From: Biniam Haile \(SWE\) (email@example.com)
Date: Mon Dec 29 2008 - 15:44:50 EST
The Center for Public Integrity
Djibouti's repressive regime, not its people, has prospered since 9/11
By Alain Lallemand
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
DJIBOUTI Allow us to introduce you to Djibouti, the United States' new
East African ally in its campaign against terrorists:
Its territory is slightly smaller than the state of New Hampshire. It is
arid and torridly hot, 9,000 square miles of volcanic rock sticking out
like a sore thumb on the Horn of Africa. It exports practically nothing
that is locally produced and has almost no arable land. Once a French
colony, its post-colonial trajectory has been wobbly and worse,
including a civil war between ethnic groups that ended only five years
ago. To think of Djibouti as a nation in the Western sense would be
deeply misleading: Its institutions are at best weak and at worst
nonfunctioning; its budget is a confusing, unreliable mess. And its
strongman president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, seems to care little about
economic development despite the deep poverty that afflicts his people.
What Djibouti has going for it is a strategic location that Western
military powers, especially U.S. terrorist hunters, crave: It's at the
mouth of the Red Sea, directly across a narrow strait from Yemen, the
ancestral home of Osama bin Laden's father and a country with a history
of Islamic extremism. To its south lies the disintegrated state of
Somalia, seething with warlords and Islamists, which the U.S. says is
home to al Qaeda training camps. So there's little surprise that the
United States made a deal with Djibouti to lease a former French Foreign
Legion outpost for what the Central Intelligence Agency's Factbook
describes as "the only U.S. military base in sub-Saharan Africa" and
moved in special operations teams as well as troops to carry out
Indeed, it was reportedly from Djibouti that in 2002 a U.S. Predator
drone took off across the Bab al Mandab strait for an attack in Yemen
that blew up a jeep and killed six men, including one the U.S.
identified as an al Qaeda operative. And from where a U.S. AC-130
gunship reportedly took off for a January 2007 mission to attack what
the U.S. has identified as al Qaeda outposts in southern Somalia near
its border with Kenya. The raids received press attention around the
world, but the base is also useful in ways the United States prefers
Amnesty International reported last year that CIA jets known to have
participated in "extraordinary renditions" the kidnapping of terror
suspects who are then transported for questioning, outside of any legal
process, to friendly countries that may permit torture had landed in
Djibouti. The report tells of a former "ghost detainee," Muhammad
Abdullah Saleh al-Assad, who believes the aircraft that took him from
Tanzania to Afghanistan (or possibly Pakistan, al-Assad wasn't sure)
stopped over at Djibouti, where he was interrogated.
Djiboutians in all walks of life say they have no idea what goes on
inside the 88 acres known as Camp Lemonier. The camp houses the U.S.
Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), about 1,500
civilians and military troops whose primary mission is "detecting,
disrupting and ultimately defeating transnational terrorist groups
operating in the region denying safe havens, external support and
material assistance for terrorist activity." The secrecy may help fuel
rumors among Djibouti's population predominantly Muslim and mostly
ethnic Somalis already angered by the war in Iraq that U.S.
intelligence agents use Djibouti to make deals to support secular
warlords who fight Muslim militants in Somalia and to serve as a secret
detention and interrogation center.
A Somali guard at a modest-looking building outside of France's current
military installation near Camp Lemonier described for a reporter from
the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) how
prisoners came and went from the building, including three Arab
prisoners, accompanied by Americans, in 2005. Another source told of
seeing two Somali warlords and five of their fighters spend a week of
rest and relaxation at a middle-class downtown hotel during the height
of the Somali civil war in 2006. At the end of the week, a car from the
U.S. Embassy dropped off one of the warlords with an envelope full of
U.S. dollars to pay for the rooms and to give to the fighters to pay
their airfare back to the fighting in Somalia.
The ICIJ reporter, one of the first Western journalists to explore Camp
Lemonier and to interview President Guelleh, was unable to confirm these
stories and rumors he heard but found both Islamism and anti-Americanism
to be rampant in Djibouti. CJTF-HOA humanitarian assistance projects in
Djibouti and surrounding East African countries, from building schools
to drilling wells, have done little to cool the anger.
"Djiboutians feel that this is propaganda," Giorgio Bertin, the Roman
Catholic bishop of Djibouti, said of the humanitarian efforts.
"Traditionally, our Catholic presence is linked to France and to the
pope, two elements opposed to the war in Iraq. This has protected us.
So, when U.S. troops asked if they could help me by refreshing or
rebuilding this or that, I had to decline: This would have affected us
in term of our image.
"Islamists give to the population a very negative depiction of what's
happening," the bishop told an ICIJ interviewer. "If U.S. troops
vaccinate people, the Islamists interpret that as being a birth control
campaign, a threat to fertility."
Base rental comes at a cost
The United States paid little attention to Djibouti before the September
11, 2001, terrorist attacks, although it leased Camp Lemonier for a
modest amount of money earlier that year. After the attacks, things
changed fast. By the following February, U.S. Gen. Tommy R. Franks was
telling the House Armed Services Committee that "we have seen credible
reporting of al Qaeda and its regional affiliate, AIAI, targeting
Western interests in Djibouti for its support of coalition operations,"
noting, "Djiboutian President Guelleh expressed his solidarity with the
U.S. following the 11 September attacks."
In September 2002, when the Americans renegotiated the deal to include
use of the nearby harbor and the Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport,
Djibouti used its post-9/11 leverage to make sure it was sufficiently
compensated. Although Djibouti's total U.S. aid is modest compared with
the amounts some larger countries receive, few other countries have seen
a more dramatic increase in U.S. military aid since 9/11: Djibouti's
take of U.S. taxpayer money in the three years after 9/11 stood at more
than $53 million, a more than 30-fold increase from the $1.6 million in
the three years prior. Last year, the Lemonier lease was again
renegotiated, this time to expand the base to nearly 500 acres. The
lease had been costing the U.S. about $30 million a year; the new terms
were not disclosed. The State Department has not responded to an ICIJ
Freedom of Information Act request seeking details of the lease
Located on the outskirts of the capital, next to the Djibouti-Ethiopian
railway, Camp Lemonier is close to Djibouti-Ambouli International
Airport and the French military's current base in Djibouti. It looks
like a typical U.S. military camp that happens to have been dropped in
the middle of the desert. The U.S. barracks serve as home for a group
that is comprised roughly half of soldiers and half at the back of the
camp of employees of military contracting giant KBR (a subsidiary of
Halliburton soon to be spun off). Today, the compound boasts a large
restaurant, a large athletic facility, a swimming pool, a hairdresser, a
shopping center and even a local handicraft market. The camp, where more
than 400 local Djiboutians work, is one of the largest employers in the
Djibouti's pre-9/11 aid was mostly State Department money for removal of
land mines and counterterrorism training. In the three years after 9/11,
Economic Support Fund, a catchall funding source Washington uses to
funnel aid to key allies, shot up from zero to $25 million. Foreign
Military Financing increased from $100,000 total in the three years
before the attacks to more than $21 million in the three years after.
Djibouti was also the recipient of more than $5 million of the
Pentagon's new post-9/11 Coalition Support Funds.
Well-heeled lobbyists played a role in securing those additional funds
for the Djiboutian government. To advocate for its interests in
Washington, the government of Djibouti hired three high-profile lobbying
and public relations firms: the Gallagher Group; Foley Hoag LLP, a major
Boston-based law firm; and BKSH & Associates, which is headed by Charles
R. Black, whose close ties to the Republican Party span from the Reagan
administration to the current Bush administration. According to his
official biography, Black served as an adviser to some of the GOP's most
influential members, including former Sens. Robert J. Dole, Jesse Helms
and Phil Gramm, and he bills himself as "one of America's leading
Republican political strategists."
According to records filed with the Department of Justice, the Gallagher
Group's lobbyists set up several meetings in 2003 between the Djiboutian
ambassador and key U.S. officials. The lobbying records describe the
focus of the meetings as discussing the countries' bilateral
relationship, Djiboutian cooperation in the war on terrorism, foreign
aid to Djibouti and military base rights.
The U.S. military is not alone in paying for access to Djiboutian
facilities. The French pay about $38 million a year to rent a military
camp and training grounds; the Germans pay roughly $10 million. The
Spanish also have a base, but no figures are publicly available for the
rent they pay.
All of this income associated with base rentals and military assistance
should place Djibouti among the wealthiest nations of East Africa, far
above the average income levels of most sub-Saharan African countries.
Apart from military aid and rent for base access, the U.S. Agency for
International Development chipped in $4.95 million for fiscal 2006 with
programs focused on education, health, food security, democracy and good
Where does the money go?
That focus on good governance is certainly needed in Djibouti. Despite
all the aid money flowing in augmented by earnings from Djibouti's
port the economy is seen as a disaster by institutions ranging from
the Djiboutian Human Rights League to the International Monetary Fund,
which refuses to support new lending programs to the country.
To understand how a government works, it generally helps to follow the
money. But reviewing Djibouti's annual budgets doesn't help much. They
don't even mention some important revenue streams like port income.
Being the favored harbor of landlocked Ethiopia, the port's activities
are flourishing, with a 300 percent increase in import and export
shipments over the last 10 years.
But how much income does the government get? No one seems to know
except, perhaps, President Guelleh. In an interview with ICIJ, the
president said that after splitting the revenue with the company that
operates the port, his government gets 7 billion Djiboutian francs, a
little more than $40 million. This amount is credible in terms of the
volume of port traffic, but it exceeds the entire "non-fiscal income"
shown in the official budget.
Not even the Djiboutian Parliament has received an accounting. A
confidential report prepared in December 2004 by the Djiboutian Court of
Auditors about the harbor's operations, obtained by ICIJ, reveals "a
certain amount of abnormalities and irregularities." For example, the
audit report states that yearly accountings of revenue and expenses are
not required; the company that operates the port has an "expensive"
management structure, and due to a lack of capital investment, the
harbor is suffering "progressive impoverishment."
That is hardly the only irregularity. One prominent member of the
political opposition claims that thousands of state employees receive a
salary without performing any work or even bothering to come into the
office. In local slang, these employees are called "broken arms."
Public mismanagement is so rampant, in fact, that the administration is
broke and health standards are declining. While health care was free
under the French colonial authority, today admission to the emergency
room has to be prepaid by the patient and drugs are not available even
while the Red Crescent Society of Djibouti somehow manages to send 19
tons of medicine to neighboring Somalia. The International Committee of
the Red Cross does not provide direct medical support to Djibouti, using
the country mainly as a staging area for its assistance to other nearby
countries: "ICRC operates in war zones, and Djibouti is not a war zone,"
says one ICRC official. The only free medical care in the country is at
the French military's facility, Hτpital Bouffard, which offers its 63
beds free of charge to Djiboutians working for the government.
So where does all the money go? A French government finance source based
in Djibouti says he knows the destination of a lot of it: "The
presidency traps the revenues of the State, including [revenues] from
Human rights record abysmal
The Guelleh regime is so repressive that the U.S. State Department's
Human Rights Practices report each year openly criticizes the new U.S.
ally in the Horn of Africa; its most recent report, released in March
2007, states plainly, "The government's human rights record remained
poor, and it continued to commit serious abuses." As Guelleh's citizens
wallow in poverty, his regime harasses labor unions and the police fire
In 2005, the government sent bulldozers to destroy and burn the shanties
in Arhiba, an illegal slum near Djibouti City inhabited mainly by dock
workers who try to sleep as close as they can to the harbor. When
families of the dockworkers responded by throwing stones, security
forces opened fire, killing four civilians and wounding 10. Two and
perhaps as many as five people were reported to have disappeared.
That came just a month after security forces opened fire on students
violently protesting price increases, killing an 18-year-old man.
Local labor unions are harassed by the government. ICIJ met with three
labor union representatives who were imprisoned briefly in March 2006 on
charges of "providing intelligence to a foreign power, leaking
information, and outrage to the president" for going to a training
session in Israel organized by the Israeli labor association Histadrut.
There are allegations of torture and physical mistreatment of prisoners
at the Gabode prison. Hassan Cher Hared, one of the three imprisoned
labor union representatives, told ICIJ of "a room of less than one meter
square, made out of concrete, where you are kept almost naked, just in
underpants, with a bottle of water. This room is hermetically sealed.
You have just a two-inch-large hole through which to breathe. The guards
sometimes put pepper in the hole."
The imprisoned labor activists also told ICIJ about the style of
punishment they witnessed in Djiboutian prisons. "They have a specific
chain, a double one, like a cross with a hook in its middle," explained
Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed. "Your hands and feet are cuffed to the
extremities of the chain, and with the hook, they hang you on a tree
inside the prison. Then they beat you. The suffering is so intense that
I saw an inmate defecate in his trousers while being hanged. You cannot
stand this for more than 10 minutes."
The nation's courts are of little use. In case you want to file a claim
against the government, you're out of luck: The administrative court, or
"Conseil de Contentieux," has not held a session for years. Last year
the Djibouti bar association complained in a letter to the minister of
justice that judgments issued by all levels of the courts in Djibouti
take months or even years to be transcribed. The letter further
complained that the text of some judgments are published after the
deadline for filing an appeal has expired and sometimes are the
opposite of the decision as read in court.
One famous case illustrating how badly the justice system is broken
arises from a French investigation into the alleged assassination in
1995 of French magistrate Bernard Borrel, former Counselor of the
Djiboutian Minister of Justice. French investigators now accuse
associates of Guelleh, who at that time was chief of staff of former
Djiboutian president Hassan Gouled Aptidon, of killing Borrel. (Guelleh
contends Borrel committed suicide.) On a 2005 trip to Paris, Guelleh
refused to answer questions from the French prosecutor in charge of the
case. Five month later, Djibouti unilaterally suspended all judicial
cooperation with France.
Talking to ICIJ about the State Department human rights criticisms,
Guelleh shrugged: "These are the administration's 'juniors' that collect
rumors and give themselves a good conscience. This is not [a big deal]."
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