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A Word on Africa: Djibouti

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“Arab world unrest reaches Horn of Africa” was how the Israeli website Ynet led off its coverage of the demonstrations that began in Djibouti yesterday. On Friday, thousands of protesters — 6,000, according to the Independent, in a country with a population of less than a million people — demanded the resignation of President Ismail Omar Guelleh, among other political reforms. Authorities used batons and fired tear gas grenades at demonstrators; by the end of the day, according to official reports, one protester and one policeman had been killed.

As sporadic protests continued today, the government responded by detaining three opposition leaders: National Democratic Party chairman Aden Robleh Awaleh, Djibouti Democratic Party chairman Mohamed Daoud Chehem, and Ismail Guedi Hared, whose Union for Democratic Change was the main organizer of Friday's demonstration. Less widely reported was the fact that neither the protests nor the repressive response of the regime began on Friday: there were smaller anti-government protests on February 5, also broken up with beatings, rubber bullets, and tear gas, according to Human Rights Watch, and the government responded on February 9 by arresting Jean-Paul Noël Abdi, the president of Djibouti's major human rights organization, the Djiboutian League of Human Rights (Ligue Djiboutienne des Droits Humains), who had investigated and denounced the regime’s repression of the protests; Noël Abdi remains under arrest, charged with "participation in an insurrectionary movement."

Ynet was far from alone in seeing the demonstrations in Djibouti as inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the uprisings elsewhere in the region: “Egypt-style demonstrations” was a term used in several articles, and al-Jazeera English actually accompanied its report on the Djibouti demonstrations with a photograph of Egyptian protesters (see below), with the caption, “Opposition leaders hope the Djibouti protests will have the same effect as uprisings in Egypt.”

The fact that there are no foreign journalists working in Djibouti may be one reason why Egyptian protesters were called upon to stand in, visually speaking, for Djiboutian demonstrators. It is also true, as AJE noted, that members of the opposition were quick to draw on the Tunisian and Egyptian examples in outlining both their fears and their aspirations: as Abdourahman Boreh, a Djiboutian opposition figure in London, put it: “In the wake of events like Tunisia and Egypt the president's instinct will almost certainly lead him to violence to counter the rising confidence of the demonstrators….What we really want is a peaceful demonstration where the people can express their feelings for freedom, their feelings for a democratic transition of the government, because this government has been in power for the last 34 years. The people want change.''

It’s also true that the template of a long-suppressed outburst of protest against a corrupt and entrenched regime, supported by the U.S. and other Western powers (more on this in a moment), can be found quite clearly in Djibouti: Ismail Omar Guelleh has been president since 1999, but he essentially inherited the position from his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who ruled the country from the time it achieved independence from France in 1977. Opposition leaders thus rightly describe a regime that has held power for thirty-four years. Before becoming president, Guelleh had served as the head of the secret police, having been trained by the French secret service, among others. Guelleh defeated his only competitor, independent candidate Moussa Ahmed Idriss, in the 1999 election; a few months later, Idriss, who had contested the results, was arrested for “threatening the morale of the armed forces.” Guelleh won another six-year term in a one-party election in 2005 (receiving 100% of the vote), but despite claiming that this would be his last term, he recently amended the constitution, which mandated a two-term limit, and announced his intention to run again in April 2011.

So the parallels with Tunisia and Egypt are clear enough. On the other hand, as Muriam Haleh Davis reminds us, parallelism (however well-intentioned) can have its pitfalls, and can lead too easily to a form of mystification. So rather than thinking about parallels — or, for that matter, about “revolutionary contagion” — perhaps the better way to try to pose an analytical framework for understanding the emerging political struggles proliferating at this moment has more to do with contextualization than with parallelism. This would hopefully be a way to continue to attend to specificities (those that would make a popular uprising in Djibouti different from one in Egypt) without necessarily losing the ability to think in larger analytical terms. After all, as Bruce Robbins has put it, if we need to avoid the danger of easy generalizations, surely we should maintain "the right to make difficult generalizations."

In this respect, it may be worthwhile, in addition to the other contexts that have begun to emerge for an analysis of ongoing popular uprisings, to think a bit more about a specifically African context. We have of course become accustomed to thinking about “the Middle East” as a taken-for-granted spatial designation (one belied, of course, by the roundness of the globe), so it is easy to lose sight of the geographical specificity of Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, and Morocco, all sites of ongoing or potential popular uprisings. This loss of geographical specificity may be part of what prompted the confusion in Fox News’ now-infamous map of the region (which actually dates back to 2009), showing Egypt sitting between Iran and Syria, in place of Iraq. After all, the Western imagination asks, how could Egypt be in Africa? It’s a “Middle Eastern” country.

Putting Egypt back in Africa (without thereby taking it out of the Middle East) might thus become part of our analytic work to come, once we’ve steadied our breathing a bit after the euphoria of the past weeks. Perhaps one of the many things now made possible by these popular revolts is the broaching of the intellectual cordon sanitaire set up between the “North Africa” that has been subsumed into the standard definition of “the Middle East” and the “Sub-Saharan Africa” that has been, by comparison, largely neglected by political analysts, even those of a progressive stripe. I would suggest that this is true, not just in popular discourse or in media accounts, but even in terms of scholarship, given the particular disciplinary positions occupied by individual “area studies” programs and the relative lack of dialogue between them (I’m speaking of my own impression and experiences here, and would very much like to be proven wrong about this).

One reason to be particularly attentive to the unfolding of the popular uprisings in Djibouti, in this context of bridging “the Middle East” and “Africa,” has to do with a fact that has not gone unremarked in most media accounts, the fact that the only U.S. military base in Africa is located in Djibouti: Camp Lemonnier, established in 2001, which hosts approximately 3,000 U.S. and allied personnel (there is a French military base in Djibouti as well). Djibouti is thus a crucial site for U.S. Africa Command (or AFRICOM), established in 2007 as part of a Department of Defense initiative “acknowledging the emerging strategic importance of Africa, and recognizing that peace and stability on the continent impacts not only Africans, but the interests of the U.S. and international community as well,” as the Bush Administration’s announcement in February 2007 put it. The establishment of Africa Command was advertised as an exercise in the so-called “three-D” approach, combining defense, diplomacy, and development; as Thomas P. M. Barnett wrote in 2007, “The Horn of Africa was supposed to be Washington's bureaucratic mea culpa for the Green Zone, a proving ground for the next generation of interagency cooperation that fuels America's eventual victory in what [General John] Abizaid once dubbed the ‘long war’ against radical Islam.” But, as John Feffer argued at the time, the establishment of Africa Command was really about the more straightforward goals of “securing oil resources, countering terrorism, and rolling back Chinese influence.” The Obama Administration has, if anything, intensified support for the approach taken by Africa Command: the 2010 State Department budget includes an increase of more than 300 percent in military financing for sub-Saharan African countries (including Djibouti, slated for a $2.5 million increase), and the budget included $249 million to pay for the operation of Camp Lemonnier, along with $41.8 million for major base improvement construction projects.

In terms of AFRICOM’s goals, the reasoning that lies behind the location of a major base in Djibouti is not hard to fathom. Djibouti borders Ethiopia, and it lies on the Gulf of Aden, directly across from Yemen. Both Ethiopia and Yemen have, of course, been the target of U.S. military strikes (including drone strikes), aimed at alleged al-Qaeda targets; these U.S. strikes have been responsible for many civilian deaths. According to the Wall Street Journal, in the summer of 2010, the U.S. military's Special Operation Forces and the CIA positioned surveillance equipment, drones, and personnel in Djibouti, among other locations, as part of the plan to step up strikes on alleged al-Qaeda targets in Yemen. This is far from the only form of service provided to U.S. forces by the regime in Djibouti: a WikiLeaks document from 2009 indicates that Blackwater Worldwide received permission from the director of President Guelleh's Military Office “to operate an armed ship [under a U.S. flag] from the port of Djibouti, to protect commercial shipping from pirates off the coast of Somalia.” As recently as December 2010, Djibouti's chief of defense, Major General Fathi Ahmed Houssein, met with U.S. Africa Command head General William Ward (see below) to discuss “joint security cooperation activities and potential areas of further cooperation to enhance peace and security in East Africa and throughout the continent,” according to AFRICOM’s official press release. "We share a strategic interest with the United States in specific terms in providing stability for the Horn of Africa," Fathi declared after the meeting. "Since the creation of AFRICOM, we feel there is somebody who is watching over us, a single person within the United States military who is watching over Africa and Djibouti specifically."

“Watching over us” indeed. Needless to say, President Guelleh’s regime has been richly rewarded by the U.S. government. And the mutual reassurances exchanged between African Command leaders and corrupt African regimes hardly ends in Djibouti: another WikiLeaks document describes a March 2009 meeting between AFRICOM’s commander General Ward and Libyan National Security Adviser Muatassim al-Qadhafi (son of “the Leader,” as he is referred to in the document), to reassure him about the mutually beneficial nature of African Command’s activities in the region. “While General Ward's discussion went a long way toward alleviating some of the strong concerns the Libyans had expressed about U.S. Africa Command,” the document states, “the GOL [government of Libya] continues to espouse a rejectionist public line — ‘Africans reject AFRICOM’ — characterizing the Command as a vehicle for the United States to promote neo-colonial policies on the continent.” But, the document concludes, “Despite the negative rhetoric, Leader Muammar al-Qadhafi, who reportedly personally approved General Ward's visit and delegated his son Muatassim to meet with him in his stead, views a strong military relationship with the United States as an essential element of his security strategy.” It would be difficult to find a better encapsulation of a strategy for U.S. hegemony in the region than that last sentence.

In following the unfolding of the popular uprising in Djibouti and the violent repression of this uprising by the regime, then, it is important, as in so many other ongoing instances — Libya and Bahrain foremost among them at the moment — to do our best to amplify the voices of those attempting to document and call attention to the atrocities being committed by these regimes against what have been overwhelmingly non-violent demonstrations. Furthermore, we need to do more to demand an end to the U.S. government’s shameful role in supporting these regimes, including their ongoing attacks upon and arrests of demonstrators. This means going far beyond the sorts of lip-service condemnations issued by President Obama and members of his administration (it’s noteworthy that Djibouti was absent even from Obama’s latest weakly-worded condemnation of “the use of violence against peaceful protesters” in Bahrain, Libya, and Yemen, “and wherever else it may occur”). It means demanding a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy, and with it an end to the production and support by the United States of “friendly dictatorships” like those now being challenged throughout the region.

It also means, among all our other analytical frameworks for understanding the current moment, a renewed focus on Africa. After all, Djibouti, while it has specificities that must be attended to, is hardly an isolated example. There are plenty of authoritarian regimes throughout Africa (many with oil riches of their own) currently supported by the U.S. that are potentially threatened by the model provided by the popular revolts in Egypt and Tunisia. Indeed, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has ruled Equatorial Guinea since he took over in a coup in 1979 (and who has been warmly received in recent years by both Condoleezza Rice and President Obama), went so far as to order the state-controlled media to stop reporting on Egypt altogether. When members of the marginalized Equatoguinean opposition, noticing a sudden lack of updates regarding the situation in Egypt, contacted staff working at the state-controlled radio and television station, "They were told that the Minister of Information personally has given orders that we shall say no more about it."

Needless to say, "we" (however this "we" comes to be constituted in these ongoing struggles) need to say much, much more about it.

3 comments for "A Word on Africa: Djibouti"


I agree with the author's central thesis of contextualizing the emerging political struggles and bringing focus to Africa. Equally, however, I am surprised that the artilce misses another point; extending an understanding of "Arabness" beyond the "Middle East" to include other regions of the Arab World (which he breiefly does discussing north Africa). Djibouti, after all, is a member of the Arab League. The "dual heritage" Africa and Arab heritage-put in a simple way-of peoples of the Sahel, Horn of Africa and the Swahili Coast, is another point that should not be missed.

Isma'il Kushkush wrote on February 20, 2011 at 01:04 AM

Thanks for this article. Informative and useful both in the focus on Djibouti and the regional context.

A reader wrote on February 20, 2011 at 05:30 PM

Thanks for this article. Informative and useful both in the focus on Djibouti and the regional context.

A reader wrote on February 20, 2011 at 08:40 PM

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