Bread and spaghetti: How to rule an African nation quietly for years

Wednesday February 12 2020

Last week in “From the Red Sea, a Ugandan’s tale of locusts, superpowers, and Toyotas”, the locusts wreaking havoc were knocking on Uganda’s doors. On Sunday, they entered through Karamoja.
Not too far off from the edge of the Red Sea, in Djibouti, where we cast that gaze on the things threatening our lands, nothing has changed. President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, who has been the Big Man in Djibouti since 1999, is sitting pretty.
Since Djibouti’s independence in 1977, it has been ruled by one family. Guelleh was elected as president in 1999, after his uncle Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who had led Djibouti since independence, anointed him as his successor. Gouled Aptidon did something that’s still alien to Uganda – he actually retired from office, partly out of age. He was 83.
Djibouti shares the same characteristic with Equatorial Guinea, which has also been ruled by one family since its independence on October 12, 1968 with Francisco Macías Nguema as president. Macías Nguema is one of a handful of men who ever ruled a country in Africa who make Idi Amin look positively like a saint. As he descended into murderous insanity, his nephew Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, booted him out in an August 1979 bloody military coup.
Macías Nguema was tried and executed by firing squad, as was the custom in this our continent during those times.
Nguema Mbasogo is about to clock 41 years in power, about half the time Guelleh has put in, but the Djiboutian leader can claim that, in contrast, he inherited the throne from his uncle nearly “democratically.” However, he has ruled with a monarchical hand since, complete with a First Lady, Kadra Mahamoud Haid, who carries herself with the bearing of a modern queen.
Both were on display at an event last week to break ground for the new headquarters of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) in Djibouti’s eponymous capital.
Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, who is the chair of Igad, was first to arrive. Hamdok was appointed PM last year after the fall of long-ruling dictator Omar al-Bashir.
Next to arrive was First Lady Haid. She was driving herself in her convoy. She emerged, and there was a flourish around. This was not your ordinary First Lady. She is the de facto vice president in Djibouti. She was greeted with ululations.
After about five minutes, the chief, Guelleh himself, arrived in a manner befitting an imperial ruler. Now 72, Guelleh wore a cheerful, but complacent look of a man who was sure of his grasp on power. He too was showered with partisan ululations.
Djibouti is the world capital of foreign military bases; the USA, France, Italy, Japan, China; they are all there. Djibouti’s population is less than one million. An arid country, hardly anything is farmed there, and nearly all the food is imported. The small population, the arid expanses, and the structure of the economy means foreign military bases can sit there without much nationalist opposition to them.
The staple food in Djibouti, is bread. It is so cheap, in several places you get it free. If it was in Uganda, you would buy a barquette for half the price of a daily newspaper. When people have cheap bread, they don’t make much trouble.
The weather is oppressively hot, hitting 46 degrees Celsius. Hiding from the heat, people are left with little time to organise People Power-like things.
But the Guelleh household also has a grip on the economy. That end of business is run by Guelleh’s stepson Naguib Abdallah Kamil, who Haid had in her first marriage. From energy to milk, he has it all wrapped up. In the latest, he now controls spaghetti. Kamil set up a spaghetti factory, then a levy of more than 300 per cent was slapped on imported spaghetti. The rest, as they say, is history.
When we were on Capital FM’s Capital Gang many years ago, my friend Frank Katusiime liked to say if you want to know the true nature of a State, you needed to take a pee in the toilets at its international airport.
The Djibouti–Ambouli International Airport reveals the vulnerable underbelly of Guelleh’s system. The toilets have broken taps, and are ill-tended. When you are leaving past the ticketing counters and immigration, old women sit by. Guelleh has picked his agemates to keep an eye on the young ones who might fall to temptations.
You find the same old women, sitting along the Djibouti streets exchanging forex…as late as 9pm, when the place becomes alive as the city folks pour out in the cooler evenings. No one will rob them. Djibouti is as a low crime city as you can get. Seems it is part of the authoritarian bargain that keeps Guelleh in power – cheap bread, little crime, air conditioning for its elite, and a buzz about it as a geopolitical Mecca.