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US Expands Presence in Djibouti

by Carolyn Presutti May 05, 2014

President Barack Obama and Djibouti President Omar Guelleh, meeting at the White House on Monday, promised to continue working together to increase economic development and fight terrorism in the Horn of Africa.

In a joint statement from the White House, the two leaders noted their shared commitment to combat violent extremism, to counter piracy and to secure Djibouti's borders, as well as to build investment and workforce development in the tiny East African nation.

The Republic of Djibouti is strategic to the United States as a hub for anti-terrorism in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

There are many who worry, however, about any pivot of U.S. foreign policy toward what they call "the militarization" of Africa.

Djibouti is a geographical gold mine. With its busy port, it sits strategically in the Horn of Africa. It's across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen and bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia -- making it a prime counter-terrorism partner for the United States.

The country is home to 3,000 U.S. civilian and military personnel at Camp Lemonnier, the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa, located next to Djibouti International Airport. The U.S. pays $38 million a year to lease the base.

"The U.S. has calculated that putting the money into what's seen as a relatively stable country in a very strategic location with access to a lot of unstable countries will pay off both in the near and the long term,' said Joe Siegle, research director at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

Anti-terrorism hub

Camp Lemonnier serves as an anti-terrorism hub for the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Until recently, it was used to launch U.S. drone strikes against suspected al-Qaida fighters.

Ben Fred-Mensah, who teaches international relations and government at Howard University, said, "Terrorism is very much alive. As America always says, 'It's better we fight them outside, than to wait and fight them at home."

But Djibouti residents complained when five drones in three years crashed, one just 1.5 kilometers from the capital, Djibouti City. So the U.S. moved the drone fleet to another airstrip 13 kilometers from the airport.

For the U.S., investing in Djibouti is a matter of balance. Djibouti has a less-than-stellar human rights record. Freedom House, a human rights reporting agency, labeled Djibouti as "Not Free" in last year's Freedom in the World report. It accused Guelleh of suppressing civil liberties and ranked the nation's political rights near the bottom.

Opposition to military

Abayomi Azikiwe, the editor of Pan-African News Wire, opposes the U.S. military buildup. In a Skype interview, he said there's more at play than terrorism.

"More and more oil is being imported there from Africa into the United States, as well as other strategic minerals,' Azikiwe said. 'That, in our opinion, is guiding this increased military presence.'

Fred-Mensah said his opposition stems from his African roots. "I begin to question whether we still enjoy our sovereignty or whether we are losing our sovereignty because we are relatively weak," he said.

The Pentagon plans to spend more than $1 billion over the next 25 years to expand and renovate Camp Lemonnier -- reaffirming its presence in Africa.

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