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Reality Check On Ismail Omar Guelleh
It's no good trying to weigh me up –
I can't be balanced on a pair of scales.
From this day to that my very color changes –
Nay, I'm a man whose aspect alters
As morning turns to evening
And back once more to morning.
Djibouti perches strategically on the western side of the strait of Bab-el-Mandab - one of the vital shipping lanes of the world that connects the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. It is compactly squeezed between Eritrea and Somalia, while Ethiopia covetously envelops the tiny city-state from the west and south. It has a land surface of 22,980 sq km with 0.04% arable land. Much of its hot, desolate, scorched terrain is barren wastelands.
Djibouti is a classical city-state. More than two-third of its entire population of 500,000 reside in the capital city, Djibouti. Its port - an important transit and container transshipment seaport - is the main source of revenue for the country.
The Republic of Djibouti, formerly known as French Somaliland, became independent on 27 June 1977. With the blessing of France, Hassan Gouled Abtidon, an elderly Issa politician (Issa’s are ethnic Somalis and is the major Somali clan in Djibouti) became the first President of the newly created Republic of Djibouti. Coached by his colonial mentors – the French Secret Service agents - Mr. Abtidon wasted no time in installing a repressive authoritarian one-party state dominated by his own Mamaasan sub-clan of Issa. Mr. Abtidon who ruled Djibouti with iron fist for many years had passed the throne to Ismail Omar Guelleh, his heir-apparent and next of kin, in 1999. The balance between the Issa (Somali) and Afar, the two dominant ethnic groups in Djibouti, was tipped over in favor of the Issa, by the Mamaasan dynasty. The Afars were relegated to a second class status, ever since.
Ismail Omar Guelleh - President of Djibouti
Guelleh 62 was born in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. He migrated to Djibouti in the late sixties before finishing his high school and later joined the Djibouti police forces as a junior non-commissioned officer. In the aftermath of Djibouti’s independence, Guelleh worked in his uncle’s office until he was appointed head of Djibouti’s notorious secret police and chief of cabinet for president Abtidon. Trained first by Somalia’s infamous National Security Service and later by the French Secret Service, he was groomed for many years to replace his ageing uncle, Abtidon. “The key to Guelleh's success is the skillful way in which he has played the cards in his strong hand”, writes PINR’s intelligence report on Djibouti. “As the head of Djibouti's security agency under his uncle's regime, Guelleh gained an intimate knowledge of the country's political forces and has used it to practice a politics of divide and rule, supplemented by repression and intimidation when expedient”.
Varnishing palatable sugar-coating to his infamous past identity as head of a brutal secret service, Guelleh has succeeded in blending political pragmatism with his Machiavellian dexterity. Exceptionally gifted with malleable personality traits, his capacity to keep both his friends and foes amused is second to none. A passionate advocate of Pan-Arabism, a collaborator of United States in its “War on Terror”, a fervent follower of Islamist doctrine who flirts with shadowy Islamist movements, Guelleh is a man with many faces. A tyrant ruler who tenaciously resisted implementing democratic and economic reforms, Guelleh rules Djibouti as a private fiefdom. According to his close friends, arrogant and heavy-handed, Guelleh possesses restive disposition for creative baseness.
Guelleh’s self-aggrandizement and flamboyance
Increasingly lonely in the splendid isolation of the seaside palaces from which he reigns, Guelleh seems detached from the harsh socio-economic realities prevailing in his tiny banana republic. Djibouti has one of sub-Saharan highest infant mortality rate (110 deaths/1000 live births); Life expectancy at birth is 43.1 years, while official HIV/AIDS adult prevalence rate is 3% (some estimates put the prevalence rate over 12%). The country's health and education statistics are among the worst in Sub-Saharan Africa. Unemployment rate exceeds 60%.
Virtually with no natural resources of its own and bearing with the brunt of chronic embezzlement of the port revenue and bureaucratic inefficiency, Djibouti is heavily dependent on foreign aid to offset its growing balance of payments. Due to blatant pillaging of state coffers by Guelleh and his cronies, poverty has become a permanent feature of Djibouti. “Faced with a multitude of economic difficulties” states the CIA World Fact Book, “the government has fallen in arrears on long-term external debt and has been struggling to meet the stipulations of foreign aid donors”.
The political system is virtually ossified. Nominally a democracy - in reality a one-party system - a narrow ruling circle of cronies and security officers reign the tiny state. Freedom of speech is virtually curtailed; criticism of the President is unlawful and dissent is often quelled with excessive brutal force. In fear of his own personal power, Guelleh has not groomed a successor. Popular anger against Guelleh’s despotic regime is on the rise and his popularity is diminishing at home. The amount of resentment and disillusionment in the country is currently incalculably. Intelligence reports highlight brewing public discontent and exasperation to Guelleh’s regime. “Discontent among the Afar and disaffection in the general population due to persisting poverty and unemployment pose threats to Djibouti's stability in the medium term” .
President Guelleh is known for his flamboyance and spendthrift (not to mention his deeply ingrained passion for women, alcohol and Khat), though 95% of his subjects live in abject poverty. He lives in a seaside place that may have cost millions of dollars. He has just completed the construction of a lavish six-storey high presidential retreat palace in Dire Dawa, his birth place. He has built a lush retirement palace in Djibouti for Somaliland’s Dahir Rayale Kahin. Many of his high ranking government officials are often accused of being involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. Though Guelleh denies any knowledge of the allegedly booming drug and money laundering business in his tiny city-state, it is becoming clear that Djibouti is run like a private gangland by Guelleh’s filthy-rich family and a host of cronies and debauched henchmen. Djibouti is awash with rumors and telltales of Guelleh’s secret bank accounts in France, Switzerland, Malaysia, and UAE.
Despite the ever-deteriorating living conditions for most of the Djiboutian people, the firmly entrenched and seemingly impregnable Guelleh’s debased family, sees nothing unethical with public embezzlement. Their unbridled quest for self-aggrandizement and accumulation of wealth is beyond compare. Guelleh’s well-heeled and all-powerful son, notoriously known as Mr. Isuzu, has the sole license for car dealership in Djibouti. The governor of the National Bank of Djibouti is no other than his brother-in-law, Mr. Jama Hayd. Abdirahman Borre, Guelleh’s clansman and manager of Guelleh’s holdings, is described as the “wealthiest individual in the Horn of Africa”. Mr. Borre is an omnipotent tycoon who owns everything from southern Somalia’s charcoal export to Saudi Arabia and the UAE to smuggling of African elephant tasks; from printing of counterfeit Somali currency to importation of various brands of cigarettes, sugar, and food stuff. In collaboration with Ina Daylaf, another upstart Mogadishu tycoon and warlord and close affiliate of Mr. Abdiqasim Salad Hassan, a Mogadishu-based Islamist leader and former president of the Transitional National Government, Borre runs booming businesses in telecommunication, construction, radio and TV stations and fruit plantations in southern Somalia.
Messrs Borre and Ina Daylaf are allegedly involved in the lucrative business of dumping Europe’s industrial toxic waste in Somalia’s coastlines and in Afar inhabited coastal areas of Djibouti. In the past several years, a number of Italian and Swiss companies involved in the money-making business of toxic waste dumping have reportedly established subsidiaries in Djibouti with the help of Mr. Borre. A report of an Italian parliamentary commission that reviewed allegations against the Italian and Swiss firms in 2000 has concluded that “radioactive waste from Italy dumped in Somalia by “Eco-Mafia” run companies may have affected Italian soldiers based there with a UN force in the mid-1990s”. “Somalia is one of the many Least Developed Countries that reportedly received countless shipments of illegal nuclear and toxic waste dumped along the coastline”, states a UN assessment report. The report further states that “the hazardous waste dumped along Somalia’s coast comprises uranium, radioactive waste, lead, cadmium, mercury, industrial, hospital, chemical, leather treatment and other toxic waste”.
In mid 1990s, Mr. Borre was implicated in an Ethiopian political corruption scandal involving jailed former Ethiopian Minster of Defense, Mr. Tamrat Layne, which resulted freezing of his assets in Ethiopia and Addis Ababa declaring him persona non grata.
Guelleh’s Human Rights Abuses
At the home front, Guelleh has effectively quelled political dissent. According to human rights groups, Djibouti has one of the most appalling human rights records. Detention without trial, physical torture of dissidents and various forms of mistreatment are the order of the day. Stifled and defenseless, political prisoners are often abused and harmed, cruelly molested, beaten and assaulted while languishing in their compact tiny cells. The President’s infamous security men can arrest anyone at will and can keep suspects in jail indefinitely without trial or due processes.
In a letter addressed to President Guelleh on July 30, 2003, Human Rights Watch sought the unconditional release of journalist Daher Ahmed Farah who has been convicted of defamation for criticizing the army chief of staff in an article in his newspaper, Le Renouveau. “We understand that Farah is being held in a tiny 2.5 by 1.5 meter cell (number 13) at Gabode Prison”, wrote Human Rights Watch. “A toilet takes up half the space. When a prisoner sits against one wall, his feet touch the opposite wall. The cell is broiling at all times because of sunlight reflected from a nearby wall. The water ration is inadequate, and the cell is fly-infested during the day and mosquito-infested at night…July and August are the hottest months in Djibouti and daytime temperatures in the cell will climb above 40 degrees centigrade”. The letter further states that “Farah's conditions of confinement are inhumane by any standard, and violate the ICCPR, article 7, which states: "No one shall be subjected to . . . cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." Nor do they conform to the U.N. Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners”.
In 1995, a French judge, Bernard Borrel, who was advising the ministry of justice of Djibouti, was found dead at a beach outside Djibouti city. Guelleh was incriminated on the death of judge Borrel, but refused to cooperate with France on the investigation, “partly to protect himself and his loyalists”. In the trial that ensued in France, “Two witnesses have said that Borrel, who had been advising Djibouti's justice ministry, uncovered evidence that implicated Guelleh in arms trafficking and that the judge might have been assassinated to keep him quiet”.
Guelleh and the “War-on-Terror
Pres. Guelleh with sec. Rumsfeld
Despite the fact that his regime is one of the most repressive authoritarian, surrounded by corruption, mismanagement, money-laundering, drug-trafficking and political stagnation and suppresses dissent with unsavory means, President Guelleh remained relatively unscathed by the Bush Administration’s quest for “regime change” elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East. In the aftermath of America’s “War on Terror”, Djibouti has become an important strategic partner of Washington. The Bush Administration has positioned an eight hundred strong force in Djibouti to keep an eye on war-torn Somalia and the Red Sea waters facing Arabian Peninsula. In a presidential letter to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, President Bush states that “The United States forces headquarters element in Djibouti provides command and control support as necessary for military operations against al-Qaeda and other international terrorists in the Horn of Africa region, including Yemen”. As a payback to its collaboration with the United States, the Bush Administration has included Djibouti into a list of 37 countries eligible for economic and trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. This has indeed meant a new lease of life for the despot who reigns supreme through fear and terror. As aptly depicted by PINR’s intelligence brief on Djibouti, Guelleh maximized the presence of U.S. troops in his country as a means of consolidating his tyrannical grip on his fateful fiefdom. “In securing his position internationally, Guelleh has been free to use his hold on the capital city and the port to pay off his machine, play upon Issa interests, and marginalize the opposition”.
The U.S has an ignominious history of association with dictators. The U.S. State Department sees Guelleh as a friendly dictator – one of the likes of Mobutu Sese Seko, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Jean Claude Duvalier, General Samuel Doe, Ferdinand Marcos, General Augustino Pinochet, and Pol Pot. It is no secret that America has always been friendly to the world's most notorious repressive dictators, tyrants and corrupt puppet-presidents. A U.S. State Department official recently described Guelleh as a “client of convenience”. Despite United States indifference to the devil that gripped the tiny city-state of Djibouti, "the U.S. State Department has criticized the regime for "limiting citizens' rights to change their government" and for creating a climate in which opposition parties and media are intimidated into "self-censorship."
Guelleh’s political debacles
The least educated and the most talkative President of Djibouti has made countless political debacles in the past decade. Guelleh’s political record is riddled with numerous instances of inconsistencies and flip-flops and backstage manipulations. In early 1998, before ascending to power, in a letter addressed to the Ethiopian Government of Meles Zenawi, he proposed a confederation of Djibouti and Ethiopia, to the surprise and chagrin of the Djiboutian public. His proposed merger “and intention to seek an economic and political federation with Ethiopia” was later rejected by Ethiopia. During the Ethio-Eritrea war in 1999 he instantly sided with Ethiopia and severed his country’s diplomatic relations with Eritrea “on grounds that the latter provoked conflict with Ethiopia”. In 2000, in an absolute volte-face, Guelleh resumed his relationship with Eritrea. In 2001, Eritrean President Isaias Afework visited Djibouti and Guelleh made a reciprocal visit to Asmara to normalize relations.
TNG Pres. Abdiqasim S. Hassan & Pres. Ismail O. Guelleh
In early 2000, Guelleh snatched and “clanized” the Somali peace initiative spearheaded by IGAD. In what seemed as a major departure from the preceding peace and reconciliation conferences, Guelleh transformed the nature of the Somali peace process from reconciliation of warring factions to reconciliation of clans. This seemingly straightforward proposition embodies a mystifying element of paradox. The civil war in Somalia, as manifested in its ugly discourse over the past decade, has been characterized by a power struggle between rival warlords vying for influence over state structures and national resources. Though the warlords rallied support from members of their clans, the factional fighting that flared up in southern Somalia has neither evolved into an all out inter-clan confrontation nor progressed into a country-wide conflict. As a matter of fact, there has been more infighting within each and every major clan, invalidating the superficial notion of a cohesive, homogeneous clan.
With generous funds from Al-Ittehad Al-Islami (AIAI), an extremist Islamic organization believed to have ties with al-Qaeda, and backstage manipulations, Guelleh convened a large gathering of Somali politicians and clan elders in Arta, Djibouti, in 2000. The Arta conference formed an Islamist dominated Transitional National Government (TNG) for Somalia, under the presidency of his firm favorite, Abdiqasim Salad Hassan, a leading Islamist politician and a member of the leadership of the Al-Islah wing of Al-Ittehad Al-Islami.
If the purpose of conceiving the TNG was to promote peace and reconciliation in Somalia, as purported by its sole architect, Guelleh, the performance of the TNG was to the contrary. From the onset, the TNG has become a mouthpiece and sanctuary of Islamic extremist groups such as the Al-Ittehad Al-Islami. At least, one-third of the 245-strong TNG parliament was believed to have comprised leading members of Al-Ittehad. It is also an open secret that Al-Ittehad’s militia and Islamic courts in Mogadishu rallied behind the TNG.
Subsequent to its formation, areas of relative stability and self-governing regions became victims of a destabilization campaign waged by the TNG. Guelleh and the Islamist dominated TNG coalesced for the purpose of implementing a coordinated strategy aimed at undermining the prevailing relative stability and functioning governance in Puntland and Somaliland entities. Through concerted persuasive engagements and pressure tactics, the shared strategy was to force these entities to join the TNG, or to effectively destabilize and make them crumble from within.
Similarly, to prolong the hegemony of the Habar-Gidir clan - the clan of the president of the TNG that form the backbone of the mushrooming Islamist groups in chaotic Southern Somalia - on “conquered territories” in southern Somalia and forcibly appropriated private estates in Mogadishu, Merca, Kismayo, Juba Valley and in the inter-reverine areas, Guelleh, Abdiqasim and AIAI espoused a coherent strategy aimed at sustaining the Habar-Gidir occupation through the TNG channeled Islamist-petrodollar. As Lewis aptly puts, “this policy has been coupled with pursuing arms procurement, contrary to the official UN arms embargo and TNG propaganda proclaiming its ‘peaceful mission’”. “The UN has turned a blind-eye to these violations” says Lewis. “With these weapons, such militia units as the TNG have been able to recruit, have been sent to maintain the Habar-Gidir hegemony of farms, seized from their owners along the lower Shebelle, and to assist clan allies in Merca and Kismayu”.
Fear is the eternal company of authoritarian leaders. In repressive regimes, paranoia and suspicion besieges the state machinery. The entire citizens are viewed as potential enemies by the law enforcement agencies, which continually scan the horizon for possible scapegoats. Dictators have the tendency to coerce their subjects into absolute obedience and capitulation; to stifle voices of dissent; substitute merit with nepotism, and extort public confidence through perks and patronage. Corruption and nepotism eventually overtakes and erodes the basis for a legitimate system of government. As the system of good governance vanishes gradually, the very legitimacy of the state ceases to exist. Hence, the “Failed State” becomes its label of identification.
Djibouti is already a failed state. The prognosis is not promising. The necessary ingredients are in place for state disorder. Djibouti’s disintegrating political system is patently marked by authoritarianism. “Some African states have failed. Many more are fraying at the edges”, writes Nick Carter. The government continues to fail the expectations and aspirations of its people; effective democracy, social justice and respect for human rights have not been attained. Inequality, disparity and preferential or detrimental treatment of ethnic groups within the country continue to generate a simmering sense of discontent and alienation. State-orchestrated marginalization has already pushed the Afars into the periphery. Moreover, Djiboutians are prohibited to exercise their basic democratic rights such as freedom of speech, association and free press.
Guelleh’s regime is highly repressive and corrupt. It promotes the politics of division, distrust and manipulation, eroding the basis for a legitimate system of government. The state machinery is largely sustained through repressive security system, patronage and perks.
The destiny of all dictators is an ignominious downfall. Guelleh has fatefully taken the familiar path of his likeminded predecessors - the likes of Mobutu Sese Seko, General Samuel Doe, Ferdinand Marcos, and General Augusto Pinochet. The day of deliverance is closer to the downtrodden people of Djibouti who are yearning for a saint’s compassion.
By A. Du'ale Sii’arag,
Africa’s frayed states, by Nick Cater, PP17, 26 November 1996