US takes focus off Mugabe

President Obama seemed less concerned than usual about Zimbabwe on his visit to Kenya and Ethiopia, and leaked correspondence has shown that, for now at least, the focus may be off Robert Mugabe.

President Obama

President Obama

Instead letters written by two senior congressmen and seen by The Zimbabwean call on the White House to bring about “orderly change” in Djibouti.
Just as Mugabe was féted by Washington in the 1980s and early ’90s — when the Reagan and Bush administrations did not raise a whisper over the Gukurahundi genocide — so President Omar Guelleh of Djibouti was, until recently, America’s closest ally in Africa.
In a language reminiscent of bills condemning the Zimbabwe elections after 2002 and imposing travel bans on Mugabe and his ministers, congressmen Duncan Hunter and Tom Marino have reached out for support to either bring Mr Guelleh to heel, or remove him from office by a free and fair election, due in 2016.

The US has its only armed base in Africa just outside the capital, Djibouti City and, from here, one of the world’s largest squadrons of drones can strike across Somalia and the Middle East.
Every table of human rights, from Amnesty International to Reporters Without Borders puts Djibouti near the bottom with countries like Chad and Sudan, even lower than Zimbabwe. And with all 65 seats in the house of assembly, Guelleh runs a de facto one-party state. Private media are banned. But in May, Guelleh said he would allow China to deploy up to 10000 troops in Djibouti where they will take over a US post at Obock in the north of the country.
Beijing has replaced America as Djibouti’s major investor, building two new air fields, retooling the harbour and upgrading the railway to land-locked Ethiopia.
Duncan Hunter comes from one of the best-known political families in California and holds the seat once occupied in congress by his father, a Vietnam veteran who stood as a Republican presidential candidate in 2008.

Hunter Jnr serves on the Armed Forces Committee that overseas US defence and has written to secretary of state John Kerry and, six weeks ago, to defence secretary Ashton Carter. His letters call for US action on Djibouti’s “mistreatment of political oppositon and journalists,” and warn that, like Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi, Guelleh is set to change the constitution and run for yet another term in 2016.
Guelleh had promised to retire by then but, warns Hunter, “his previous actions call this into question.”
Tom Marino who serves on congressional bodies for foreign affairs and security has gone further, requesting an urgent meeting of all committees that deal with Africa, defence, terrorism and human rights, to address the US need for a “reliable partner,” in Djibouti.

The problem for Washington is that, unlike land-locked Zimbabwe, Djibouti blocks entry to the Suez Canal. Across the narrow neck of water lies war-torn Yemen, giving Guelleh the only safe coast for vessels moving between Europe, India and the Far East. The loss of Djibouti could see ships having to sail thousands of kilometres around the Cape of Good Hope.
But, like Mugabe, Guelleh is unlikely to give up willingly. His human rights record could leave him vulnerable to prosecution locally or at The Hague. And with China as new best friend, he may not feel he needs the USA.
But he may also have underestimated a Congress where hawkish Republicans now have the numbers.
Congressman Marino ends his letter to the defence secretary with a warning. “We need to address the issue of Chinese operations in Djibouti, examine the risks of President Guelleh … and explore our options.”
Analysts say Guelleh would almost certainly lose a free election in a country where many don’t even have access to clean water. But if Zimbabwe is any example, getting him to step down will not be easy.

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