Last week, we were in Djibouti President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh’s realm, and this week he came to us when he attended former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi’s memorial in Nairobi.
Death has a way of softening hearts. Djibouti and Kenya are involved in a squabble over which of them should run for the non-permanent United Nations Security Council seat.
The African Union has picked Kenya as the continent’s candidate. However, Djibouti has also thrown its hat in the ring, suggesting that the process through which Kenya was picked had the smell an African election around it.
Kenya, Djibouti says, has held the seat twice before while it has done so only once. So, if the rotation principle was strictly adhered to, this should be its turn to eat.
The AU — like most continental groupings — has a gentleman’s agreement on dividing these things, to avoid an unseemly and losing food fight, but there really is no rule that would stop Djibouti from running for the position.
Moi’s death gave Guelleh an opportunity to visit at a time when there would only be good feelings flowing.
Up in the Horn, he functions largely off the gaze of international media. Not so long ago, there were reports that he was ailing. But the Guelleh we saw in Djibouti and the one who spoke at the Moi funeral service looked in fairly good health for a man of 72.
Guelleh has been president since 1999 and still looks quite entrenched. The security of his power is probably giving him sustenance. There isn’t much of an opposition nor meddlesome and annoying independent media.
As Reporters Without Borders noted, there is “one exile radio station, nothing else… No privately owned or independent media outlet operates within the country.”
Since independence in 1977, Djibouti has been ruled by one family. Guelleh was elected president in 1999 after his uncle Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who had led the nation since independence, anointed him as his successor upon retirement.
Guelleh is, truly, the Big Man, with powerful First Lady Kadra Mahamoud Haid effectively the vice-president.
There’s no mistaking their clout. Last week, at the groundbreaking for the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) headquarters, in Djibouti, it was interesting to watch them.
Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who is chairman of Igad, was first to arrive. Hamdok became the premier last year after a rebellion in the Sudanese streets brought long-ruling dictator Omar al-Bashir down.
But the former deputy executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) in Addis Ababa couldn’t have chosen a more stressful time to lead Sudan, with its economy in the doldrums.
Still, he looked cheerful; the patina of presidential office is already evident on his face.
Next to arrive was First Lady Haid, driving herself in her convoy. As soon as she emerged, it was clear that she was not your run-of-the-mill First Lady. She was cheered.
After a while, Guelleh rocked up, like ‘King of Djibouti’. He, too, was showered with cheers. He was sure-footed, clearly The Man.
Djibouti is the world capital of foreign military bases — the US, France, Italy, Japan, China... they are all there. Its population is less than one million. An arid country, apart from cattle and camels kept by nomads, there is hardly any farming. Virtually all the food is imported.
There is a view that the small population, the dry expanses and the ability of the Guelleh family to leverage its control of the economy to extract subservience means foreign military bases can locate there without much nationalist opposition to them.
Djibouti’s staple is bread. It’s wheeled around by hawkers in large amounts and so cheap that in places it’s free. When people have cheap bread, they will not cause you much political trouble.
The weather is oppressively hot, hitting 46 degrees Celsius. Hiding from the heat is consuming work; so, people are left with little time to hold anti-State barazas.
The Guelleh household and relatives’ stranglehold on the economy is remarkable. The president’s daughters, nephews and cousins have their fingers in most Djibouti pies. The one most in the spotlight is Guelleh’s stepson Naguib Abdallah Kamil, who Haid had in her first marriage.
From energy to milk, Kamil has it all locked down. He now controls spaghetti. Sources say he set up a spaghetti factory. Then a levy of over 300 per cent was imposed on imported spaghetti.
Last week, as we waited for the big men and women to arrive, a Djiboutian duet of two ample women, one with a strident tenor and the other deep-throated, serenaded the audience. Moi would have appreciated them.
However, Guelleh — and other leaders at Nyayo Stadium — must also have got a sense of what its sounds like when the music stops.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the Wall of Great Africans and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com. @cobbo3