Ismaïl Omar Guelleh

President of Djibouti (1999-present)

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Ismaïl Omar Guelleh
إسماعيل عمر جليه
Ismail Omar Guelleh 2010.jpg
Guelleh in 2010
2nd President of Djibouti
Assumed office
8 May 1999
Prime MinisterBarkat Gourad Hamadou
Dileita Mohamed Dileita
Abdoulkader Kamil Mohamed
Preceded byHassan Gouled Aptidon
Personal details
Born (1947-11-27) 27 November 1947 (age 74)
Dire Dawa, Ethiopian Empire
(now Ethiopia)
Political partyPeople's Rally for Progress
Spouse(s)Kadra Mahamoud Haid
ChildrenHaïbado Ismaïl Omar
Fatouma-Awo Ismaïl Omar
Abdinasir Omar Ismaïl Saalah

Ismaïl Omar Guelleh (Somali: Ismaaciil Cumar Geelle; Arabic: إسماعيل عمر جليه) (born 27 November 1947)[1][2] is the current President of Djibouti. He has been in office since 1999, making him one of the longest-serving rulers in Africa.[3] He is often referred to by his initials, IOG.

Guelleh was first elected as President in 1999 as the handpicked successor to his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who had ruled Djibouti since independence in 1977.[4] Guelleh was re-elected in 2005, 2011, 2016 and in 2021. The elections were largely boycotted by the opposition amid complaints over widespread irregularities.[5][6] Guelleh has been characterized as a dictator, and his rule has been criticized by human rights groups and governments, such as the United States.[7]

He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India's second-highest civilian award, on 25 January 2019 for his role in the safe evacuation of Indian citizens from Yemen.[8]

Early life and political beginnings

Guelleh was born in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, into the politically powerful Mamassan subclan of the Dir Issa clan.[9] The father of Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, son of Guelleh Batal, is Omar Guelleh, one of the first native teachers in the 1930s before working, following his father's path, on behalf of the Franco-Ethiopian Railway Company (CFE) which built the line connecting Djibouti to Addis Ababa and whose head office was in Dire Dawa. When Guelleh was younger he attended a traditional Islamic school. In 1960, Guelleh migrated to Djibouti before finishing high school. In 1964, at the age of 18, Ismail Omar Guelleh began working in the General Information of the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas, because he spoke Amharic, Somali, Arabic, French, Italian and English.[10]

In 1975, he was suspended from his duties because he was suspected of transmitting information to the independence movement. He then became involved in the African People's League for Independence (LPAI) chaired by Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who campaigns for independence. Guelleh was elected into the LPAI’s Central Committee in 1983 and subsequently became the director of a cultural commission in Paris. In 1987, he became a member of the party leadership.[11]

After Djibouti became independent, he became head of the secret police and chief of the cabinet in the government of his uncle Hassan Gouled Aptidon, for whom he also served as chief of staff for more than two decades.[11] He received training from the Somali National Security Service and then from the French Secret Service, and was intended to become his uncle's successor. He became President of Djibouti in 1999.


Rise to power and first term, 1999 to 2005

Ismail Omar Guelleh meeting with President George W. Bush of the United States, January 21, 2003.

Djibouti is one of four countries in Africa that have experienced instances of immediate successions from one family member to another.[12]

On February 4, 1999, President Gouled Aptidon, uncle of Ismail Guelleh, announced his retirement at the time of the next election, and an extraordinary congress of his party, the ruling People's Rally for Progress (RPP), chose Guelleh as its presidential candidate, handpicked by Aptidon.[13][4] As the joint candidate of the RPP and moderate wing of the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD), Guelleh won the presidential election held on April 9, 1999 with 74.02% of the vote, defeating his only challenger, the independent candidate Moussa Ahmed Idriss.[14][15] He took office on May 8.[16] Moussa Ahmed Idriss was arrested the following September for "threatening the morale of the armed forces" and detained at an undisclosed location.[17]

In December 2000, Guelleh sacked the chief of staff of the National Police Force, Yacin Yabeh, prompting policemen loyal to Yabeh to unsuccessfully rebel following his dismissal.[18] Guelleh is credited with brokering a permanent peace agreement that year that brought to an end the country’s post-independence ethnic conflict.[11]

Second term, 2005 to 2011

Guelleh was nominated by the RPP as its presidential candidate for a second time on October 7, 2004, at an Extraordinary Congress of the party. He was backed by several other parties[19] and was the only candidate in the presidential election held on April 8, 2005.[20] Brief protests against the elections erupted but where quickly suppressed by police.[21] Without a challenger, Guelleh won 100% of the ballots cast and was sworn in for a second six-year term, which he said would be his last, on May 7.[22]

However, in 2010, Guelleh persuaded the National Assembly of Djibouti to amend the nation's Constitution, allowing him to stand for a third term.[23][24] This cleared the way for him to place his name on the ballot in Djibouti's 2011 election. It also resulted in large protests beginning in 2010 similar to the larger movement for democracy in the Arab countries.[25] The protests were quickly put down, opposition leaders arrested and international observers expelled or arrested.[26][27][28]

Third term, 2011 to 2016

Opposition parties boycotted the election, leaving only one little-known candidate against him on the ballot. Guelleh won almost 80% of the vote.[29] Human Rights Watch questioned the fairness of the election given that opposition leaders were jailed twice prior to polling.[30] Guelleh again said that he would not run for another term.[31]

Guelleh was also the winner of the 2016 election with about 87% of the popular vote.[32] As in previous elections, the opposition had called for a country-wide boycott and demanded Guelleh conduct "transparent, free, fair and just elections."[33] Opposition leaders and human rights groups complained of repression and police brutality in the run-up to the polls.[34] After interviewing an opposition leader, a BBC team was arrested and expelled shortly before the vote.[33]

Fourth term, 2016 to 2021

He was re-elected for a fifth term in the 2021 landslide election.[35][36] One opposition candidate ran in the election, political newcomer Zakaria Ismail Farah, who accused the government of "ballot-box stuffing" and barring his delegates from accessing polling stations to monitor the voting process.[37] Other with major opposition parties opted not to run candidates, accusing Guelleh of ruling via a dictatorship.[38]

Fifth term, since 2021

In June 2021, Guelleh made vaccination against COVID-19 compulsory for both citizens and foreign residents.[39]

Throughout that same month, Guelleh reshuffled of his diplomatic corps, recalling seven ambassadors and appointing new ones to several countries across the Middle East.[40]


Guelleh’s long-time rule has opened questions about his eventual succession, with a trusted, hand-picked candidate chosen from within his inner circle being almost a certainty.[12][41] For the longest time, the president’s son in law and minister of health, Djama Elmi Okieh, seemed to be Guelleh’s designated successor, but since 2018 he has fallen out of favor after an alleged affair with an employee and subsequent divorce.[42][43] The new favored candidate since then seems to be Naguib Abdallah Kamil, a son of First Lady Kadra Mahamoud Haid from a previous marriage.[42]

By retaining Djibouti’s main political players in their respective government position, Guelleh has increased the risk for internal power struggles.[44] Prime Minister Abdoulkader Kamil Mohamed and Finance Minister Ilyas Moussa Dawaleh are considered prime contenders for leadership struggles in the run-up to the next elections in 2026. Another possible candidate involved in intra-governmental fights for power includes Foreign Minister Mahamoud Ali Youssouf.[44]

Political assessment


Throughout his presidency, Guelleh has worked to install members of his family in important political and economic positions. A central role is occupied by his wife, Kadra Mahamoud Haid, who acts as the de facto vice-president, and his two daughters: Haibado, functioning as an important advisor to Guelleh, and Fatouma-Awo, heavily involved in the country’s business activities.[45] His son in law, Djama Elmi Okieh, is the Minister of Health.[43]

One of the President’s half-brothers, Saad Omar Guelleh, is the General Manager of the economically paramount Port of Djibouti, while first cousin Djama Ali Guelleh has been the Director General of state-owned utilities company Electricité de Djibouti (EDD) since 1986, more than a decade before Guelleh came to power.[45][46]

Owing to this intricate blurring of state functions and the ruling clan, Guelleh has been able to exercise strict control over the country’s political, economic and judiciary affairs, aided by his strong grip on the police, military and other security forces. This has guaranteed that "the Guelleh clan’s domination of all public affairs prevailed."[42]

A message sent from the US Embassy in Djibouti in 2004 and published on WikiLeaks described Djibouti as "less a country than a commercial city state controlled by one man, Ismail Omar Guelleh."[47]

In its 2020 country report on Human Rights Practices, the US government identified "unlawful or arbitrary killings", "cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government", and "arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence", among others, as "significant human rights issues" in the country.[48]

Closer relations with China

Guelleh has exploited his country’s strategic position for years, marked by large infrastructure investments, especially in ports and logistics.[4][49] Since 2013, Guelleh has pursued closer economic and political relations with China, which coincided with Beijing’s growing strategic interest in the Middle East and Africa through the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative that year.[50]

The ensuing great power competition for the country has increased Djibouti’s scope for maneuver, but China’s influence has also grown over Djibouti, having established a naval base there in 2017 and triggering concerns among Djibouti’s traditional Western allies that Beijing’s authoritarian governance style is encouraging more autocratic behavior on Guelleh’s part as well.[51][52]

The influx of Chinese investments into the country has furthered Guelleh’s development plan based on the Singapore model. It is often understood as "as an authoritarian government delivering national prosperity through rigid planning and a singular focus on economic development at the expense of democracy, human rights, and basic freedoms."[53] Guelleh has frequently made references to following Singapore’s path in official speeches, hoping to transform Djibouti into the "Singapore of Africa" by capitalizing on the Port of Djibouti’s growing role as a strategically located maritime trading hub.[54][55]

However, experts regard Djibouti’s continued government corruption and favoring of Chinese investors as a hindrance to that development strategy paying off.[56][53] For example, in 2012 the Djibouti government sold its Doraleh Container Terminal concession of the Port of Djibouti to a Chinese competitor of concession partner DP World, an UAE-based port operator.[57] In February 2018, Ismaïl Guelleh revoked DP World’s concession by presidential decree, transferring its assets to a state-run company.[58][59] Using Chinese funding, that same year Djibouti also opened a long-term project to build what is projected to be Africa’s greatest free trade zone.[58]

In 2020, the London Court of International Arbitration ruled Djibouti’s expropriation illegal and ordered the original concession rights are to be restored.[60] The Court had previously ordered the country to pay $533 million in compensation to the DP World company. Djibouti rejected the Court’s ruling and handed a quarter of the port's stake to China Merchants Ports Holdings.[61]


While the FDI-driven policy into port and logistics infrastructure pursued by Guelleh has been responsible for steady economic growth, it has created a service-dependent and capital-intensive economy with low exports and opportunities for job creation.[62] Indeed, unemployment remains an enduring issue that disproportionally affects the young. According to a 2015 employment survey, Djibouti’s unemployment rate was at 39 percent, where only 25 percent of working age people were employed.[62] A more recent estimate puts unemployment of the young at 80 percent.

Furthermore, the investment projects behind the country’s economic growth throughout the years were financed by external debt, which has led to high levels of debt ownership by foreign actors, particularly China.[63][64] Overall, the country’s economy was ranked as "mostly unfree" by the Heritage Foundation’s 2021 Index of Economic Freedom.[65]

The expansion of the Berbera port in Somaliland by DP World, which would reduce landlocked Ethiopia’s dependence on Djibouti for large parts of its trade, has been speculated to pose a threat to the port of Djibouti’s regional dominance.[66] Guelleh has dismissed such claims.[67]

Regional security

Djibouti under Guelleh’s rule has remained a stable country within a conflict-ridden region. Guelleh’s presidency has seen the signing of a peace agreement between warring ethnic tribes in 2000 and the resolution of a decade-long border dispute between Djibouti and Eritrea in 2018.[68][69] The 2018 peace treaty between Ethiopia and Eritrea is expected to reduce Djibouti’s port revenues in the long-run and could in turn lead to Guelleh becoming unable to maintain his stringent control over the country.[70]

In 2020, Guelleh hosted the leaders of Somalia and its break-away Republic of Somaliland as well as Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for peace talks.[71]

Personal life

Ismail Guelleh is married with four children.[11]

Following a visit of Guelleh and his entourage to Paris in late 2018, France’s National Financial Prosecutor's Office opened a preliminary investigation into the alleged fraudulent acquisition of several properties in the city.[72] The investigation, launched after a complaint from anti-corruption NGO Sherpa and focusing on Guelleh’s wife, eldest daughter and son in law, is ongoing as of July 2021.[73]


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Political offices
Preceded by President of Djibouti
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