Why Djibouti’s voice is always heard

After serving as Prime Minister between 2001 and 2013, Dileita Mohamed Dileita (below) returned to the forefront of the national political scene in March 2023, when he became President of the National Assembly. African Business spoke to this former diplomat.

Conversation with


Appointed to head the National Assembly by the President of the Republic, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, Dileita Mohamed Dileita brings his experience as a former Prime Minister to the country’s debating chamber, but also as a senior diplomat. He has held positions in Paris, was an ambassador in Addis Ababa – at the headquarters of the African Union – and has been chargé de mission for various international institutions. Although he has criss-crossed the continent, he has never strayed too far from Djibouti, his home country, where he is serving his fifth term as a member of parliament.

The Covid crisis and regional instability – particularly in Ethiopia – have slowed down the country’s economic growth and attaining its Vision 2035 objectives. What can be done to accelerate the achievement of those objectives?

Dileita Mohamed Dileita: Covid was something new and sudden for countries all over the world. The President had the extraordinary reflex to close the border with the outside world very quickly. Economically, there were consequences, because the economy is based on trade with Ethiopia, and maritime transport in general, but we had to make do. We had launched the 2035 projects, but that didn’t really bother us. The positive thing was that we had the courage to close all the borders. We’ve had fewer deaths and fewer positive cases.

The Djibouti Sovereign Wealth Fund is organising the Djibouti Forum in mid-May. What are your expectations of this event?

Dileita Mohamed Dileita: When you see the number of guests, the objectives and the commitments that could be made, it gives us great hope. Investors are going to come and see for themselves what opportunities are available to them here. A lot of people don’t know Djibouti, and that’s the problem. We need to sell our country’s potential. We have high hopes for this forum.

You were appointed President of the National Assembly last year. How do you represent Djibouti’s voice in bodies such as the African Union and the Arab League? 

Dileita Mohamed Dileita: Djibouti has been a stable country for 40 years, with a government, elections and a democratic system. Even when there has been unrest in the region, Djibouti’s voice has always been heard. Today, we are at the head of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, an organisation that brings together eight countries in a rather difficult regional context. As far as we are concerned, we have very good relations with Ethiopia, even if there have been some minor reservations about the agreement they signed with Somaliland.

This agreement would give Ethiopia, a landlocked country, access to part of Somaliland’s coastline… 

Dileita Mohamed Dileita: Yes, President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh has gone to tackle this issue. As far as we are concerned, there is only one Somalia, even though we have signed an agreement with Somaliland on the free movement of goods. The recognition they are fighting for is unthinkable, because the very basis for the creation of the African Union is the inviolability of the borders inherited from colonisation. The AU’s predecessor, the OAU, was formed by all the independent African countries in 1963. The only country that was created after that was South Sudan, because negotiations were held. The President of the Republic of Djibouti has taken the Somaliland issue in hand. 

Generally speaking, what are your relations with Ethiopia?

Dileita Mohamed Dileita: We have a very special relationship with this country, which we have helped a great deal and which supports us. Most of our port trade is with them. It’s legitimate for Ethiopia to look for other opportunities in terms of ports because they have more than 100 million inhabitants, but it has to be done according to the rules. If tomorrow they sign a partnership with Kenya, or with another country like Sudan, that’s perfectly legitimate, but with a country that isn’t recognised, that poses problems.

Back to Djibouti – the continent needs strong institutions to ensure stability. What exactly is the role of parliament in the country’s decision-making process?

Dileita Mohamed Dileita: The National Assembly plays a positive role not only in the capital, but also outside. After my appointment as President of the National Assembly, I had the opportunity to visit the five regions. I received an extraordinary welcome. We have already resolved some of the grievances that were brought to my attention at the time. The influence of parliamentarians is very important for Djibouti.

You have a long career behind you. In particular, you were lucky enough to witness the very first developments in the country, just after independence. How have you seen the country evolve?

Dileita Mohamed Dileita: The major obstacle was the lack of resources. Djibouti didn’t yet have a blueprint for society or an economic structure. The country had to develop. In 1977, at the time of independence, everyone got down to work. The handover went very smoothly, because France didn’t leave the country overnight, as it did in Guinea, for example. The High Commissioner, who was the supreme leader before independence, assisted President Hassan Gouled Aptidon. For a long time, there were French advisors in the administration or in the presidency.

The transition took place as Djiboutians returned to the country with degrees and training. So the first years of independence went very well, but what our people were afraid of at the time was the influence of their direct neighbours, like Ethiopia and its 90 million inhabitants, or Somalia. And then there was the Ogaden War. That’s when President Hassan Gouled Aptidon had the intelligence to sign a defence agreement, to guarantee us protection, whatever the problems beyond our borders. In fact, Djibouti has never been affected by external political problems.

And what has been its economic trajectory?

Dileita Mohamed Dileita: When we joined the Arab League in 1977, many countries helped us to develop, notably Saudi Arabia. The Kuwaitis built our roads and the Emiratis built our port, even though we later split from them. All the Arab countries have supported us. With the arrival of President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, these relationships have been strengthened. The Port of Doraleh, the oil port, the container terminal, all these major projects have been completed. The results are there, the roads are there, the infrastructure is there. 

Djibouti was destabilised by civil war in the 1990s. What is the state of national cohesion, more than 20 years later, particularly regarding the Issas and Afars?

Dileita Mohamed Dileita: Before independence, all the parties were made up of Issas and Afars, who fought together for recognition of the country. But in 1977, a group from the Afar community refused to take part in the Paris Conference, which was the core of the birth of Djibouti. That’s when the problems started. But today, in Djibouti, I can tell you that there are no tribal problems. If a minister wants to appoint someone from one community or another, he is free to do so. We have a tradition of living together.

President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh’s term of office comes to an end in 2026. Who could succeed him and how should the succession be organised? 

Dileita Mohamed Dileita: We are an open country with a highly advanced democracy. Everyone in Djibouti knows what this man has done. Initially, when he was elected President of the Republic in 1999, the constitution limited him to two terms. But we forced him back into power in 2011, because the regional context was tense, with piracy problems peaking. Appointing a new president overnight would have created problems for us, and our international partners agreed. In fact, we changed the constitution in a transparent way. 

Our party won a large victory in the February 2023 elections. If the President wants to leave in 2026, that’s his choice. It’s up to him to guide us and tell us how to work to find a new President of the Republic. And if
he wants to continue, all possibilities are open. Wise as he is, he will have the opportunity to guide us along the right path. We will take the instructions he gives us.

Do you have any final message to end this interview?

Dileita Mohamed Dileita: We’re very hopeful about the creation of the Djibouti Sovereign Wealth Fund and the upcoming forum. 

Recently, the Director of the Fund, Slim Feriani, came to explain the role of this institution to members of parliament during a plenary session at the National Assembly. With him, we found the right man in the right place. Today, everyone can measure their ambitions. I’m sure that at the end of this forum, the country’s prospects will change a great deal.

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Théo du Couëdic

Théo is a freelance journalist based in Senegal.