Happy Election Day, Djibouti

By Armin Rosen

Why it matters that the tiny Red Sea country is holding an unprecedentedly-open parliamentary contest tomorrow.

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Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh receives a military salute before his swearing-in ceremony in the capital Djibouti on May 8, 2011. (Reuters)

Changes are brewing in tiny Djibouti, an impoverished postage-stamp of a country plunked atop some of the most strategic territory on earth. Tomorrow the country, which is home to a disproportionately-young population of around 900,000, will hold the most open election in its history. In the past few days, Djiboutians have witnessed their nation's first televised political debates, and the return of a long-exiled opposition leader. Thanks to the introduction of a proportional electoral system, their next parliament will be the first in the country's modern history to seat opposition candidates. 

Djibouti's autocratic president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, took over the country from his uncle in 1999 and amended the constitution in 2010 to allow him to stand for a third term the next year. It is unlikely that he would have held an election this open if he believed there was a chance his party would lose. But opposition supporters are rallying by the thousands, and citizens are engaged in an electoral process that isn't completely fraudulent, even if it's unlikely to be totally fair. Not even a country as small, or as blessed with decades of tranquil and stagnant one-party rule as Djibouti, is completely immune from the region's prevailing trends.

The Democracy Report

Electoral politics in Djibouti has historically been a delicate compromise between real political liberalization and an outright authoritarian sham; the country has had a multi-party system since 1992, even though parties allied with Guelleh currently hold all 65 seats in Parliament. The widely-boycotted 2011 election were preceded by major protests and accompanied by the arrests of opposition candidates. The 2011 election left a fragmented civil society pitted against a strong yet unpopular government. It revealed both deep divisions within Djibouti's polity, as well as the lengths to which Guelleh was willing -- and even able -- to go to maintain the veneer of calm. Tomorrow's contest will be unprecedented in its openness, but it's still taking place in a country whose less-than-independent judiciary convicted a leading opposition presidential contender for terrorism in 2011, and which ranks 167th out of 179 countries surveyed for Reports Without Borders' latest press freedom survey.

This election provides something of a substantive choice: Guelleh's bluntly-named Union for a Presidential Majority electoral bloc backs an ambitious, twenty-year program, called Vision 2035, of increased development and economic liberalization. The opposing Union for National Salvation alleges that their opponent's platform does more to entrench the ruling party than to tackle endemic unemployment and poverty. And they argue that the country itself is simply in need of fresh leadership, with a more legitimate popular mandate.

Friday will be one more chapter in a fairly obscure struggle between a standard-issue strongman and a fairly standard-issue opposition. More interesting than the election's result is the question of whether the rest of the world still has the luxury to think of Djibouti's political process as a purely local concern. As the international community rapidly learned in Mali, even the most stable and remote countries might not seem all that stable or remote for long -- they can rapidly turn into glaring reminders of the nearly-unforeseeable ways in which the regional and even global security balance can be tipped. The connection between the remote Malian Sahel, and security and political concerns in Sudan, Libya and Nigeria, is only obvious only now, months after the Bamako government's implosion and the subsequent Jihadist occupation of the country's Tuareg north. Could similar lessons be in store in Djibouti? Unlike northern Mali, Djibouti possesses a natural resource so scarce as to be utterly unique: 195 miles of coastline at the mouth of the Red Sea, real estate 16 miles from Yemen and right next to Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Even more crucially, it's under the control of a Western-aligned government that has deftly capitalized on its strategic location. For now.

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Djibouti's importance to the west's security interests is difficult to overstate. From its perch at the mouth of the Red Sea, it is possible to monitor traffic through the Gulf of Aden, and every vessel traveling between the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal must pass within a few miles of the country's coastline. It borders Somalia, home to the Al Shabaab terrorist organization, and the staging area for pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean. Attacks originating from Somalia plummeted in 2012, undoubtedly because of naval surveillance efforts based in Djibouti -- even militarily-averse Japan has a counter-piracy task force based in the country. It borders both U.S.-aligned Ethiopia and neighboring, U.N.-sanctioned Eritrea, two countries that have been in a state of cold (and hot) war with one another for the past fifteen years. It is a short flight from Djibouti to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's strongholds in Yemen. It is also home to the largest French military presence in the world outside of France.

"I think it's one of the most underestimated assets the West has, military and intelligence-wise," author and former Israeli intelligence agent Michael Ross says of the foreign military presence in Djibouti. "We would be in so much trouble if we didn't have it." Ross, who served as a Mossad agent in East Africa, says that intelligence organizations operate with very little anxiety in Djibouti. They are virtually unharassed by the Djiboutian government, a situation that has made the country "the hub for intelligence operations in the Horn and East Africa."

Djibouti "provides easy access," Ross adds, for agencies working in or monitoring Yemen or Somalia. "If you want to put guys on the ground, whether if it's surveillance operations or covert ops or planting censoring or monitoring equipment, it's handy."

It's also handy as a staging area for more kinetic activity. As the Washington Post reported in October of 2012, Djibouti's Camp Lemonnier is the largest American Unnamed Areal Vehicle base outside of Afghanistan. Its 3,200 personnel-- which the Post says will include over 1,100 additional special forces soldiers thanks to an ongoing base expansion plan -- support the drone campaign against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, and as well as efforts to curtail piracy originating from neighboring Somalia. Camp Lemonnier is also a command hub. It is the home base of the U.S. military's Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, a predecessor to Africa Command, or AFRICOM. CTJF-HOA coordinates US military activity in several African nations that are either chronically unstable, like Somalia, or considered crucial to U.S. objectives in the continent, like Rwanda and Kenya (for an intimate look at daily life in the camp, check out this "Camp Lemonnier Survival Guide" posted to Fort Benning's website.).

Downie says that the Camp Lemonnier basing agreement helps the U.S. to avoid having to pressure governments that are less enthusiastic about hosting a major American military contingent. "Lots of African nations are suspicious of AFRICOM's intentions in the continent and are not very eager to let the Americans in," says Richard Downie, Deputy Director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Africa program, and author of Freedom House's 2011 country report on Djibouti. "Djibouti is where [the U.S.] is going to be in the foreseeable future, in terms of boots on the ground."

Thanks to Djibouti, there isn't an additional and possibly-radioactive point of contention in the U.S.'s relationship with Kenya, or a need to station significant U.S. strategic infrastructure in a friendly yet-unstable state like South Sudan. Camp Lemonnier is both a way of countering the land and sea-based terrorism that has stalked the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, and a way of reducing America's diplomatic exposure in Africa.

Djibouti is also an important element in a larger strategic process for the U.S. In a sense, Camp Lemonnier faces north -- towards Yemen, site of the U.S.'s drone campaign against AQAP, and towards the U.S.-allied oil states of the Arabian Peninsula. But it also faces south -- towards Kenya, the Sudans, Somalia and the Great Lakes, places where the U.S. wants to forestall future instability and build lasting strategic partnerships. Much of AFRICOM's work involves military-to-military exchanges, like joint training operations or other attempts at capacity-building. And it involves more traditional development work.

Rahma Dualeh was a civilian employee at Camp Lemonnier in 2011, where she worked as a "socio-cultural advisor for the command element." Her job was to convey "the social nuances of operating in east Africa" to the base's leadership, many of whom were returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and had no experience working in an east African social and cultural milieu.

Dualeh was attached to "civil affairs teams," which were often military engineering units tasked with things like digging boreholes, or building schools. Dualeh told me that during her time at Camp Lemonnier, the military had two civil affairs teams working in Djibouti, compared to five in Kenya, a country with a population over forty times larger than Djibouti's. She said her work was, broadly, to "help promote confidence in the local governmental in the local communities....that had already lost confidence in the government."

The U.S. military's involvement in development has to do with its unique capabilities. The military has the equipment, manpower, and the expertise necessary to take the lead on the kinds of development projects that its civil affairs teams now undertake. But the military's development work serves a strategic interest as well. Thanks in part to the implementation of counter-insurgency strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan, development and capacity-building are now accepted elements of irregular warfare -- a way of fostering trust and goodwill towards the U.S. and its partner governments, and of enabling those governments to take on as much of the local security burden as possible. Sometimes this backfires, or at least proves insufficient in preventing a country from spiraling out of control: after all, AFRICOM had helped train some of the Malian officers who overthrew the country's civilian government in March of 2012. But for now, it seems to be working in Djibouti. The country is fairly tranquil, and Dualeh says she detected very little local frustration with the U.S.'s outsized presence there.

"You would think there would be resentment," she said, referring to the abundance of foreign military personnel and vehicles in Djibouti. "Driving through Djibouti is like driving through a militarily-occupied country." But, she says, the resentment simply isn't there.

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The election is unlikely to threaten any of this. Representatives of the diaspora-based civil society organization Djibouti24 said by e-mail that the only political actors in Djibouti who oppose the basing agreements are Muslim religious leaders -- and even then, they're more concerned about the potential bad behavior of foreign soldiers than they are about questions of national sovereignty, or Djibouti's pro-Western political alignment. The U.S. brings in $38 million in annual rent for Camp Lemonnier, in addition to $25 million in economic and development aid; France pays about $39.5 million a year for its basing rights. Djibouti hosts USAID projects that experts describe as some of the most successful in Africa. The country needs the money: with a GDP of just over $2 billion, a large amount of Djibouti's economic activity comes from basing agreements alone. Foreign military bases are "a cash cow that keeps the government afloat," says Downie. "All of these countries are essentially bankrolling the government of Djibouti."

But it also needs responsible governance and an active civil society. "There is no trickle-down whatsoever in Djibouti...there is no sharing of resources," says Dualeh, who says that most of the country is incredibly poor. Djibouti's per capita GDP of $2,700 is on par with Nigeria and Pakistan's, and the country falls in the lowest quartile of the Human Development Index. Much of the country's wealth goes to Guelleh and his circle. The National Democratic Institute has no active projects in the country, and there are pervasive restrictions on the media. A stable, western-allied country that is also home to a major commercial port has the potential of doing better. Perhaps Djiboutians are already realizing this.

"Djibouti is in the stable but brittle category," says Downie. "It has all the outward signs of stability. They have a president who has been around for a number of years. There's continuity perhaps, rather than stability. It can all unravel rather quickly, as we've seen elsewhere."

Djibouti has already offered hints as to how that could happen. Protests over allegedly-tampered-with university exam grades in 2011 quickly escalated into broader demonstrations against the government, and against Guelleh's decision to amend the constitution and seek a third term later that year. The crackdown was fierce: over 100 protestors were arrested, and the government violently dispersed several demonstrations. But it was still the largest political disturbance in the country's history, and it occurred in a place with few civil society organizations, and a tightly-regulated media.

Guelleh's autocracy is subtle, and the regime controls the country's politics through the judiciary and favorable electoral laws. "He's not the kind of leader that attracts a lot of heat and negative headlines, and it's not like he's running around terrorizing his people...he's someone who's stuck around too long. He's now in his third six year term and clearly popular opposition to his government is mounting."

This doesn't mean that the country is ripe for revolution, or that western access to Djibotui would be under threat even if there were a shift in the existing political order. But future US security policy will depend on paying attention to places like Djibouti -- on adjusting to political changes, and defending western interests without stunting the country's political development or deepening its economic misery. This is a balance the U.S. has had difficulty finding: in Bahrain, the U.S. has been stuck between a favorable basing agreement for the Navy's Fifth Fleet, and an opposition movement that's bitterly opposed to the ruling royal family. For three decades, the U.S. benefited from and even encouraged the stability and certainty of Hosni Mubarak's rule -- only to be caught flat-footed when the domestic political situation radically changed. This week's events are a sign that Djibouti is also changing, even if is process of reform will likely be slower and less dramatic than in the Arab Spring countries. The fact that Djibouti is irreplaceable -- that there is only one if it, and that its stability is inextricably linked with that of the broader region -- is a reminder of why we should care.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/02/happy-election-day-djibouti/273376/