It was 2009 and U.S. dignitaries were cutting the ribbon on a $14-million, U.S. government-funded naval pier in the small port city of Obock, Djibouti. Then-Djiboutian Prime Minister Dileita Mohamed Dileita called it the “most significant program of its kind ever undertaken in sub-Saharan Africa.” Fast-forward seven years and massive renovations to the project are well underway. Only now, the effort is being led by the Chinese — last year, the Djibouti government kicked the U.S. military off the installation in favor of the People’s Liberation Army. The move illustrated a larger change in the pecking order of Djibouti’s preferred international partners — and shows why the United States must change its approach there.
Roughly the size of New Hampshire, Djibouti is nevertheless, as Ambassador Tom Kelly said, “an extremely important counterterrorism platform for the United States.” From sprawling Camp Lemonnier at the country’s international airport, U.S. forces launch operations against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, or AQIP; al-Shabaab in Somalia; and elsewhere. The country also sits at the bottleneck of one of the busiest international shipping routes, connecting the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea and on to the Mediterranean Ocean. Djibouti’s turn toward China has not only decreased our strategic position there, but it has also stunted democracy in the country. Only by supporting the democratic process in Djibouti, and holding the government accountable to international law, can the U.S. hope to once again become the partner of choice for this small, but important nation.
Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh can no longer be trusted as an ally. While American influence in Djibouti wanes, the Chinese government has made inroads into the highest echelons of Djibouti’s government. China has also poured billions of dollars into Djibouti’s development, swiftly and considerably asserting its military and political influence there. As Bloomberg News reports, China is financing a railroad, a port terminal expansion, fuel and water pipelines, a natural gas liquefaction plant, highway upgrades, two proposed airports, and several government buildings — plus their military installation at Obock. Even more concerning, Chinese funds appear to have paid for President Guelleh’s campaign for an unprecedented fourth term in office after he amended the Constitution, which previously capped a President’s service to two terms.
It is clear: as President Guelleh moves closer to China, Djibouti moves further from democracy. The U.S. is failing to provide a counterbalance. Our current commitment to supporting democracy in Djibouti is pitifully insufficient. As Djiboutians prepared for a critical national election last year, the U.S., via USAID, earmarked just $7,914 for “Elections and Political Processes” and another $4,486 for “Political Parties.” No American election monitors were present when Guelleh won 87% of a vote which activists claim was preceded by political repression, police brutality, and biased national media.
Now insulated from international criticism, Guelleh is moving boldly to consolidate power with the full weight of the government apparatus behind him.
The president has relentlessly pursued his political opponents in courts around the world, falsifying evidence when it suits him. His legal pursuit of former ally Abdourahman Boreh is said to have cost $90 million. A London High Court dismissed the charges, saying the allegations were politically motivated; adding the nature of Guelleh’s regime was “capricious.” At home, the Djiboutian military’s “reprisal operations” are far more sadistic. Florent Geel, who runs the Africa section of the International Federation for Human Rights, or FIDH, has documented arbitrary arrests, summary executions, and sexual violence, the latter of which seems to be the Djiboutian army’s preferred mechanism to suppress civilians seen as sympathetic to anti-government rebels.
For years, Djibouti held a safe and stable democracy in the midst of a tumultuous region. This stability, along with its strategic location, is one of the major reasons why the United States chose to invest heavily in the country, making Djibouti home for its operations throughout the continent. But there are times when the U.S. must reexamine bad deals and soured commitments. Make no mistake: in Djibouti, this is one of those times. Remaining silent only signals our complicity in a range of crimes against Djiboutians. We must get off the sidelines and reengage in supporting democratic institutions and processes before the country completely backslides into the oppressiveness and violence that plagues so many of its regional neighbors.