Djibouti: Obama’s national security gamble

Even to the untrained eye, Djibouti’s strategic location is clear. Poised on the Gulf of Aden with access to both the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, which host some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and pirate-infested waters, the country is also a stone’s throw from Yemen and the Arab Peninsula. The United States currently has 4,000 troops stationed on Djiboutian territory in Camp Lemonnier, the base that hosts the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) of the U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM), including more active Predator drones than anywhere outside the Afghan war zone. It’s no small wonder then that the country has become a linchpin of America’s national security strategy.

Last year, Congress approved a $1.2 billion investment plan for Camp Lemonnier over the next 25 years, affirming that “the national security interests of the United States are supported by the enduring presence at Camp Lemonnier”, according to the House Report. Over the years, the U.S. military has used Camp Lemonnier to target threats ranging from Somali pirates to al-Shabaab militants, the particularly nefarious terrorist group behind the September 2013 Westgate mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya.

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Also noted in the House Report, though, is the Committee on Armed Services’ concern over the “lack of clarity on the long-term plan to sustain operations and the infrastructure at this leased location”. Sustainability is the key word here, as recent political developments in Djibouti have raised questions over how reliable President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, generally referred to by his initials, IOG, will be as an ally to Washington.

In many ways, Guelleh’s lengthy tenure as president of Djibouti has been both a blessing and a curse to the country. Having first assumed office in 1999, after succeeding his uncle’s 22-year stint, IOG has achieved a level of relative security for his constituents (though with Somalia as a point of reference, one can argue that the bar has never been set very high). Moreover, the fact that there has only ever been two presidents in Djibouti since the country’s independence from France, both from the same powerful ethnic clan, has aided the country’s stability but has also allowed IOG to purge much of the political establishment, granting him unchecked power.

Today, IOG’s governance seems to be growing increasingly erratic. When Djiboutian businessman Abdourahman Boreh dared to consider a presidential bid in 2011 (only to bow out when IOG declared he would run for a third term), he found himself accused of orchestrating a terrorist “grenade attack” and promptly received a 15-year prison sentence after seeking refuge in Dubai. Moreover, when Dubai refused to extradite Boreh, IOG retaliated by informing Emirati company DP World that their 30-year concession on the valuable Doraleh container terminal had been “cancelled”. According to American NGO Freedom House, which monitors political, civil and economic liberty in the world, Djibouti is on a “downward trend” since he won his third term in office.

The DP World case serves well to explain Washington’s concern over IOG’s history of about-faces. For example, when the Pentagon began working to establish USAFRICOM, IOG readily reached out and proposed Djibouti for the Command’s headquarters. As public opinion has shifted against drones, however, IOG demanded that the United States move its unmanned aircraft program to a derelict airfield in the desert, Chabelley Airfield. The unanticipated change of location forced the Pentagon to ask Congress for urgent authorization of $13 million in funds and equipment, hence the House Committee’s concern over the sustainability of CJTF-HOA activities.

Most worrying, though, is President Guelleh’s tendency to play the United States against other great powers for greater financial gain. The overtures IOG has made to China and Russia in recent years, signing a strategic defense agreement with the former, have forced the U.S. to more than quadruple their fees for Camp Lemonnier’s lease, now paying $133 million per year. There is little doubt that IOG will continue to demand more, while American investments in the military bases mean it will be more and more difficult to pull out. Though the benefits of U.S. cooperation with Djibouti are genuine, it would be a dangerous gamble for the Obama administration to assume IOG will continue to cooperate with Washington indefinitely.

On one hand, IOG’s behavior is understandable. His country has precious few resources apart from its strategic location and his government should take advantage of this. However, partnerships in national security operations demand much more from the actors involved than purely commercial deals, and before throwing our support behind IOG and calling him an ‘ally’, the Djiboutian president must prove he is more than a fair-weather friend. 

Chambres, based in Paris, teaches and consults on international affairs.

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