On February 15, Maj. Gen. Zakaria Sheikh, Chief of Staff of the Army, and Col. Abdullahi Abdi, commander of the police force, were placed under house arrest in Djibouti on charges of having plotted to organize a coup d’état.
The following February 17 Col. Abdullahi Abdi was transferred to Gabode prison, and on the same day the former budget minister Bodeh Ahmed Robleh was also arrested, also accused of plotting against President Ismail Omar Guelleh.
The investigations of the Djibouti authorities into the coup attempt are being conducted in absolute secrecy, although rumors of further arrests have circulated, especially among the country’s police and military forces. In particular, a number of officials were arrested on their arrival at Djibouti airport on their way back from abroad, some of whom were placed under house arrest while others were taken to Gabode prison in the capital.
The investigations that led to the arrest of the political and military senior members of the country seem to have highlighted the presence of a vast network of opponents to President Guelleh and to the system of power expressed by the family of the head of state. Among the few news circulating, in fact, rumors have leaked out about telephone conversations among the conspirators, explicitly mentioning President Guelleh’s wife, Kadra Mahamoud Haid, and describing her as the real center of power in the country.
The wife of the president has long been considered an important element of the system of power built around Ismail Omar Guelleh, who since 1999 governs the country through a small power elite structured on two levels. The first is represented by the family sphere, and in particular by his wife Kadra and by the two daughters he had by the president, Haibado and Fatouma-Awo. The former works with her father as a presidential advisor, while the latter is an entrepreneur. No less important in the family circle are Kadra’s two children from a previous marriage, Naguib Abdallah Kamil, whom his mother seeks to initiate in the political succession of her husband, and her daughter Nazli, also involved in the management of the family’s economic affairs.
The second level of President Guelleh’s power management is then the clan level, within the community of his group, the Issa Mamassan. The main positions of responsibility in the public administration and in the security apparatus have traditionally been attributed to members of the clan, where, however, a deep aversion to the role of the president’s wife and children seems to have grown in recent times. In particular, many members of the president’s clan accuse Kadra Mahamoud Haid of having centralized around her the management of the political and economic power of the country, taking advantage of the trust granted to her by her husband and of the contextual worsening of Ismail Omar Guelleh’s state of health. In this context, Kadra would be committed to the consolidation of the role of her children, depriving many prominent figures of the clan and causing growing discontent within the entire chain of political power in the country.
Particularly crucial appears the issue related to the dynamics of succession to power, where for a long time the name of Ismail Omar Guelleh’s son-in-law, Djama Elmi Okieh, married since 2014 to the president’s youngest daughter, Haibado, had been indicated. By 2018, however, Djama and Haibado had divorced as a result of the husband’s extramarital affair, and Guelleh’s wife, Kadra, have since maneuvered politically for the ascendancy of her own first-born son, Naguib Abdallah Kamil.
Kadra’s role in the determination of the balance of power has significantly increased in recent years, mainly as a result of what appears to be a progressive deterioration of her husband’s state of health. This ability, exploited in a particular way to increase the role and power of her children and consolidate them at the head of the country, has antagonized both the direct family branch of the president and the power system of the Issa Mamassan clan, which considers Kadra’s attempt to centralize as a threat to the interests of the consolidated sphere of internal balances of the clan.
It is not surprising, therefore, that widespread discontent is rife within the main Djiboutian institutions, where the president’s decision-making capacity is judged by many to have been delegated to his wife Kadra, viewed with suspicion within the Issa Mamasan clan but also feared by the main members of the Guelleh family, such as his unilateral brother Saad Omar, the general manager of the port of Djibouti, which represents the country’s main economic asset.