on food imports. Mr Guelleh supports Djibouti's traditionally strong ties with France and has tried to reconcile conflicting factions in neighbouring Somalia.
His Excellency Ismail Omar Guelleh believes 2007 will be crucial for Djibouti: "This year is the most significant year in the history of the Djibouti people. It's been 30 years now since we claimed our independence from France. This year, we are not only celebrating our 30th anniversary but we'll also start harvesting the fruits of projects we launched seven years ago. Thirty years could seem meaningless in the history of a nation, but looking at the challenges we faced, we have accomplished a lot. These achievements push our economy forward and provides great opportunities for securing our people a prosperous life."
After scrutinising the performance of the government in the past seven years, the president has established certain benchmarks of reform, in order to combat the rigidity of the economic, social and institutional system. "We have redefined our priorities and this will be the focus of the government in the coming years. A top priority concerns the economy and the reorganisation of public finances, following our commitment to structural adjustment. We are beginning to see the first results of our efforts at rationalising government on the way to clearing its debts. We have absorbed a budgetary deficit and the balance of payments has become positive in our favour, thanks to increasing export activities. We kept inflationary pressures under control at around six per cent."
According to the president, economic growth is present and assured. "However, it remains modest compared with what is needed to guarantee the social and economic well-being of our population. Economic adjustments have had their negative effects with a relative increase in poverty and social insecurity. In order to remedy the worst effects, the government is doing everything possible to increase tax revenues, to contain inflation, and to direct a large part of its expenditure towards poverty reduction programmes as well as new statistical methods for better economic and social planning."
Mr Guelleh views decentralisation as an "important step towards increasing the participation of citizens in the process of economic and social change." This equally applies to the management of everyday public affairs. "The decentralisation plan is based on the principle of the local community's right to administer itself. It is a political project that aims to redistribute the state's power, relinquishing certain possibilities at the higher level and delegating these responsibilities among elected regional bodies."
Five regional communities have been created: Dikhil, Al-Sabieh, Tadjourah, Obock and Arta. Each has been incorporated and is endowed with elected regional assemblies as well as a regional executive created from members of these assemblies. The size of each assembly is determined on the basis of one deputy per 1,000 electors. Djibouti City's status differed from that of others. Members of regional assemblies are elected by universal suffrage. The ballot consists of the election of lists of candidates and it is organised in two rounds.
President Guelleh believes Djibouti needs to increase its stake in world trade. "The level of growth that we hope to achieve will only be possible if we can attract foreign investors into our country. Public works projects such as the new deep-water port in Doraleh, the strategic partnership with Dubai, and the Common Market of East and South Africa (COMESA) as well as newly established industrial and commercial zones should attract investors and enhance Djibouti's reputation as a distribution centrepoint and gateway to Africa."
"The COMESA stretches from the Horn of Africa to South Africa, also encompassing the islands of the Indian Ocean. It is a market of 340 million inhabitants. This common market, created in 1993, is functioning well. We benefit from trade accords with the European Union. Djibouti is therefore an attractive economic base to investors from countries without such access to the EU. Also, the special commercial and economic support that Djibouti enjoys from membership in the Arab League should become stronger with the construction of a common Arab market."
President Guelleh underlines, also, progress made in human resource capacities. "In a completely different sector, the first results of reforms undertaken in education and professional training illustrate that we have succeeded in bringing together demand and supply in primary, secondary and higher education by establishing the University of Djibouti. Notably, there has been remarkable growth of our technical capacities, as well as our human resources."
The University of Djibouti was opened in 2002. Incentives were created to encourage the return of graduated nationals interested in teaching careers. "The university system is based on distance learning, a method that worked very well for the training of primary and secondary school teachers. It is also based on the experience of teachers of the public secondary schools of Djibouti, who provided professional training courses. Already existing institutions of higher education have been integrated into the new university. Diplomas of the University of Djibouti are delivered by French institutions, and undergraduate courses no longer have the sole objective of preparing teachers."
Regarding challenges ahead, Guelleh believes that the success of the Djibouti's macro-economic equilibrium policy would be threatened were political stability and the principles of good governance absent. "This is why we have preferred a strict policy of financial transparency in the management of our resources in order to change the perception of the state and its institutions. We have also encouraged citizen's participation in public issues and we have guaranteed the values of our republican institutions. From now on, it falls upon the media, the political parties, and the different components of our civil society to play their roles and take part in [bolstering] pluralism, the foundation of democratic practice."
Since becoming president, the foreign policy of Djibouti has focused on strengthening and diversifying cooperative links with traditional partners. "This policy is in line with fundamental principles of mutual interest, friendly neighbours and economic development. At the same time, we affirm our will to cooperate in the fight against terrorism and extremism in all its forms, and our commitment to regional stability and peace."
In Guelleh's era, Djibouti's women were granted, in the parliamentary elections of January 2003, the right to run for office. A law passed in 2002 established a female quota in parliament. Ever since inauguration, Guelleh has reiterated his interest in the betterment of women's status. As a positive signal, Guelleh nominated a woman for a ministerial position, a first in Djibouti's history. Meanwhile, the cabinet includes three women. In a May 1999 declaration, the government vowed to fight against all forms of sexual discrimination.
According to President Guelleh, it would be difficult for any nation to develop if "half of its population is excluded from the decision making process." In 2000, Guelleh had noted that, "In spite of the energy spent by authorities, the sluggishness of reform due to cultural traditions constitutes the most important obstacle in our struggle for social equity." In addition to traditional obstacles, women face severe difficulties when working in the informal sector of the economy where their skills and competencies are not sufficiently appreciated.
To address this, a new law was adopted on 17 July 2002 and which defines a national policy for the integration of women into Djibouti's development strategy. "The goal is to increase the participation of women in decision making, especially in high priority areas such as the economy, education and health. The strategy defines the tasks and the short-term measures needed to make the activities of women an essential part of the country's development. To this end, it responds to the needs of development, modernity and more social equity, while respecting our cultural and religious values."
Other important reforms to improve women's conditions were adopted during President Guelleh's first term in office. For example, law number 152 of 31 January 2002 revises and updates the family code that integrates Islamic Sharia rights with common and modern law. It clarifies the otherwise vagueness of common law and the unclear codification of Islamic rules in terms of family law. Lack of clarity had had the effect of reducing women's rights, especially in case of divorce. The new code breaks with the practice of repudiation and states that it is within the judge's authority alone to announce the divorce of two spouses, the only exception being the case of mutual agreement.
But despite reforms taking part in some sectors, Djibouti still faces significant problems which stand in the way of the development process and investment. "The fight against poverty, water resource management, mining prospects, energy resources, rationalisation of key sectors of the economy, a system of justice accessible to the average citizen; all these are challenges to be confronted at the beginning of the third millennium." Guellah adds: "We are working very hard to find solutions but we need to be patient. It's a matter of time and we are going in the right direction."
Mr Guelleh counts on the ability of the people of Djibouti to find genuine solutions to their problems. "On a path full of potential pitfalls, let us keep alive the legendary wisdom that characterises Djiboutians more than any other people in the world, and which constitutes its prime national resource. We have paved the way for a better future and we are ready to take up all challenges that may lie ahead."
President Guelleh concludes: "Our country is engaged in a reform programme whose slow progress and modest and fragile results must not change our determination to implement this project. It is an ambitious project, but it is crucial for the future of our young nation."
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