By Jeffrey Smith | for Foreign Policy,
On the Horn of Africa, tucked between quarrelsome neighbors who receive the lion’s share of the regional spotlight, lies the nondescript and mostly forgotten Republic of Djibouti. The country rarely makes its way into international headlines — and this is exactly what the government and its allies, namely the United States, prefer. Washington has been content to keep its close collaboration with the government in Djibouti City under the radar, thereby avoiding the need to publicly defend its alliance with a highly repressive regime.
The United States’ investment in the country — which amounts to over $70 million per year, including economic aid — has everything to do with its strategic location on the Gulf of Aden. Indeed, what Djibouti lacks in size (it is about the size of Massachusetts and has a population of about 900,000) it more than makes up for with its status as a “geographical goldmine.”
The government is a key contributor of troops to the African Union force in Somalia, which combats Al Shabaab and other armed opposition groups. It is also an important staging area for attacks against suspected terrorists, especially through its role as host of a base for U.S. drones that operate in the region. In March 2014, President Obama announced plans for a “Binational Forum” in which senior officials from both countries committed to building a “vibrant 21st century strategic partnership grounded in friendship, mutual trust, and common security.”
It is for these reasons that Djibouti’s president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, has been a regular guest in the White House. They also explain why his government has managed to dodge criticism of its dismal record on human rights, democratic governance, and the rule of law.
Guelleh has quietly ruled Djibouti since 1999 (his uncle, who had reigned since 1977, personally anointed him) and he stands today as one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s longest-serving leaders. Like some of his fellow autocrats, Guelleh appears to have no qualms about openly and violently rigging his country’s so-called “democratic elections” in his favor, often winning absurdly unrealistic majorities. This April, Guelleh and his ruling coalition, the Union for the Presidential Majority, reportedly won 87 percent of all votes cast. This impressive showing surpassed the 80 percent he won in 2011 after the country’s National Assembly amended the constitution to allow him to run for a third term in office.
According to many international observers, Guelleh will leave office only “when he feels like it.” His government has repeatedly been accused of myriad human rights abuses, including documented cases of torture and arbitrary detention of opposition supporters, as well as the denial of fair public trials, severe restrictions on freedom of the press, deliberate targeting of human rights activists, and high levels of corruption. Most recently, during the lead-up to the presidential election in April, authorities used deadly force to break up public demonstrations, including an incident in December 2015 during which 19 people were reportedly killed after police opened fire. To its credit, the United States condemned the disproportionate and deadly use of force, and also called for the release of opposition leaders who were unjustly detained in the country.
In what has become a routine defense of the indefensible, authorities justified the killings by blaming the victims, claiming the peaceful protesters had tried to “destabilize our nation.” The rationale for gunning down citizens in broad daylight was also premised on combating “armed individuals from abroad” (subtext: terrorists).
Of course, this designation is no accident. It is meant to placate the international community and particularly the United States, which since 2009 has headquartered its East African Terrorism Task Force at Camp Lemonnier on the outskirts of the capital, Djibouti City. The base is so crucial to U.S. military operations in the region that, in 2014, the Pentagon signed an agreement to secure its lease through 2044. Since 9/11, the base has grown in “almost every conceivable fashion,” with more than $600 million allocated or already awarded for related projects.
All told, Djibouti is a classic case of how a fundamentally undemocratic and abusive government can appeal to the so-called “war on terror” to justify its repression and secure its legitimacy. As recently as May 2014, President Obama praised the Guelleh regime and expressed his “strong support” for its “leadership in the Horn of Africa.”
By turning a blind eye to Guelleh’s attempts to seal off avenues of democratic participation, the United States is raising the prospects of future unrest in Djibouti — the very outcome that it and other shareholders in the country, and region writ large, are ostensibly working to prevent. Indeed, the Fund for Peace, which publishes the annual Fragile States Index, already registers Djibouti as having a “very high warning” risk of state collapse.
The U.S. government should reject the notion that allying with brutal regimes in the short-term somehow protects our long-term national interests. Blank checks to repressive governments who abuse their own citizens, often under the guise of “anti-terror,” often backfire (see: Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda just for starters). This flawed strategy fails to take into account the resentment that will ultimately boil over when a people’s legitimate grievances are not addressed.
The antidotes to these problems — genuine democratic governance, the rule of law, free and fair elections, and support to civil society and human rights activists — should be key planks of U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century. Only investments in these key sectors can counter the heightened repression, undue consolidation of political power, and manipulation of the courts that breed extremism.
To be sure, the United States must tread carefully as it calibrates its relationships with strategically important allies, including Djibouti, that have poor records on governance and human rights. But it’s long past time to stop shaking hands with retrograde strongmen and rolling out the red carpet for the likes of Ismail Omar Guelleh, and other African leaders, whose time has come and gone.