It is not unusual for a near ‘city state’ to be centralised. However in Djibouti the creeping centralisation has swept away autonomy for the districts, fuelling divide and rule and tribal and sub-tribal favouritism in investment.
As problematic for poverty reduction is the lack of local initiatives if all substantial investment – and foreign aid – is channelled and micro-managed from a small group in central government. Scarce management time in central government is devoted to national issues and large scale business ventures. The smaller scale developments required in rural and peri-urban areas may sometimes get the attention for ‘initiation’ but not the attention to ensure benefits for the poor over the longer term.
Whilst many aid funded ‘decentralisation’ projects have been undertaken, the quasi-constitutional structures and the informal processes within government have limited the longer term effects of these measures.
In the rural and peri-urban communities of Djibouti there is very little food production – some livestock and small scale fishing, both sectors having declined over a long period. In livestock water access has been a problem. This is serious. With almost all food imported, price rises and falling incomes have added to widespread malnutrition especially amongst children and the elderly. This has the scope to precipitate militancy.
One symptom of the continuing centralisation is the politicisation of the police, who are commanded by the President and his security staff more than by the Ministry of the Interior and structures based on the rule of law.
In the short term much decentralisation can be achieved administratively, and by directing aid projects to be designed and implemented within districts as much as by central government.
However, as part of a general set of public administration reforms, a more formal decentralisation can be achieved with primary legislation, within the constitution, provided the functions of the districts are well defined and not duplicated by central government.
There are three sets of ‘projectised’ reforms that can be pursued to greater effect with rural and peri-urban areas. One is the development of the fishing sector, in conjunction with regional authorities and national governments. The industry was substantial in the past but tensions prevailed over the management of fishing stocks. There is great scope for a profitable fishing industry if relations with regional bodies can be improved.
Second, the viability of greenhouse-based vegetable production has been proven, where water sources exist. The combination of transport and refrigeration costs and duties create the scope for domestic food production, especially if counter-productive food taxes are removed.
The third set of projects is water sourcing. Capital costs can be daunting for individuals, and powers costs high, such that water sourcing and pumping require a future flow of profitable income to support the investment.
Police reform must go hand in hand with decentralisation.
For the general population, the police have become the enemy. They are seen as an instrument of the rich elite clustered around the President. This is as bad for the police as it is for the general population.
Two key reforms are needed. One is the structural, institutional and legal position of the police, and how they are accountable to the public so they cannot be used for political and tribal intimidation.
Second, district-level police forces need to be included as part of the structure, with local consultation and involvement of district administrations in the focus of police work.
This is a sensitive issue but it is essential that police have the confidence of the general population, and important that they are not seen as supporting a small group or the interests of one sub-tribe.
Getting things done
The need for legislation for decentralisation and development of water sources will need to be explored as a matter of urgency.