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  • Title: [SW Column] (Jamal Gabobe) Is Djibouti's Peace Plan Really About Peace?
  • From:[]
  • Date :[14 May 2000]


Is Djibouti's Peace Plan Really About Peace?

By Jamal Gabobe, April 14, 2000


Several years ago I attended a seminar on American Foreign policy in the Middle East at the University of Washington. The seminar was run by an American ambassador to a Middle Eastern country. Towards the end of a long-discussion, I asked the ambassador, "I know that Somalia is not your area, but do you know what is the U.S. policy about Somalia?" Without batting an eye, the ambassador replied, "any suggestions, Jamal?" He could afford to be frank in this case because there was no policy to sell or to be diplomatic about. After the killing of 18 American soldiers and the dragging of an American soldier in the dusty streets of Mogadishu, most Americans did not want to have anything to do with Somalia. Being representatives of a democratic country, American officials reflected the general thinking of the electorate and stayed away from anything that had to do with Somalia. 

Unlike American officials, the United Nations, a body that is not accountable to citizens but to bureaucrats most of whom represent oppressive regimes, had shown no such willingness to re-evaluate its goals and methods in Somalia after its disastrous failures and humiliating withdrawal from that country in 1995. As soon as the United Nations reluctantly got out of Somalia, it was already busy cooking-up or endorsing schemes for solving the Somali problem. One U.N.- engineered or U.N.-endorsed Somali peace and reconciliation meeting after another were tried in places such as Kenya, Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, Yemen, places that are neither known for peace nor reconciliation.  

The latest call for such a conference has come from tiny Djibouti, which is hosting a conference on Somalia from April 20 to May 5, 2000. A few months before its independence from France, William F. Schmick and James Pringle wrote in Newsweek (Jan.17, 1977) about this port city: 

"Djibouti's natural resources consist principally of sand and camels. The colony (known formally as the French Territory of the Afars and Issas, after its two tribes) has no industry, apart from prostitution and its Coke and Pepsi-Cola bottling plants. The territory is one of the poorest on earth, with an unemployment rate that stands at 80 per cent." 

To complete the picture, Elizabeth Peer also of Newsweek wrote (July 11, 1977) on the occasion of Djibouti's independence: "With Djibouti's 90 per cent unemployment, 90 per cent illiteracy, no natural resources, three college graduates and an official count of 20,000 camels, one of the finer geopolitical ironies is that any one covets it at all." 

In my last visit to Djibouti, I saw no improvements in that grim picture. If anything, things had gotten worse. The deteriorating economic situation, coupled with the feeling among many of the second major ethnic group, the Afars, that political power was being monopolized by the president's tribe, led to a rebellion in 1991 that was only half put down in 1994 when the rebels split into two factions and the government cut a deal with one of them. This rebellion is still alive in parts of the country. As if that were not enough, Djibouti's government decided to take Ethiopia's side in the Ethio-Eritrean conflict thus entangling itself in a vicious war. To top it all, Djibouti has now decided to destroy the hard-won stability that exists in Somaliland and some parts of the former Somalia, all under the guise of bringing peace and reconciliation to Somalia.  

Instead of pointing out to Djibouti that its priorities should be to improve the livelihood of its people and not to fan the flames of war between Eritrea and Ethiopia or create chaos in Somaliland, the U.N. has blessed Djibouti's misguided policy toward Somaliland and Somalia. The U.N. is also yet to take Djibouti to task for its open violation of the Security Council's resolution against providing arms for either country in the Ethio-Eritrean war, although it is common knowledge that much of the weaponry destined to Ethiopia, passes through Djibouti's port. The U.N. and many of the countries lining up behind Djibouti's claim that it is trying to restore civil society in the former Somalia, could have taken this opportunity to remind it that its claim would have a better chance of being taken seriously if it led by example and started building that civil society at home

 How does minuscule Djibouti get away with all of this? It does it by invoking the authority of an organization called IGAD. This organization was started by Djibouti's former President Hassan Gouled Aptidon in 1988. The aim of this organization when it was first established was to fight locusts and drought which are endemic in the region, as can be surmised from its name the Inter-Governmental Authority on Drought and Development. But somewhere down the line, Mr. Aptidon and some of the other dictators in the region got the bright idea that having the word drought as part of the organization's name made it seem unsexy or unattractive, so they decided to drop the word drought and change the acronym to IGAD.

But although IGAD's members dropped the D for drought and kept the D for development, its inauguration did not result in much "development" in the positive sense of the word. Consider these facts about the seven countries (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya) that make up this organization:

1- Ethiopia and Eritrea are at war. To give an idea of how deadly this conflict is, the Economist (March 13th, 1999) reported: "In four days of fighting at the end of February, it now seems that up to 40,000 soldiers were killed or wounded in the battle for Badme." The economic costs of the war are as horrendous as the human ones. Africa Research Bulletin (Feb.1st-28th, 1999) reported, "The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reckons Eritrea has the world's second lowest per capita calorie intake and Ethiopia the fifth lowest; two of the world's poorest countries were estimated to be spending at least $1m a day on this inscrutable war." While both countries have shown strong commitment to pursuing the war, neither country has shown the same level of concern for the possibility of millions of their citizens dying from a looming famine.   

2- Ethiopia and Eritrea are fighting a proxy war in Somalia. Both countries have their favorite warlords in Somalia, which they arm and support in violation of the U.N. Resolution 733 that has imposed an arms embargo on Somalia in January 1992.  

3- Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Uganda were all until recently allies against another IGAD member, the Sudan, and were trying to overthrow its government. 

4- Sudan is engaged in a seventeen-years-old civil war which has so far resulted in the estimated deaths of 2 million people. Slavery is also still practised in Sudan at this day and age. 

5- Uganda, an IGAD member, has made a name for itself as the country that produced Idi Amin. It has been in a state of civil war with the Sudan-based the Lord's Resistance Army since 1987, and is also facing a rebellion in the western part of the country. Moreover, it is at war with Kabila's Congo. It's even in conflict with its one time ally, Rwanda, over how much loot should each get out of the resources-rich Congo.

6- Kenya the seventh member of IGAD is also rife with corruption, human rights violations, and periodic ethnic cleansing among its tribes. AIDS, Africa's silent killer, is rampant in several of the IGAD countries. In Kenya alone, John Prendergast (former director of African Affairs at the National Security Council) and Professor Ken Menkhaus of Davidson College, say in an article they co-wrote, that AIDS has resulted in a 15 years drop in life expectancy which "is as devastating as any civil war." 

7- Most of the IGAD countries have shown clear lack of diplomatic skills and frequent disregard for international protocol. The top prize on this topic, of course, goes to Eritrea which has been quick to go to war every time it had a conflict with a neighbor. Eritrea not only immediately severed relations with Sudan as soon as the two countries started having problems, but even turned the Sudanese embassy into the office of the Sudanese opposition groups. But there are many close runners-up. Examples: 

-"Djibouti's formal breaking of diplomatic ties with Eritrea in November 1998 sparked a crisis within the organisation as Djibouti-in contravention of the norms of diplomatic immunity-initially prevented the IGAD's executive secretary, Tekeste Gebray, an Eritrean national, from entering the country. Eritrea then requested that November's summit be shifted to Kenya. This was refused and no Eritrean delegation attended." (EIU Country Report 1st quarter 2000 Ethiopia Eritrea Somalia).

-Ethiopia's expulsion of Eritrea's Ambassador in Feb.1999 (Economist, Feb.13, 1999)

Members of this obnoxious club and the equally odious OAU and Arab League, have taken turns to announce to the world that they are working to create peace and stability among Somalis. This is the third time Djibouti sends out invitations supposedly to help Somalis. Yet Djibouti has not even explained why the previous conferences on its soil failed, let alone the more than 12 large conferences and various mini-conferences to solve the Somali problem. The only consistent message that has been coming from Djibouti is that its aim is to build civil society in Somalia. It never says how. Neither does it answer the question how would an impoverished country like Djibouti which has failed to build a "civil society" in its own country is going to do so in another country. 

There is another message that has been emanating from Djibouti, which is, that this conference would sideline the Somali worlds. Again, here too, it does not say how "little Djibouti" will achieve what the United States and the entire world could not do in Somalia during the U.S./U.N. humanitarian intervention in Somalia.

 But since Djibouti's twin aims of building a civil society in Somalia and getting rid of Somali warlords have as much chance of becoming a reality as Djibouti becoming a superpower, one can only conclude that there are other reasons behind the President of Djibouti's current Somali initiative. The most obvious ones are that Djibouti wants to use this conference to divert attention from its domestic problems, and to give the country a higher international profile. The EIU Country Report (1st quarter 2000 Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti) put it this way: "Active regional diplomacy has the additional benefit of overshadowing Djibouti's troubled domestic political scene, in which Mr Guelleh's authoritarian rule will continue to be contested." 

 Djibouti also wants to position itself as a guardian of Somalis so that it could seek international assistance which is earmarked for Somalis which it could then appropriate or dispense of any way it wants. The most important reason, however, is an unstated one: the destabilization of Somaliland. Djibouti's government has used all the tricks in the book, including outright bribes, to stir the flames of discord and conflict in Somaliland. And when not actively promoting the dismantling of Somaliland, it tries to marginalise it by lumping it with the warlord-controlled fiefdoms of Somalia.  

One is naturally bound to ask why would Djibouti want Somaliland to fail as a state. The immediate answer is that Djibouti sees Somaliland and particularly its port of Berbera as a competitor. But the main reason is the poor quality of Djibouti's ruling elite which has no clear understanding of the nature of Djibouti's relations with its neighbors, its interests and its role, not only with regard to Somaliland but the region as a whole.

 The confusion on the part of Djibouti's elite is reflected in a pattern of pursuing policies of short-term gains at the expense of the port-city's long-term interests. The coming conference is just one example of this pattern. Djibout's elite, in this case, are sacrificing the country's long-term interests in having cordial relations with its neighbor Somaliland, for short-term monetary benefits and the temporary thrill of the international spotlight. Djibouti's rulers have shown similar thoughtlessness in their decision to sever relations with another neighbor, Eritrea. There are indications that Djibouti is even mismanaging its relations with its third neighbor, Ethiopia. Djibouti has been sending mixed signals as to the kind of relations it wants with Ethiopia.

 Djibouti's current President, Mr. Guelleh, for instance is on record as saying that he wants his country to form a confederation with its much larger neighbor. However, when Djibouti's Ambassador to Cairo, Mr. Mahmoud Ali Youssef, was asked by the Middle East Times (April 22-28, 1999) about this, he answered, "Do you think that we, as a stable country, want to come into federation with a country that is at war?"  There are also signs of conflict between Ethiopia and Djibouti over tariffs at Djibouti's port. 

Somalilanders have a long history of feeling disappointed and betrayed by Djibouti. In the 1980s, during the height of the genocide being committed against Somaliland's people by the government of Siyad Barre, many Somalilanders fled to Djibouti, but Djibouti's government to the eternal disgrace of that country, refused to treat those people as refugees and handed some of them back to Somalia and certain death. Djibouti has even invited to its coming conference many of the high-ranking officials who were responsible for killing thousands of people in Somaliland. Furthermore, the current president of Djibouti Mr. Ismail Omar Guelleh himself has been implicated in the murder of French judge Bernard Borrel (Le Monde, 13 January 2000). 

In the early fifties, the Canadian writer, Margaret Laurence, went from Somaliland to Djibouti with her engineer husband and his Somali crew to pick up some machinery. After a lot of trials and tribulations they finally had all the equipment. Riding through Djibouti as they headed back to Somaliland, Margaret summed-up her feelings this way: "Farewell to the homesick city, the shabby Paris of the Gulf of Aden. Nabad Gelyo, Djibouti - may we never see you again." 

The Somalilanders traveling with her felt the same way she did. It's exactly how a lot of Somalilanders see Djibouti today. 

 Jamal Gabobe



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