Every hour and a half, most days a week, a plane with American markings flies itself out from a tiny northeast African country in a relentless quest to spy on, and sometimes kill, the hundreds of global jihadists that reside just across the Red Sea. Most people have never heard of, or routinely giggle at the name of this country, Djibouti, pronounced ‘ji-booty,’ which is essentially a city-state port wedged between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.
Djibouti, formerly known as French Somaliland, is a primarily Muslim nation with an economy based on Djibouti City’s industries, port and pastoral outskirts. The current president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, was chosen by his uncle in 1999 to succeed him, becoming the second leader of a free and independent Djibouti.
Guelleh’s uncle, Hassan Aptidon, like many other leaders in the region, supported the U.S. during the first Gulf War, despite a short civil war taking place in Djibouti itself. After 9/11, Djibouti agreed to hosting 1,800 American military personnel at a former French base, Camp Lemonnier, and the U.S. founded the Combined Joint Task Force for the Horn of Africa.
Under the ongoing Operation Enduring Freedom — Horn of Africa, Camp Lemonnier has become a central base for combating terrorism in the region. Just south of Djibouti, the war-torn country of Somalia has been torn by a civil war since the 1980s, when the U.S. and others supplied an incredibly corrupt regime with ‘humanitarian aid,’ helping to push it over the edge.
To step back from this international relations perspective on the matter into a more personal perspective, I’ve been deeply invested in American foreign policy in Eastern Africa since a child. That may sound like a joke, but I lived in Tanzania during the Bush regime; we told most people we were from Canada.
Most Americans celebrated when Obama was elected. East Africans hugged me in the street, paved a 200-kilometer road to Obama’s grandmother’s village, declared it a national holiday and renamed every barbershop (that I saw) “Obama Cuts,” or some variant. Obama’s tribesmen, the Luo, along with others, expected favorable treatment: they were disappointed when the Obama administration signaled Obama’s full commitment to an American, not African, identity.
One night last year, as I was biking to Lake Storey, my brother, a history major, called me with sad news. He had been combing through East Africa-related Wikileaks cables, and the picture painted was not one of American development and cooperation, or even retraction from Bush policies.
For East Africa, the physical results of Obama’s victory have mostly amounted to an increase in drone strikes and military engagement: we are now involved in training Kenyan, Ethiopian, Tanzanian and Ugandan forces in combating terrorism. Our policy has remained stuck at supporting those that aid our global goals, no matter their integrity.
Back in Djibouti, President Guelleh’s changed the constitution in 2011 to allow him to run for a third term, starting last year. We said nothing, because we needed to kill people without having boots on the ground; it’s the better of two evils, we said, to have loyal Guelleh in power. This need is not going away until global jihadist ideology does, which seems unlikely anytime soon.
The solution should be to find somewhere else with a better track record of governance, but in the region, that’s not particularly practical. No other countries have shown the same willingness to take on this global issue head-on: the better of two evils may be in for the long haul.