On Wednesday, 22 February 2012, President Guelleh of Djibouti will make a rare visit to London, to attend the London Conference on Somalia. He will of course be greeted with courtesy. The dire state of his nation and the nature of his regime however is unlikely to get much of an airing whilst he is is in London. This is not only because, as a former French colony and Africa's smallest country, little is known about Djibouti in the UK. It is also because his regime has recently found increasing favour in the 'West', but not in a way such that too much public scrutiny is welcomed.
Djibouti is home to a large French military base. It is also home to an expanding multi-agency US base, 'Camp Lemonnier', about to undergo its next phase of development in the wake of events in Iran, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
Djibouti is host to negotiations over Somalia's future, and the to training of Somali soldiers supporting the fragile Transitional Federal Government (TFG) based in Mogadishu. A further 'Western' feather in President Guelleh's cap is the arrival in Somalia last month of 500 Djibouti soldiers to join troops supporting the TFG under the AMISOM UN mandate.
What's more, on the face of it, the Djibouti economy looks in good condition. The IMF estimates economic growth of 4.6% in 2011 and projects 5.3% in 2012.
Djibouti's economy is based on its strategic location at the narrow entrance to the Red Sea, leading to the Suez Canal. Its Dubai-invested ports provide maritime trade access for landlocked Ethiopia. Djibouti receives several hundred millions of dollars a year income from foreign military bases, and is favoured with generous aid. Its economic future looks bright 'on paper' also - the Chinese are re-building the railway to Ethiopia; two countries also cooperating in a planned oil pipeline from newly-independent South Sudan.
Despite all this, all is not well in Djibouti.
Under cover of 'Western' support, the regime has become more dictatorial and volatile, the more invincible it believes itself to be. It could easily be overthrown, with unpredictable consequences and the possibility of intervention from Eritrea, Ethiopia or even Somali Al Shabaab. The US and Europe appear unprepared for any of this, preferring to put all their eggs in one basket - and in the hope that the President's failing health does not test the absence of a viable secession strategy.
The same family and party have been in power since independence from France. The increasingly luxurious lifestyle of the President's entourage has been criticised by international aid institutions, such as the use of a new Boeing 767 as 'the family's private jet' and the construction of outrageously lavish palaces for relatives. Having changed the constitution allowing himself to be President for life, and having blocked opposition candidates from standing against him for the April 2011 election, President Guelleh then expelled election monitors sent by the US State Department. He banned foreign observers, refused entry to respected journalists, and engaged in widespread manipulation of voter lists.
Whilst in aggregate a middle-income country, the general population live in dire poverty. Djibouti has one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in Africa. Much of the population has no reliable access to clean water or electricity. Ports in Djibouti have to recruit abroad to find the skills they need, despite unemployment at home of 60%. Today, 52,000 people receive aid from the World Food Programme.
The latest IMF survey warned that 'growth has thus far not succeeded in significantly reducing poverty or unemployment. The country ranked 147th out of 169 countries in the UNDP's Human Development Index for 2010, and malnutrition has risen.
Investment has dried up in the wake of confiscations and arbitrary taxes. Even relations with Dubai investors have deteriorated. According to the World Bank, Djibouti is one of the worst countries in the world in which to do business, ranked 170th out of 183 countries.
Economic deprivation in the wake of profligacy at the top is one potential trigger of instability. Another is the government's appalling human rights record.
Large numbers were detained and mistreated during last year's Presidential elections. Prominent human rights and opposition activists were arrested, including leaders of the four main opposition parties. Demonstrations against the election process in February 2011 were met with tear gas and violence. Detention of government critics has persisted - on 3 February this year popular radio journalist Farah Abadid Hildid was abducted by police, stripped naked, and kept in a cell without water, the third time in a year he has been detained. This has been referred to the to the United Nations special rapporteur on torture.
Is it wise to support this callous and kleptocratic dictatorship because it is friendly with the 'West'? British officials should be properly aware of the background and the risks. It will be in Britain's interest to promote a more cautious approach to President Guelleh, as part of its Somalia and Horn of Africa peace policy. Propping up deeply unpopular dictators has a habit of leaving the UK on the wrong side of the argument.
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