AFRICOM’s General Ham Waging War from Djibouti

Guelleh Gates(Pictured: U.S. Secretary of Defense Gates and Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh.)

Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) arrived on the continent a couple of weeks ago just in time for the big doings. Ham, who had only taken over his new post three days earlier, conferred with local and U.S. military and political officials in the east African nation of Djibouti, in the words of the newspaper Stars and Stripes, just as the United States and other nations debated “whether to place a no-fly zone over Libya.” If that were to happen, the paper said, AFRICOM “would play its first lead role.” Djibouti’s chief of defense, Maj. Gen. Fathi Ahmed Houssein, is said to have “advised circumspection, since any use of military force in Libya would have long-term ramifications.” Ham said he took it under advisement.

Ham’s visit to Djibouti, where the U.S. maintains its only military base on the continent, the timing of it and its subsequent use as coordinating point for the attacks on Libya, speak volumes about the quandary of U.S. policy toward Africa. It forms a contentious backdrop for the tour President Barak Obama in planning there for later this year.

Ham, who once served as an advisor with a Saudi Arabian National Guard Brigade, is based at AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany. That it is not located somewhere in Africa owes to the fact that most African governments view it with, at best, suspicion and all the countries that really matter have refused to host it.

Ham’s predecessor in the job was Gen. William “Kip” Ward, one of the highest-ranking African Americans in the U.S. military. The new chief faces “some tough questions about the mandate and intentions of the nascent command” said Stars and Stripes. Ward “had gone to great lengths to assure African nations that the United States does not seek to build bases on the continent,” the paper said. And “Ham said that while he was looking at other locations in the U.S. and Europe as a long-term command headquarters, and will decide on one next year, he would not rule out Africa, either.”

The troubling little matter of where the command is to be headquartered is something that most major media reports leave out, along with another aspect of the current story. In a number of respects tiny Djibouti could be considered in some ways the Bahrain of Africa.

Since the early 1990s Bahrain has been the site of the U.S. military base at Juffair, home of the headquarters for the United States Naval Forces Central Command and the U.S. Fifth Fleet involving about 1,500 military personnel. Built by the colonial French, Djibouti’s Camp Lemonier is home to about 2,000 U.S. military personnel attached to the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. But the similarities don’t end there.

There are said to be no foreign correspondents stationed in Djibouti but that’s no excuse for a paucity of news from there. There has been plenty of time to get someone there because, drawing inspiration from events in North Africa, people in Djibouti have taken to the streets in large number since early last month. Their calls for reform have been beaten back by clubs, water cannons and sometimes bullets. Political parties have been outlawed and opposition figures jailed. Last week, the government expelled a group of U.S. election monitors there to witness a disputed presidential election slated for next month. Opposition groups are boycotting the vote because they say the current regime is repressing dissent.

“The country is nominally democratic, but events leading up to the April 8 presidential election appear to show a hard line approach by President Ismail Omar Guelleh at a time when democracy movements are upending administrations,” the Associated Press reported last week from nearby Kenya.

“The unrest in the Arab world has spread south to the small Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, host to the only official U.S. military base on the African mainland,” wrote Stephen Roblin on ZNet March 10. “In what have been called protests triggered by a wave of political unrest sweeping through the Middle East, Djiboutians numbering in the thousands have taken to the streets in opposition to President Ismail Omar Guelleh, who has held power since succeeding his uncle in 1999. The Guelleh family has maintained its grip over the small nation of 750,000 people since its independence from France in 1977.

“Demonstrations broke out in anticipation of the upcoming election in April, when Guelleh hopes to extend his reign by winning a third term. His bid for presidency comes a year after he scrapped the two-term limit in the constitution in a move the opposition considers unconstitutional.

“The first political rally took place on January 28 and was attended by an estimated 2-3,000 people. Djiboutians continued to organize demonstrations throughout the month of February,” wrote Roblin. “The Guelleh regime responded by ordering state security forces to disperse demonstrators through force and perform mass arbitrary arrests in a campaign to stifle the democratic opposition.”

An estimated 30,000 Djiboutians calling for Guelleh to step down gathered in Djibouti City March 19. (Again, there are only 750,000 people in the country.) They “were met by riot police, who violently dispersed the protesters,” wrote Roblin. “Unlike in Egypt, where citizens temporarily took control over Tahrir Square, state violence in Djibouti successfully repressed the attempt by pro-democracy forces to establish a permanent protest camp in the center of the capital.”

“Djibouti’s primary donor, the United States, is fully aware of the harsh economic conditions facing the country, as well as the government’s poor human rights record and corrupt rule,” wrote Roblin. “But the paymaster has been willing to put aside its unflinching commitment to high principles due to the Guelleh regime’s well-demonstrated reliability as a regional client.

The Guelleh regime is also charged with direct involvement in the US CIA’s secret detention and rendition program that saw alleged terrorism suspects secreted off to foreign locations for interrogation said to have involved torture.

The similarity of Bahrain and Djibouti these days is apparent in another respect: The failure of the U.S. to resolutely condemn the brutal repression by the regime on the former is in line with the soft gloves treatment and even support to the regime in the latter – as Ham’s visit attests.

Events these days in Djibouti certainly shed light on the real scope of AFRICOM’s mission. On March 21, Eric Schmitt of the New York Times wrote from Washington that it was ‘the military’s first ‘smart power’ command. “It has no assigned troops, no headquarters in Africa itself, and one of its two top deputies is a seasoned American diplomat,” he wrote.

“Indeed, the command, known as AFRICOM, is designed largely to train and assist the armed forces of 53 African nations and to work with the State Department and other American agencies to strengthen social, political and economic programs in the region including improving H.I.V. awareness in African militaries and removing land mines.”

Descriptions like that have floated through the media repeatedly over the three years of the command’s existence. And now, suddenly it blossomed into control center for war in a neighboring country.

For three years, critics of AFRICOM in Africa and the U.S. have charged that it serves to militarize U.S. foreign policy in the region, as opposed to aid and diplomacy. Schmitt says Ward and others have consistently emphasized that AFRICOM’s role is “to train African militaries only when requested by governments.”

“Now the young, untested command and its new boss, Gen. Carter F. Ham, find themselves at their headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, setting aside public diplomacy talks and other civilian-military duties to lead the initial phase of a complex, multinational shooting war with Libya,” wrote Schmitt.

Obama will no doubt have trouble explaining that away as he arrives in various African capitals.

Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black Commentator. He also serves on its editorial board.