WHILE the United States has condemned the human rights record of Djibouti’s president Ismail Omar Guelleh no foreign power is likely to object to him continuing in office for a fourth term after the presidential elections next month.

Barren, small and impoverished the country may be but its strategic importance in the Horn of Africa means that not just one but an incredible seven countries have a military presence there.

Much to the displeasure of the US, China is the latest power to establish a base there, joining Japan, Italy, France, Spain and Germany wedged into one very small police state.

There is little agriculture because volcanic activity has left much of the countryside like a lunar landscape, so Djibouti’s income derives largely from its role as a landlord to the globe’s competing military forces.

While Japan and the European countries are largely there to protect their shipping from Somali pirates, the US uses the country to wage its war on terror, operating fleets of drones and special operations against Islamic terrorist groups in neighbouring countries like al-Shabaab in Somalia and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen.

Now, they are to be joined by China which has selected Djibouti, with its population of less than one million, for its first military outpost in Africa.

“Have we become an aircraft carrier? This huge military presence hasn’t translated to something positive on issues like democracy,” said Farah Abdillahi Miguil, chairman of the country’s human rights league.


IT’S a good question as Djibouti takes in around £50 million a year in rent from the US alone – not bad for a country once described by novelist Evelyn Waugh as one of “dust and boulders utterly devoid of any sign of life”.

Now, the military bases are hubs of activity because of Djibouti’s strategically important position at the mouth of the Red Sea.

The US base at Camp Lemonnier is its most important in Africa although pilots there appear to be less at risk from terrorists than civilian air traffic controllers stoned on the local and legal high called khat.

A recent investigation found that controllers sleep on the floor while on duty and when awake play video games or chat on their phones even as frustrated pilots are trying to contact them.

Any they consider disrespectful are punished by being put in holding patterns until they nearly run out of fuel.

A desperate attempt by the US government to retrain the controllers at a cost of £5 million ended with the Djiboutians locking trainers out of the control tower.

Camp Lemonnier shares its two runways with the only international airport in the country, a small number of Japanese military planes and a French military base.

Fighter planes, drones, civilian planes and cargo jets compete for runway space.

“It’s mind-boggling,” an ex-FAA whistle blower revealed. “It’s the most dangerous airspace I’ve seen in the world and I’ve been in Afghanistan.”


IT’S probable that their pilots’ lives are of more concern to the foreign powers than the president’s human rights record, even though the US state department has reported on the restriction of free speech and assembly, the harassment and detention of government critics and the use of excessive force including torture.

Drawing up a report is as far as any foreign government seems willing to go, however, with human rights and democracy appearing to take a back seat when it comes to the strategic importance of the African country and its relative stability.

There has been agitation by the people for more democracy but this has been swiftly repressed by the government. In December security forces fired on a demonstration in the capital, Djibouti City, killing up to 19 people.

The government later claimed seven people had died in fighting after the crowd refused to disperse.

As well as guns, opponents of the regime say the government uses khat to sedate the young and make them less likely to revolt.

Despite this, people did call for more democracy during the last elections but more than 500 were arrested as a result, according to pro-democracy group Freedom House.


GUELLEH is only the second president of the country since independence from France in 1977. Handpicked by the previous president, his uncle Hassan Gouled Aptidon, he has been in power since 1999. In 2010 after two terms in office he changed the constitution to maintain his grip on power and intends to serve a fourth term starting this April.

Businessman Abdourahman Boreh had to flee the country after objecting to the president’s refusal to stand down but in January won a three-year multi-million pound battle after the High Court in London dismissed the charges made by Guelleh against him.

In his ruling, Justice Flaux said there had been a politically motivated campaign against Boreh and that the regime in Djibouti had been “capricious”.

He added that Guelleh’s written statements alleging that Boreh had been corrupt and dishonest were “inadequate” while government witnesses in the case were obviously “in fear of the president”.


THE Republic of Djibouti, represented by former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, had secured a £71 million freezing order on Boreh’s assets but Justice Flaux ruled in favour of the businessman and ordered the Djibouti government to pay £9.3 million towards his legal costs.

A former friend of the president, Boreh is now one of his biggest critics.

“In my country, torture and killing is rife, and the government stays in power through rigged elections,” said Boreh who is now based in London. That cannot make anyone happy.

“Here is one of the most strategic countries in the world essentially run by one man, with huge revenues from foreign arvmies and the port, yet the people lack running water.”

He has called on the United States, the African Union and France to monitor the April elections, saying it was time the world “held this dictatorship to account”.

Djibouti, he said, is “ruled by one man who uses the resources of the state to persecute anyone who stands against him. In 2016, this is an obscenity.”