A Friendly Little Dictatorship in the Horn of Africa

Why the world doesn't care about Djibouti's autocracy.


In the shadow of the extraordinary events under way in the Middle East, Djibouti’s presidential vote was always going to struggle for attention. Indeed, the plight of this tiny country, sandwiched between Somalia and Yemen, remains almost completely ignored. But as the primary seaport to 85 million landlocked Ethiopians, the center of anti-piracy efforts in the Horn of Africa, and a reliable Western ally in the war on terror, Djibouti is a strategically vital country in an unstable neighborhood.

And with Nigeria’s potentially tumultuous national vote coming this week, the relative quiet of the Djiboutian electoral process, which culminated with a ballot on April 8, might be considered a pleasant surprise compared with the electoral chaos of Africa’s largest democracy. Djibouti boasts fewer than a million inhabitants — voters in one district of the Nigerian city of Lagos outnumber its entire electoral roll.

But Djiboutian democracy is deeply flawed. The national parliament has not a single opposition legislator. The only national broadcaster, Radio-Television Djibouti, is the mouthpiece of the ruling party, slavishly reporting on the president’s visits and appointments. There are almost no independent civil society organizations, and, with almost all possible employment controlled by the state, criticism of the regime is a bad career move. In this environment, this year’s electoral campaign was little more than an exercise in hero worship of the incumbent president, Ismail Omar Guelleh.

Facing a two-term limit, Guelleh changed the constitution in April 2010 to allow him to stand for another five years in office. Guelleh came to power in 1999, succeeding his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who served as Djibouti’s first president since independence from France in 1977. His administration has brought trade deals and investment to Djibouti, but it has done little to address the country’s massive unemployment, which by some estimates exceeds 60 percent. He ran again in 2005 and officially won 100 percent of the vote. Facing a single independent challenger and a complete opposition boycott of this year’s vote, Guelleh’s reelection is certain.

If the story ended there, Djibouti would be a sad if predictable tale of autocracy — little different from Gabon, Syria, or Azerbaijan. With no natural resources to speak of, this microstate, more famous for its scuba diving than its diverse politics, is barely a footnote on the world agenda.

But to the West, and particularly the United States and France, Djibouti matters. It matters a lot. As the forward operating base of U.S. Africa Command, Djibouti’s Camp Lemonnier is a friendly piece of real estate in the Horn of Africa, which includes Eritrea, Somalia, and Yemen. Approximately 2,000 U.S. troops are based at Lemonnier, in addition to the naval forces that periodically call at the port of Djibouti. With the nearest friendly African port located in Mombasa, Kenya — 1,700 miles away — the United States, NATO, and the European Union have no alternative to using Djibouti’s harbor as a sanctuary to conduct anti-piracy operations.

Its unfettered cooperation on anti-piracy operations has endeared Djibouti to many other members of the international community. A score of countries — including Japan, Germany, and Russia — rely on the port of Djibouti to sustain their naval presence in East African waters. At the mouth of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti is strategically located to protect some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, which have become increasingly vulnerable to ever more ambitious pirates. And the problem is not going away.  Despite some success in disrupting "pirate action groups," as they are termed by the multinational forces, 14 ships have already been hijacked in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean this year, according to figures from the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Center.

As the only U.S. military toehold on the continent, Djibouti is also a vital link in the war on terror.  Unmanned anti-terrorism drones are deployed from Lemonnier against targets in the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia. The CIA is rumored to maintain facilities in country: One former detainee is suing the Djiboutian authorities for allegedly being complicit in his extraordinary rendition from Tanzania to Djibouti, and then to a network of clandestine CIA prisons in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan, according to the Washington Post.

And France has interests there, too: Its largest overseas military presence remains in this former colony, which hosts a half-brigade of the Foreign Legion. French fighter planes sit at Ambouli airport. A mutual defense treaty remains in force between the two states.

But Djibouti, a full member of the Arab League, has not been immune to the unrest sweeping the region. The largest demonstration in years, numbering about 4,000 people, was held outside Djibouti’s national stadium on Feb. 18 to protest the likelihood of Guelleh’s third term. With no international media present in the country and with no free local press, the popular demonstrations were quickly suppressed. And as the French ambassador told me after the pro-democracy protests, during which the police tear-gassed and stormed the crowd to disperse the gathering, "These local events don’t worry us. Terrorism, piracy, those are the real issues."

Djiboutians pay the price for the West’s apathy. As Human Rights Watch noted this week, the government has imposed an unconstitutional ban on public assembly, criminalizing any gathering in public. Rather than subjecting the electoral process to independent scrutiny, the government of Djibouti has jailed human rights activists and expelled international observers. An unconfirmed number of political activists remain in custody and held without charge.

Djibouti may be a small country and a valuable Western ally in a volatile region. But it should be subject to the same scrutiny and standards as those applied to other countries with dubious track records. Though Djibouti may not be in the headlines, its relationship with the West is equally in need of re-evaluation.

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