Djibouti is a springboard into a troubled region and home to a squadron of American drones.
At first glance, United States President Barack Obama in Kenya was a man in search of his roots. His father was born near Lake Victoria, and his extended family welcomed him to Nairobi, hosting a private family dinner on the first night.
But the visit also showed a shift in concern from building democracy in places such as Zimbabwe and Swaziland to shoring up the US’s interest in a region where China leads the way.
Ironically, for all Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s pledge to “look east”, and Zanu-PF’s anger about US “sanctions” or travel bans on the regime, Zimbabwe is one of the few countries that still buys more from the US than it does from China.
By contrast, for every dollar of products Kenyans buy from the US, they spend $10 with Beijing.
Add the ongoing problems of Somalia, human rights in Eritrea, violence in Burundi, piracy, terror strikes by al-Shabab, and long-term rulers trying for yet another term in Uganda and Rwanda, and it’s clear why Washington’s focus has moved to East Africa.
And the poster boy for these woes is Djibouti, where Americans fear their once-staunchest ally, President Omar Guelleh, may have lost the plot.
In Africa, Washington has just one military presence, with a base at Camp Lemonnier a short way from Djibouti airport, and a small number of troops in the northern town of Obock. But, in May, Guelleh ordered them out, saying he planned to hand the site to China, which will send up to 10 000 soldiers, dwarfing the Pentagon’s total force of about 4 000.
In this tiny country – roughly the size of the Kruger National Park – China is building a new airport, expanding the harbour and restoring a railway line into landlocked Ethiopia. Chinese exports to Djibouti are already nine times higher than those from the US. Now, like the troublesome President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi, Guelleh looks set to change the Constitution and allow himself a fourth term. He did the same thing to gain a third in 2010, pledging it would be his last. His People’s Rally for Progress party holds all 65 seats in Parliament.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) rates Guelleh’s regime as among the most restrictive in the world.
In Nairobi, Tom Rhodes, who oversees the CPJ’s work in Africa, told the Mail & Guardian there were few alternatives to state propaganda in Djibouti. “With virtually no independent media and consistent oppression of the opposition, the public have no outlets for critical debate,” he said.
“As a key regional and Western ally, virtually no one opposes President Guelleh’s abysmal record,” Rhodes said, adding that Djibouti was “comparable with other small despotic countries such as Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea”.
Despite Chinese aid and investment, and the US paying $63-million a year for their base, more than half the population struggle with basics such as water, food and healthcare. The United Nations index on human development places Djibouti in a band near the bottom, with Haiti and Afghanistan.
But Djibouti dominates the only entry and exit point between the Indian Ocean and Suez Canal. And, since independence in 1977, the former French Somaliland has had only two presidents: Guelleh and his uncle, who died in 1999.
Although much of the population are ethnic Somalis, Guelleh gives no succour to pirates and terror groups such as al-Qaeda or al-Shabab, which attacked Nairobi’s Westgate mall in 2013 and, this year, murdered 147 teachers and students at the university in Garissa.
US, Africa and defence
After Afghanistan, Djibouti is home to the world’s largest squadron of drones and from here the US can strike across the Horn of Africa and over the narrow Bab al-Mandeb Strait into the Middle East.
Obama came to charm the continent and mend fences with what the White House still hopes are its allies. Although he had some harsh words on human rights, he talked mostly about “shared values and trust”, telling the BBC that China’s policy was merely to “funnel an awful lot of money into Africa in exchange for raw materials”.
Documents obtained this week by the M&G show just how anxious some members of the US Congress have become about Guelleh and his efforts to uncouple himself from Washington.
When it comes to Africa and defence, few US lawmakers have as much clout as Tom Marino of Pennsylvania and California’s Duncan Hunter.
Marino, a former lawyer, is among the most active members of Congress, advising the house on foreign affairs, homeland security and the judiciary.
In June, he wrote to colleagues, calling for a joint sitting of all the congressional committees that deal with Africa, human rights and threats to the US, in the wake of “the erratic behaviour of Djibouti’s dictatorial president”.
In a departure from the diplomatic language that usually defines the work of Congress, he said US counterterrorism in the region could not be “hindered by Chinese interference” and “the potential threat this holds for US and regional security”.
Hunter serves on the armed forces committee previously chaired by his father, who was a presidential candidate in 2008. Supporters say he might have defeated Obama if the Republicans had not gone instead with the geriatric John McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin.
Calling for regime change
On June 26, Hunter wrote a letter urging the defence secretary, Ashton Carter, to “insist on an orderly change of Djibouti’s government”. He has made the same call for regime change to the secretary of state, John Kerry, who, on May 6, visited Guelleh for talks. Less than 24 hours after that meeting, Guelleh dropped the bombshell that the US troops were to be evicted from Obock in favour of the Chinese.
Hunter also believes Guelleh is about to renege on his promise to step down before next year’s elections and allow a democratically elected candidate to take his place.
In his letter, Hunter urges the secretary of defence to “pay close attention to Guelleh and his mistreatment of political opposition and journalists, which is well documented”.
He warns that, although the president “has said he will step down when his term expires next year, his previous actions call this into question”. The US, Hunter wrote, “requires reliable allies”.
Djibouti trickier than Harare for Washington
Although Obama had previously said Mugabe was “on the wrong side of history”, this week he made no reference to the 91-year-old who, critics say, has remained in power for the past 35 years by terrorising his opponents and, when that failed, rigging the vote.
But Washington’s policy on Djibouti faces even more problems than it did in Harare. As in Zimbabwe, Djibouti’s neighbours won’t speak out on human rights, the African Union is equally silent, and China will gladly step in if the West cuts off aid.
But Zimbabwe is not on the Horn of Africa, and ships don’t have to sail the Zambezi to enter Suez. The US’s clout in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and, potentially, South Sudan, depends on Camp Lemonnier and the land, air and naval presence in Djibouti.
Guelleh is yet to confirm whether he will alter the Constitution again and stand for a fourth term in 2016, but, whatever he decides, as Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta said in his talks this week with Obama: “Choices have consequences.”
The letters from Hunter and Marino, and concern over the violence spawned by Nkurunziza’s quest for another term in Burundi, suggest Guelleh may have misjudged the mood.