By Samson A. Bezabeh
Samson A. Bezabeh recently completed his PhD at the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen. His article ‘Citizenship and the Logic of Sovereignty in Djibouti’ won the 2012 African Author Prize from the journal African Affairs.
Beyond the fiction of reality, there is the reality of the fiction. Slavoy Zizek, ‘Less Than Nothing’
In his latest comedic movie, Sacha Baron Cohen plays the dictator of a fictional country, Wadiya, the location of which is clearly present-day Eritrea. In the plot, the dictator of Wadiya, President Prime Minister Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen, goes to the United Nations headquarters in New York to discuss sanctions against his country’s nuclear programme, but ends up falling in love with Zoey, the feminist caterer working at the conference. To impress her, Aladeen deviates from his original script and declares that Wadiya will have a true democracy. A year later, he conducts a ‘democratic election’, which is actually far from being fair and free. Aladeen is declared the winner with 98.8 percent of the vote, after compelling everyone to vote for him. In short, Aladeen the dictator continues to deceive Zoey and the world. He also continues to enrich uranium.
When real life politics seem risible, perhaps we need to draw attention to the humor of politics and the politics of humor. Indeed, the case of the Republic of Djibouti, which adjoins the fictitious Republic of Wadiya, may require this kind of approach. The Republic of Djibouti has existed as an independent nation state since 1977, following an independence vote that brought to an end French colonial rule in this strategically important region. Since independence, the country’s political system has been dominated by a single political party, the Rassemblement Populaire pour le Progrès (RPP). Members of a single family – the Guelleh family – have been the only leaders of the country under the banner of the RPP.
This week, however, the RPP has shown signs of a willingness to change. On the party’s web page, as well as on television, radio and in the newspaper of Djibouti, which is controlled by the RPP, we were told that they remarkable modifications have been made to the party structure. This much-talked about structural change consists among other things of the replacement of the party’s old guard with newcomers, in a move seen as an attempt to revitalize the group that has held power since independence. This reform follows a report written by a committee established to evaluate the party’s present condition.
The committee’s findings, which have been informally circulating among Djiboutian politicians, and which have also been published by Djibouti’s Human Rights League, note that the party lost two major districts in the last elections, and that this instigated debate among the party’s central committee members. For this reason, the report states, the committee has been mandated to make an evaluation of the party’s president and the country’s present leader, Ismail Omar Guelleh. As part of its evaluation, which is based on a number of interviews, the committee identified a series of problems within the party, ranging from the deteriorating condition of party-owned premises to problems of organizing party members, and the ineffectiveness of the party school.
As part of its proposed solution, the report recommends bolstering the party’s financial capacity by mobilizing supplementary resources and by canceling payments for locations (party offices) that have been out of use for years but which the party has been unwittingly paying for. Noting the importance of maintaining a positive image, the committee also recommends renovating and updating the offices that are retained. In relation to communications, the committee further recommends reinforcing the capacity of the party newspaper, le Progrès, as well as taking disciplinary action against those party members who leak information.
In its recommendations, the committee, and subsequently the party, falls short of addressing the party’s problems as they are seen from outside, however. Here, the party’s problems, including the fact that it lost two major districts, are regarded as internal and as having to do with financial capacity, visibility, and so on. The RPP is prepared to further reinforce its capacity and visibility rather than preparing itself for the opening of political space in Djibouti. The much-discussed reforms are not seen as honest reform and a sign of readiness to change, but as a semblance of reform that has instigated an internal reshuffle without questioning the status quo of the Guelleh family and the RPP in Djibouti. In fact, the reporting of the reforms in Djibouti’s government-owned newspaper clearly demonstrates the unchanging nature of national politics in this region. In the government-controlled media there is constant emphasis on the idea that reform has occurred not haphazardly but through the patronage and direction of Ismail Omar Guelleh.
In view of this, what the reshuffling and restructuring leaves us with is a state of affairs that falls within the realm of the kind of comedy outlined at the start of this article. Lacking any serious intent to resolve the problematic affairs of Djibouti, the political situation here seems akin to a live replay of Cohen’s satire, in which the protagonist has put on a show of reform only to enforce old tactics through new measures.
The current party strategy will place Djibouti in line with Russian or Chinese-style democracies, which have been increasingly copied throughout the region, and indeed across the continent as a whole. The Chinese Communist Party, for example, has declared a leadership transition that has been widely anticipated by the international community. As in the case of Djibouti, however, the Chinese are not interested in changing the status quo but in reshuffling party members and bringing new faces to the fore.
At present, what is expected from the Djibouti population is that they should live in just such a Chinese- or Russian-style democracy, which seems reminiscent of Cohen’s state of Wadiya. What this suggests is the continuing significance of old actors across this continent. Indeed, it should not be forgotten that before the present Chinese economic involvement in Africa, Chinese ideologies (as well as Russian ones) had widespread influence. What these political strategies in Djibouti and some other African countries show is that the adaptation of strategies from cold-war actors whose significance has declined or changed is not necessarily a recipe for success; for a country as small as Djibouti, adopting a strategy of reform that entails no actual reform will not be easy, especially when the Horn of Africa and surrounding regions have been engulfed in political reform. In Djibouti, the death of Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Melese Zenawi, for example, has been a closely watched event. In fact, the state funeral held in Addis Ababa was transmitted live on Radio Télévision Djibouti (RTD), despite the fact that the events were taking place in another country.
This increased focus on Ethiopia’s affairs is not without reason; it is happening because a possible destabilization of Ethiopia, or a change in the politics of Addis Ababa, will have implications for Djibouti, especially in its northern Afar-dominated region. Here, there is resentment towards the Issa, who dominate Djibouti politics. Already there are signs of agitation in Djibouti that surface from time to time: one example is provided by the recent strikes by workers at Doraleh Port; another is the resentment expressed among the Afar community against the implementation of the Tadjourah deep sea port project, funded by the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (AFESD), which includes a plan to construct a railway line linking the port with the state of Tigray in Ethiopia. Given the shifting Horn of Africa environment, engaging in a reform process that is not meant to produce real change will not provide a solution to a rapidly worsening situation – which is a result of the stifling political environment here, rather than RPP’s lack of financial capacity or deterioration of its office stock. The country’s President Prime Minister Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen and his associates should be able to come up with a better plan to meet people’s needs in this country – one which might provide the basis for real democracy.