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Arab Unrest Spreads to the Horn


The unrest in the Arab world has spread south to the small Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, host to the only official U.S. military base on the African mainland.

In what have been called “protests triggered by a wave of political unrest sweeping through the Middle East,” Djiboutians numbering in the thousands have taken to the streets in opposition to President Ismail Omar Guelleh, who has held power since succeeding his uncle in 1999. The Guelleh family has maintained its grip over the small nation of 750,000 people since its independence from France in 1977.

Demonstrations broke out in anticipation of the upcoming election in April, when Guelleh hopes to extend his reign by winning a third term. His bid for presidency comes a year after he scrapped the two-term limit in the constitution in a move the opposition considers unconstitutional.

The first political rally took place on January 28 and was attended by an estimated 2-3,000 people. Djiboutians continued to organize demonstrations throughout the month of February. The Guelleh regime responded by ordering state security forces to disperse demonstrators through force and perform mass arbitrary arrests in a campaign to stifle the democratic opposition.

Among those arrested was Jean-Paul Noël Abdi, president of Djibouti's major human rights organization, the Djiboutian League of Human Rights. On February 9, the government charged the human rights activist with “participation in an insurrectionary movement” after reporting the arrests of members of opposition political parties and students following demonstrations on February 5 and 6.

Three key opposition leaders from the Union for a Democratic Alternative (UAD) were detained a day after a demonstration held on February 18. An estimated 30,000 Djiboutians calling for Guelleh to step down gathered in the capital, Djibouti City, and were met by riot police, who violently dispersed the protesters. Unlike in Egypt, where citizens temporarily took control over Tahrir Square, state violence in Djibouti successfully repressed the attempt by pro-democracy forces to establish a permanent protest camp in the center of the capital.

Fueling the unrest is the poor domestic record of the Guelleh-led government and the ruling party. Life expectancy in Djibouti is only 43 years, and the unemployment rate is a staggering 60 percent, while per capita income is a meager $2,800 a year. These factors contribute to Djibouti's distinction as “one of the world's poorest nations,” according to UN rankings.

Pervasive poverty has endured alongside a steady economic growth rate of 5 percent. The IMF has attributed the growth to the government's undertaking of a “foreign investment-financed transformation” of the economy during the last several years. The IMF praised the government for its “openness,” but noted the following unsettling trend: “Economic activity has been largely confined to the free trade zone and the port, with limited positive spillovers on the rest of the economy.”

The failure of economic gains to reach the general population now leaves large portions of the public, particularly those in rural areas, extremely vulnerable to the detrimental effects of the worsening drought and high food prices affecting the region.

Djibouti's primary donor, the United States, is fully aware of the harsh economic conditions facing the country, as well as the government's poor human rights record and corrupt rule. But the paymaster has been willing to put aside its unflinching commitment to high principles due to the Guelleh regime's well-demonstrated reliability as a regional client.

Gracious Host

Djibouti hosts the only official U.S. military base on the African mainland at Camp Lemonnier. In May 2003 the base became home to the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA)–the “main operational presence in Africa” for the new U.S. African Command (AFRICOM).

Camp Lemonnier is commonly referred to as Washington's “only military base in Africa,” though the label is misleading. The body formally responsible for the continent's affairs considers Diego Garcia, a small island in the Indian Ocean and home to a highly strategic U.S. military base, to be within the domain of “Africa.”

According to the African Union's interpretation of the Pelindaba Treaty on the African Nuclear-Weapons Free Zone, Diego Garcia, over which Mauritania claims sovereignty, is included in the treaty. Due to the base's strategic importance as a pre-positioning point for nuclear submarines and arms – now stockpiled with “bunker-buster” bombs in preparation for an attack on Iran – the U.S., along with the UK, reject this interpretation in order to avoid being subject to the treaty.

The military base in Djibouti nonetheless carries significant strategic importance because of its position in the Horn of Africa, a region now considered to be on the frontline of the war against Al-Qaeda and its “affiliates.” The Guelleh regime has strongly supported U.S. regional counterterrorism objectives, earning it the title of “one of the most forward-leaning Arab League members supporting ongoing efforts against terrorism” by the State Department.

From Djibouti and other locations in the Horn, the CJTF-HOA carried out deadly airstrikes against alleged terrorists inside Somalia during the Ethiopian occupation (2006-2009). A series of bombings in January 2007 resulted in the killing of an estimated 70 people and the destruction of vital water resources.

The CJTF-HOA's mission is to counter violent extremism in the region, but these attacks, and the Bush administration's sponsoring of Ethiopian aggression, only fomented the phenomenon. In fact, the event that launched Somalia's now infamous Al Shabaab as “the world's newest international terror group” occurred on July 11, 2010 – more than three years after the deadly airstrikes – when bombings in Uganda's capital killed 76 civilians. The Washington Post called it “the first major international assault by Somali militants.”

Though comparable to the U.S. airstrikes in murderous quality, this crime has received much different treatment–a reminder that blood washes off our hands far easier than our adversaries'.

The Djibouti government has demonstrated further its commitment to its paymaster by ratifying domestic laws permitting the extradition of terror suspects. The usual abuses followed.

The Washington Post reported on February 28 allegations by several human rights groups that Djibouti hosts a “black site” prison which receives suspected terrorists as part of a “clandestine CIA rendition and detentions program.” Lawyers from these groups have filed legal documents at the African Commission on Human and People's Rights, requesting that it inquire into the Djibouti government's participation in the CIA secret program and investigate specifically its role in the illegal detention and torture of Mohammed al-Asad.

The report adds that the Gambia-based commission was chosen as the legal forum over U.S. courts due to the routine dismissal of such cases on the basis of a totalitarian legal concept called the “state secrets doctrine,” which prohibits lawsuits considered to threaten U.S. intelligence secrets.

Beyond servicing U.S. criminal needs, the Guelleh regime has cooperated with Ethiopia in extra-judicial arrests in order to snuff out dissent. One human rights organization in the region, the Human Rights League of the Horn of Africa (HRLHA), believes cooperation in this regard has amounted to “acting jointly in hunting, arresting and punishing alleged members and/or supporters of opposition political organizations and human rights activists.”

The Djibouti government has also contributed to the international effort to combat Somali piracy off its shores. The nation is situated at the “natural chokepoint” where the Gulf of Aden provides access to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. For U.S. planners, the Red Sea constitutes “one of the world’s most important waterways,” in large part because close to 12% of the world’s petroleum passes through the vital shipping lanes. Djibouti's port is currently being used by the foreign navies patrolling the pirate-infested waters.

High Priorities

The strategic interests described here have naturally attracted far more funding than the impoverished nation's dire developmental needs. As Laura Ploch explains in a November 2010 Congressional Service Research report, U.S. “security assistance” to the persistent human rights violator has “significantly outweighed humanitarian and development assistance.”

AFRICOM officials, however, have routinely boasted about the humanitarian projects CJTF-HOA performs in Djibouti and elsewhere, though the projects have been subject to criticism because of their questionable performance. One foreign policy and defense consultant has gone as far as to refer to them as “white elephants.”

This may cause one to wonder why such work is not being put in the hands of competent development agencies or, preferably, domestic organizations. But as Ploch explains, “[u]nlike traditional humanitarian and development aid projects,” those performed by the military are “intended to provide access” and “influence perceptions about the United States, the U.S. military, or its local partners, including local security forces.”

Hence, the impact these projects have on the local population is subordinate to higher priorities, like gaining a foothold in strategic regions and improving the image of corrupt and repressive U.S. “partners” and their security forces, such as those in Djibouti currently stifling democratic expression in the impoverished nation.

One observer suspects that the Guelleh regime – strengthened through years of U.S. “security assistance” – may have broken “the momentum of the masses.” Indeed, mass protests planned for February 25 were prevented by the massive presence of armed police and the arrest of some 300 opposition and civil society leaders, some of whom were allegedly tortured according to one Djibutian human rights group. Soldiers and police also prevented a demonstration planned for Friday, March 4.

Thus, Djibouti is like many of the northern Arab nations whose citizens are challenging autocratic and repressive regimes beefed up by the U.S. in the name of high principles. As Djiboutians oppose their own leadership in the run-up to the April election, they also confront this global obstacle to democracy.

Stephen Roblin is an activist and independent researcher currently living in Baltimore, Maryland. For a copy of this article with full citations, email him at [email protected].

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