The best thing Obama could do for Djibouti would be to stop meddling in its affairs.
“History is … not with those who use coups or change the constitution to stay in power. Africa doesn’t need strongmen. It needs strong institutions”, chirped Barack Obama back in 2009 during his visit to Ghana. Despite such strong statements aimed at promoting democracy on the African continent, Obama has largely failed to translate words into actions in one of Africa’s smallest but most strategic nations: Djibouti.
Djibouti, sandwiched between landlocked Ethiopia and the refugee factory that has become Eritrea, is not just a beacon of stability in a volatile region, but also a vital US strategic ally and a key partner in counterterrorism operations throughout the region, hosting the US’s only military stronghold in Africa, Camp Lemmonier. But, in order to use the nation’s obvious strategic value, President Obama has encouraged President Ismail Omar Guelleh, a notorious human rights abuser and the country’s tzar.
President Guelleh has been ruling the country for 16 years after taking over in 1999 from his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who was in power since Djibouti’s independence from France in 1977. Following his two terms in power, Guelleh changed the Constitution in 2010 to allow him to run for a third illegitimate term, leading to protests by thousands of citizens and opposition forces in 2011. These demonstrations were subsequently dispersed as peaceful protestors were tear-gassed, arrested, and thrown in the slammer.
Never mind the astroturfing hailing Djibouti’s so-called aura of stability; Guelleh has largely crushed any internal dissent against his regime, banning demonstrations, jailing critics, restricting freedom of the press and violating the human rights of his own citizens.
A May 2015 statement by Reporters Without Borders reveals how Maydaneh Abdallah Okieh, the website editor of La Voix De Djibouti, the country’s first independent radio station in recent history, faces imprisonment for posting photographs on Facebook showing how police broke up peaceful demonstrations. He was accused by Djibouti’s judiciary, which is largely controlled by Guelleh himself, as “defaming the police” and must pay almost $12,000 in libel damages to avoid jail time.
If this is too remote to get Obama’s head turning , surely the damning 2014 and 2013 US State Department reports, which reveal the regime’s harassment, abuse and detainment of government critics, along with, “the use of excessive force, including torture; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and prolonged pretrial detention; denial of fair public trial”, should evoke an outraged response. Wrong again!
Neither Obama nor his political wingman, John Kerry, who visited Djibouti during his Africa tour in May 2015, bothered to comment on the reports dismal assessment of Djibouti’s government and leader, choosing instead to focus on cooperation and Djibouti as a trusted US ally, thereby making themselves responsible for the tragedy unfolding in the country.
While the revision of constitutional term limits has in itself diminished democracy, a recent court case involving opposition figure Abdourahman Boreh sheds light into the multifaceted strategy employed by Guelleh to stifle political freedoms. The case is centered on corruption charges filed by the government of Djibouti and follows previous charges of terrorism launched against him in 2009. In the initial legal battle, the UK High Court unfroze Boreh’s assets, ruling that the evidence against him was falsified and he had been wrongly accused, proving an embarrassment for Djibouti’s government. Boreh, who may present a political challenge to Guelleh’s regime, has long been claiming that the charges against him are “trumped up” and a way for the government to crush political opposition. Outside of Djibouti’s corrupt courts, the case quickly spiraled out of control, as the High Court demanded that Guelleh himself show up to testify. The president, aware of the negative press he would’ve received, refused.
Despite the lack of political freedoms and human rights abuses of Guelleh’s autocracy, extortionate military base rent funds continue to pour into Djibouti’s coffers (the US alone pays $63 million in lease fees and an additional $7 million in development aid a year), leading one to assume that life on the ground is improving for ordinary citizens. But in reality, Obama’s generosity has failed to trickle down to the population, and the only ones to benefit have in fact been Guelleh and his tight clan of government cronies.
For starters, Guelleh’s wife, Kadra Mahamoud Haid, takes on the role of unofficial vice president, while his half brother, Saad Omar Guelleh, is the director general of the port of Djibouti, essentially keeping a grip on one of the country’s key sources of revenue. Lo and behold, over 40% of Djibouti’s population lives in extreme poverty, lacking in water, food, and a chance for a better life. For all intents and purposes, the Obama administration’s war on terror is terrorizing and oppressing the Djiboutian populace.
As the young and fragmented civil society gets increasingly frustrated with the nation’s lack of development, it is not unlikely that the country’s leadership could witness an “Arab Spring” type outcome. Djibouti’s opposition, the Union for National Salvation (USN) has become increasingly active in denouncing Guelleh’s rule, in particular after a key agreement with the government, which would have paved the way for opposition to gain seats in parliament after the contested 2013 election, fell through in June 2015.
As Djibouti’s April 2016 presidential elections approach, the Obama administration needs to do one simple thing: pack up, pull the plug, close up shop and allow the people of Djibouti to enjoy the same basic freedoms their peers take for granted: the freedom to rise up and speak up against oppression.