There’s a smell of sewage out on the beaches outside, juxtaposed with tangerine, sunset views glimmering atop the murky waves. Looking southward across the warm waters of the Gulf of Aden, whale sharks congregate en masse to feed in the fall and winter.
I’m watching through massive glass windows in the lobby of the Sheraton hotel, an oasis for foreign soldiers and military contractors of every stripe. That’s when I notice I’m being eyed by a couple of thugs.
Their casual, ratty street clothes—tattered pants, T-shirts—and a generally unkempt look put them at odds with the military uniforms and business wear that dominates the Sheraton lobby. And they made little effort to hide their purpose: their twisted faces staring intently at me as I sat there writing. I’ve made the mistake of interviewing some human-rights activists. And the thugs are clearly not pleased. They’ll follow me for the last night of my trip.
It’s par for the course in this minuscule police state, where the most prominent industry is catering to the world’s competing militaries—and the biggest mistake is pointing out how the government treats its people.
Djibouti is a kind of earthly Tatooine. Not only because of the two-sun environment, which features a scorching dry heat that sucks the body dry, but because of rough company the neighborhood keeps. Right on its doorstep are two high-profile al Qaeda affiliates: al-Shabaab, based in Somalia, and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based in Yemen. And the threat of hijacking by pirates based in Somalia, best remembered in the American mind by the Maersk Alabama hostage-taking in 2009, continues to present a risk for shipping in the region.
So Djibouti has become a safari grounds for high-paying sovereign clients. An American hub for its secret wars in East Africa and the Arabian peninsula is here—complete with a fleet of drones and a rotating gang of special operations forces.
The Japanese use their base here as an African logistical hub and to protect regional shipping. The French, who colonized Djibouti in the mid-19th century and controlled the country well into the 20th century, also maintains a military force here. The German, Italian, and Spanish militaries also have a presence in Djibouti, focusing on countering piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Ethiopia.
And soon, the Chinese will be operating there too, having negotiated their first overseas military outpost, making it capable of projecting power thousands of miles from their homeland. That makes seven militaries crammed into this one tiny police state.
Djibouti is a country of less than 900,000 people that would not register significantly in the global consciousness except for its strategic location in East Africa, at the mouth of the Red Sea and the rest of the Persian Gulf.
All shipping passing northward through the Suez Canal to Europe or southward to the Indian Ocean would need to sail through the Bab al-Mandab, or Gate of Tears in Arabic. On one side of the strait lies the small but stable state of Djibouti. On the other side, the treacherous and war-torn country of Yemen.
Djibouti’s primary strategic resource is its oil fields. The arid desert state has hardly any agriculture to speak of, and locals complain of a lack of skilled labor, but it does have a deepwater port at a critical chokepoint for global commerce. In other words, it’s a military jackpot.
If you don’t ask too many questions.
The United States has reportedly agreed to spend some $70 million a year for permission to maintain a military base in Djibouti called Camp Lemonnier.
In return, America gets a hub for its ongoing war against terrorist groups. (The United States took over the former French Foreign Legion post after 9/11.) More than a dozen drone flights were operating daily out of Lemonnier in 2012, heading eastward toward Yemen or south toward Somalia. Drone operations have since moved to another, more remote airstrip in Djibouti, but Lemonnier remains a center of American counterterrorist operations in the region.
Historically, when the United States decides to take action in East Africa, a nexus of terrorist groups and extremist ideology, Camp Lemonnier is involved.
For example, in 2002 a Predator drone flew from Djibouti to assassinate Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, a Yemeni al Qaeda member who was suspected of helping plan the U.S.S. Cole attack, journalist Sean Naylor reports in his book, Relentless Strike. And Jessica Buchanan and Poul Hagen Thisted, two Western aid workers kidnapped by Somali pirates, were brought to Djibouti after their rescue by Navy SEALs.
The U.S. military hemmed and hawed about letting The Daily Beast visit Camp Lemonnier. Finally, after many, many requests, a spokesman for the military mumbled something about bad timing.
So, we settled for the next best thing: the Japanese military base just down the road.
Tucked in the corner of Djibouti City’s airport, opposite the American Camp Lemonnier, is Japan’s only foreign military base in the world, and the only one it has opened since World War II.
Tokyo is more than 6,000 miles away—more than the distance it would take to drive from New York City to Los Angeles, and then back again—and yet the country with a famously pacifist constitution has deemed it fit to set up a military base in this dusty, desert country in Africa.
Ten percent of all shipping passing through the straits is linked to the Japanese economy—either exports coming from Japan or imports coming to the homeland, Japanese Ambassador to Djibouti Tatsuo Arai told The Daily Beast. In 2011 the Japanese opened a permanent facility in Djibouti, with a focus on countering piracy that might endanger Japanese goods and related goods. Since then, the base has helped them project their influence across the entire African continent.
For decades, Djibouti has held favored status among the world’s powers. One former U.S. ambassador to Djibouti told me that despite the widespread closure of U.S.S.R. embassies after the collapse of communism, the Russians recognized the importance of Djibouti and kept their embassy open here—a country of less than 1 million people.
During the Ebola crisis last year, Japan’s Djiboutian base became a hub for the humanitarian work they were doing, and a logistics center that provided a stopover for the shipment of protective garments for Ghana. As a member of the peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, Japan’s service members often make a logistical pit stop in Djibouti before continuing on to the war-torn nation.
The Japanese military base can only be described as lavish: a room for meditation; a well-stocked gym and basketball court; a movie theater kept so clean you have to take your shoes off to enter; a library; and an expansive medical center. The base even includes a large Japanese communal hot bath for the troops and a bar featuring edamame and kimchi.
Outside, however, the scene was far less inviting.
It’s 2:30 p.m. in downtown Djibouti, and it is a ghost town. The streets are deserted, even along the main roads leading to the city center. In the 1930s, when novelist Evelyn Waugh toured what was then known as French Somaliland, he bemoaned the area’s “intolerable desolation,” calling it a “country of dust and boulders, utterly devoid of any sign of life.”
In late August, it is one of the hottest weeks of the year, and work is seldom done unless it is in the cooler early-morning hours. Djibouti City can be crowded, dusty, choked with human movement and honking cars, but this does not last for more than a few hours per day, and ends when the sun makes the outdoors totally unbearable.
There is virtually no agriculture in the barren country of Djibouti—indeed, much of the rural portions of country have the look of the lunar surface, due to the eruption of a major volcano 60 miles from Djibouti City in 1978. The economy functions largely on the money made on foreign military bases and the service industry—Djibouti sits just east of landlocked Ethiopia, and serves as a main port for that country of nearly 100 million people. Its own military forces are minor.
The only news sources with broad distribution are either owned by the Djiboutian government, or funded by foreign ones, such as Voice of America or the BBC. In the Horn of Africa, Voice of America has an eclectic selection, representing the United States with news programs, English lessons, and loops of Linkin Park and country music.
The origin of the name “Djibouti” is itself in dispute. The local Afar people say that Djibouti is a close approximation of “my place” in their language; the more notorious Somali version of the country’s etymology is that Djibouti refers in their language to the place where “cannibals” were defeated.
Eighty-five years after Waugh’s remarks, the streets of the capital clear almost every afternoon. The heat is so incredibly intense that the workday starts and ends early, and then much of the population heads home to chew khat, a leafy plant that is engrained in local culture but banned in most of the West.
Local and foreigners alike say that khat is a central factor in keeping the youth of the country tranquilized, benefitting the police state at the expense of the poor, young male population. Khat does not provoke violence, they say, but rather sedates the young people in society who elsewhere in the world are often at the forefront of democratic or revolutionary movements.
Opponents of Djibouti’s government charge that officials use khat as a “weapon” for repression, with those close to the government facilitating its sale in the country—and even handing it out for favors when campaign season rolls around.
“The regime uses khat as a main weapon to make people calm. If the population is angry, or stressed—they make sure there's khat,” independent journalist Maydane Okiye said. “For eight hours they are high, and another eight they are sleeping—making the population busy for 16 hours.”
“It's like a plague. It takes money, health and time,” added Daher Ahmed Farah, an opposition figure who has been under house arrest on some 20 occasions and jailed six times.
I am interviewing Daher Ahmed Farah at the Sheraton when I notice the two individuals eyeing me from across the lobby. I would later find that they were inquiring about who I was, how long I had been staying at the hotel and generally probing my background. When the opposition figures left the hotel, flanked by their own bodyguards, the two stayed in the lobby to keep an eye on me.
The Sheraton lobby thugs only appeared on my last day in Djibouti, when I had scheduled most of my meetings with opposition figures. The two men don’t say a word—there’s no twinkle of life in their eyes, just an agitated glare that tells me that I’ve crossed some unspoken boundary. I had been worried about setting up meetings with activists who bucked the Djiboutian government—and with good reason: Locals had warned me their phones were surely tapped.
I wait a while before leaving the hotel, and duck off around the corner to see if I’m being followed. The two rush out after me, concerned they’ve lost their target. I was planning to head to the main square to exchange a sizeable amount of Djiboutian francs for U.S. dollars, for my impending departure from the country. This won’t be happening that night.
So, I’m left to stew about the small slice of the police state that’s just been revealed to me.
Dealing with Djibouti means dealing with its government’s murky human-rights record. The U.S. State Department’s own 2014 human-rights report (PDF) on the country cited the government’s restriction of free speech and assembly; its use of excessive force, including torture; as well as the harassment and detention of government critics.
The government arrested and beat Maydane Okiye in January 2014, for example, after he covered the release of a human-rights activist from detention. In another case, an unidentified man who was detained after a police raid in June 2014 allegedly died due to injuries suffered during interrogation.
And Sahal Ali Youssouf, a 24-year-old who had reportedly participated in opposition protests, was allegedly arrested and fatally beaten in June 2013 by the police.
“Witnesses who saw the body described black marks on the skin and cuts on the soles of the feet,” a State Department report (PDF)said.
In mid-December, a Djiboutian opposition group said at least 19 people were killed in clashes with police—the government said merely nine people were wounded in a confrontation between police and armed individuals, prompting the State Department to condemn the acts of violence and urge the government to “exercise restraint.”
But that’s about as far as the U.S.—or another of the other governments using Djibouti as a military hub—are willing to go. Its strategic importance is too great to upend with urgent demands for political liberalization, a compromise that has become quite common in America’s global war on terrorism.
“We’re a guest in their country,” said a U.S. military service member, who was formerly stationed at Camp Lemonnier, with a tone of resignation.
American officials in Djibouti disagree with this: “There are no taboo topics on what we discuss with the Djiboutian government. We talk about everything, including human rights,” the second in command at the U.S. Embassy, Chargé d’Affaires Christina Higgins, told The Daily Beast—but Djiboutian political rights have been squeezed as the American military footprint in Djibouti has expanded dramatically as part of the Global War on Terror.
Legislative elections held in 2013 were disputed, and during the election more than 500 opponents were arrested, according to pro-democracy group Freedom House. It’s a dispute that remains unresolved even now, in the leadup to the 2016 presidential elections. Democracy advocates and Western diplomats fear there will be violence if the government, led by President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, cannot come to terms with opposition groups.
"If there’s no solution, there’s going to be violence. The government and the people who come on the street, they will clash. The government will abuse their power, and may shoot into the crowds,” Okiye, the independent journalist, told The Daily Beast.
Okiye returned to Djibouti in 2012 after 20 years in the United Kingdom—and his outspoken support for the free press and human rights have led him to thousands of dollars in fines, seven arrests, months of imprisonment, and beatings he says have left lasting damage to his ears and eyes.
Although a framework accord was signed between the government and opposition groups in late 2014, giving hope for a coming detente, the hope has yet to be realized. The accord has not been executed, opposition figures say, and no concrete solutions have emerged for the disputed legislative elections from 2013.
Requests for on-the-record interviews with the Djiboutian president and other high-ranking military and diplomatic officials were briefly entertained, filibustered, and ultimately denied.
But local activists wonder when all of the military spending is actually going to trickle down to the common individual in Djibouti.
"Have we become an aircraft carrier?” asked Farah Abdillahi Miguil, chairman of the Djibouti Human Rights League. “This huge military presence hasn't translated to something positive on issues like democracy."
Besides the government thugs, the streets of Djibouti are relatively safe at night—especially when compared to those in neighboring Somalia or Eritrea. There is a terrorism threat: Just last year, al Shabaab claimed responsibility for a bombing at a restaurant in Djibouti City popular with foreigners. (The restaurant, which serves noodle soups and dim sum along with Western fare, has since been rebuilt and remains popular.)
But the Djiboutian government has also used allegations of terrorism for political purposes. After Abdourahman Boreh, who was once one of President Guelleh’s closest allies, left Djibouti in 2009 amid a power struggle, he was convicted in absentia over allegations that he was involved with a grenade attack in Djibouti and sentenced to 15 years in prison. A U.K. court, which froze Boreh’s assets based on these allegations, later questioned the “so-called evidence” that a grenade attack had even occurred, and this year lifted the freeze.
In many ways, public demands for democratic change are more of a threat to the order of things in Djibouti than terrorism is. Guelleh, who eliminated term limits in 2010, has yet to decide whether he will run for a fourth term in 2016. But the tension over whether he will relinquish power and allow a free Djibouti to decide his successor, combined with the lingering animosity from the as-yet-unresolved legislative elections from two years ago, could combine for a combustible situation.
The political dynamics on this strategic strip of land that the world’s rivals operate from has not been unnoticed by the U.S. Congress. In fact, Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican from California, has called for regime change.
“The United States must demand that President Guelleh step down after his unprecedented third term expires in 2016,” Hunter wrote to National Security Advisor Susan Rice, in a letter obtained by The Daily Beast. "The United States must have a stable, committed partner in Djibouti—not Ismail Omar Guelleh."
But beyond vague calls to respect human rights, the U.S. government has done little to seriously press Djibouti for change. And as long as Djibouti holds the trump card—its strategic location—neither the United States nor other Western countries will view the domestic political scene with much importance.
And with the arrival of China, a country famously indifferent to the political freedoms of its allies, the situation looks bleaker still. The safari will go on.
This reporter traveled to Djibouti under a Bringing Home the World international reporting fellowship, sponsored by the International Center for Journalists.