As US Secretary of State John Kerry steps off his plane in a historic visit to the small “jostle of black volcanic rock” in the Horn of Africa, known as Djibouti, revelations about the precarious conditions at the U.S. military’s only African base, Camp Lemmonier, seem to have been all but forgotten. A day after his unexpected pit stop in Somalia, Kerry’s official visit to Djibouti on May 6 cements the country’s long time status as a vital US strategic ally and a key partner in counterterrorism operations throughout the region. However, a damning report by the Washington Post revealing the dire conditions surrounding Camp Lemmonier’s air space has cast a dark shadow over Kerry’s stay, and has underlined the Obama administration’s piecemeal efforts to protect US soldiers abroad and set standards for Africa’s leaders.
For the four thousand soldiers who call Camp Lemonnier home, the local air traffic controllers have become more dangerous than the enemies they fight. The strategic airspace, a hub for US warplanes and drones, has suffered over the past five years due to the disdain of the controllers over the US military presence, triggering them to create hazardous conditions and increasing the likelihood of an aviation disaster. In 2012, fears of a catastrophe became a reality when four Special Operations Crew members were thrust to their death after Djiboutian controllers ordered their U-28 spy plane to circle the airport after denying them permission to land.
Despite multiple training programs aimed at increasing safety conditions at the airport, the traffic controllers aggressively resisted and continued their practices of blatantly ignoring American military needs, chewing the narcotic leaf khat, playing video games, or sleeping on the job. In one instance of overt anti-Americanism, an air traffic controller swung a lead pipe at a US Navy Officer and promised to “slit Americans throats” if he ever saw them outside of the base. The hostile practice of forcing US planes to circle in the air until low on fuel is dangerously frequent. Indeed, according to one official at the Federal Aviation Administration, Camp Lemonnier has “the most dangerous airspace […] in the world,” while others have been left wondering how the US military was even operating in such treacherous conditions.
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Despite these shocking revelations and the unnecessary risks faced by US soldiers at the hands of a supposedly friendly government supporting the fight against terrorism, the Obama administration has inexplicably failed to criticize Djibouti’s local strongman, Ismail Omar Guelleh (IOG). In fact, despite the many incidents involving US personnel, IOG was received in 2014 at the White House with all the pomp and circumstance of a great world leader; and not only did he walk away with a fresh 20-year long lease for Camp Lemonnier–he also doubled the price paid by Washington ($70 million per year) for using the facilities.
For his part, while boasting a “strategic partnership” with the US, IOG has failed to translate any of the funds provided into benefits for the population and has in fact undermined US interests by tying the knot with China. Indeed, Beijing has been quick to work up an appetite for Djibouti’s snug commercial port, one of Africa’s largest thanks to its position in one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. In February 2014, China and Djibouti signed a Security and Defense Agreement under which Djibouti’s port could be used as a hub for the Chinese Navy, an immediate threat to US security interests in the area. Furthermore, the two countries have planned a total of 14 megaprojects worth almost $10 billion, ranging from developing the port’s facilities to constructing railways and two international airports. Meanwhile, as one analyst put it, “the country’s population suffers from hunger, water scarcity, widespread human rights abuses and endemic poverty.”
As Guelleh, who already has “a disproportionate and unaccountable hold over power and wealth” in the country, has been lured in with bags of cash and promises to develop Djibouti’s national business plan, the Obama administration expressed concern that its long-term partner has begun to illustrate undemocratic tendencies as it moves towards a dangerous relationship with Beijing. Indeed, the Middle Kingdom’s influence in Africa has been built on doling out billions to stroke the egos of local strongmen by building massive white elephant projects, which rarely benefit the population. Similarly, the IMF has voiced its reservations at Djibouti’s Chinese fueled development, arguing that the country risks bankruptcy because of the loans’ prohibitively high interest rates.
So there you have it – our country’s most important African ally is knowingly putting American lives at risk everyday, while the country’s president, seduced by Beijing’s lavish megaprojects, seems intent on selling off its future right under the indulgent eyes of Barack Hussein Obama. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Kerry’s hyped up visit didn’t translate into any real warnings for Guelleh and his regime. Not only did the US Secretary of State fail to mention the regime’s human rights abuses, its denial of civil freedoms, the dire safety problems at Camp Lemonnier, and the worrying China connection; but he also went ahead to praise the valuable Djibouti-US relationship, built “on the basis of both mutual respect, but also mutual interest.”
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Rather than paying homage to Guelleh and his regime, the US must urge the government not only to increase the safety of its military operations base, but also to ensure that the development aid the country receives trickles down to the population. For a country with a GDP of some $1.7 billion, Djibouti is dependent on the funds provided by US lease agreements. Therefore, had the White House been occupied by a more responsible president, the US would have used its considerable leverage to protect its strategic interests. After all, “money talks, especially in small and underdeveloped states run by authoritarian governments such as Djibouti”; and if the country is to remain a key ally of the US, future collaboration should be made contingent on a Djibouti that respects the strategic interests of its allies and strives towards democratic change not a path of dictatorship.
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