“Reprehensible conduct”; “fall way a long way short of the standards of a sovereign state”; “their hands are still dirty”… These are just some of the harsh words used by a British High Court in a judgment handed down on March 23rd against the state of Djibouti. The court case revolved around the false evidence used by the administration of president Ismail Omar Guelleh to secure a terrorism charge levied against the country’s opposition leader, Abdourahman Boreh. Coincidentally, the small East African country is Washington’s most important African ally, a relationship that has been avidly cultivated by the White House, President Obama even remarking at a bilateral meeting that he will “ be looking at his [Guelleh] advice on a range of issues that we can work on together”. One can’t help but wonder what advice could Guelleh have for our commander-in-chief…
Djibouti, a country few could actually place on a map, is one of the most sought after partners in Africa. Endowed with virtually no resources but with an enviable strategic position overlooking the Gulf of Aden and just off the war-torn coast of Yemen, Djibouti has become a meeting ground for the world’s most powerful nations. Apart from the U.S., the European Union, Japan, China, Germany and Russia have either signed strategic agreements or are using the country’s infrastructure for their militaries.
Unfortunately, as it so often happens with countries lacking democratic traditions or respect for the rule of law, this increased international attentions served to strengthen the hand of Djibouti’s 3-terms-in-a-row president Guelleh. The nephew of the former President, Guelleh has constantly stifled opposition voices and has shunted democratic rules since assuming power in 1999. Much like neighboring Zimbabwe, in 2005 he ran unopposed and won 100% of the ballots cast. The fact that his previous challenger was sentenced to prison for “threatening the morale of the armed forces” didn’t encourage many to present themselves in the contest. After a rapid change of the Constitution to end term limits, Guelleh ran again in 2011, but not before jailing opposition leaders and cracking down on the mass protests that broke out to contest his hunger for power. He went on to secure a third term with 80% of the vote.
The recent British court decision comes on the heels of a 2010 decision of a Djibouti court that sentenced Boreh to fifteen years imprisonment on charges of terrorism for allegedly instigating a grenade attack in a local supermarket back in 2009. As it turns out, the Guelleh administration, with the aid of several partners from the prestigious Gibson Dunn & Crutcher law firm, forged key evidence and used it to indict Boreh. Telephone transcripts, initially used as evidence, had been tampered with in order to condemn the opposition leader. Digging beneath the headlines, one will find that Boreh was a former presidential candidate and has been locked in an intense political rivalry with Guelleh.
However, such an appalling track record did not stop President Obama from throwing a lavish reception for Guelleh last year and agree to a doubling of the rent paid out to Djibouti for the Camp Lemonnier military base – Washington’s first line of offense in the fight against Yemen’s al Qaeda terror cells. The base boasts several hundreds of Special Forces operatives, helicopters, secret NASA aircraft, and the largest African contingent of Predator drones.
Perhaps the most striking aspect about Djibouti has been its revolving door policy in striking up partnerships with some of America’s most ardent adversaries. The Iranian Parliamentary Speaker, Ali Larijani, has called Djibouti “a friend and brother” of Teheran. China has signed a security and defense agreement with Guelleh’s government while Russia was also exploring the possibility of opening up a military base in the country.
How can our troops feel safe in a country that cozies up to Iran’s shifty leadership? How can Washington trust Guelleh’s administration, when its officials are instructed to fabricate evidence and lie before a court of law? Moreover, how can the Obama administration safely undertake sensitive Special Forces activities in Camp Lemonnier, when Iranian and Chinese vessels are docking a stone’s throw away?
It would be a mistake to assume that a long-lasting partnership can be built on such shaky foundations. Hopefully, with 2016 almost upon us maybe some common sense will seep back into our foreign policy.