Interview: Djibouti’s President, Ismail Omar Guelleh
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Does Djibouti Need France Anymore? Its President Says “No”
The hotel chain is German, financed by the United Arab Emirates (UAE); the manager is Turkish, supported by an Indian managerial staff; and the general staff must take English language courses. The Kempinski Hotel exemplifies the new Djiboutian pride – 800 rooms, one casino, a marina – and alone symbolises the globalisation dreams of this small poor country of 800,000 inhabitants. A dream of becoming a hub, an Afro-Arab hub between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, a service provider for passing cargos carrying containers piled up to the sky, alongside the newly built quays of Doraleh Port. Apparently, comforted by the only permanent American military base established in Africa since 2002 (1,800 servicemen), Arab investors rush towards Djibouti: A newfound interest that underscores an absence, the absence of their French counterparts.
This is where the other side of the coin lies. Established in the area 145 years ago, France has now a reduced clout and is loosing its influence over Djibouti. In power since 1999, the 60-year-old President, Ismail Omar Guelleh, is saddened and irritated by this situation. Last December, in Paris, he did insist on signing investment protection agreements offering guarantees to French entrepreneurs.
Of course, France maintains firmly its interests in Djibouti, but they now amount to a strong military presence, mostly there for the welfare of its army but these interests are no longer reciprocal on the Djiboutian side. This imbalance in interest is even more exacerbated by the consequences brought about by the “Borrel Case” – a French judge found dead in Djibouti – which keeps on poisoning the relations between Paris and its former African colony.
President Guelleh addresses all these matters, at times with vivacity, during an interview he gave last January to Jeune Afrique’s, French monthly that specialises on Africa, François Soudan: He met him in the small living room of his modest presidential residence. Following is the excerpts of the translation.
Jeune Afrique: You pressed charges against France at The Hague’s International Court of Justice which had just completed the hearings. What are your expectations?
Djibouti’s President, Ismail Omar Guelleh: I expect justice to be rendered, by transferring to us the prosecution briefs of the “Borrel Case”. When great powers sign a treaty with small countries, they have this appalling tendency of forgetting all about it even before the ink gets dry. In 1977 and in 1986, we signed two conventions with France on mutual judicial assistance so as to regulate the legal status of Djiboutians living in France and French nationals living in the Republic of Djibouti. We have here a French military base with almost 3,000 servicemen, and this implies that virtually every week we have to deal with letters of request, police investigations, births, marriages or death certificates, . . . that concern French citizens in general and military servicemen in particular.
We told the French consular office in Djibouti that we would momentarily be suspending all judicial cooperation with its department until The Hague Court delivers its verdict. Meanwhile, it can keep its demands at home. For a partnership to workout, it has to be reciprocal and balanced.
You also insisted that the issue of your own diplomatic immunity should be decided upon by The Hague Court, an issue considered by the French out of context
I do not think this issue to be beside the point. Paris’s Court of Appeal had, in 2005, clearly pronounced itself when stating that the President of the Republic [of Djibouti] could not be summoned during the term in office. Nevertheless, I had already been summoned twice. This is unacceptable. We also expect the International Court of Justice to cancel the international arrest warrant against the state prosecutor and the head of the national security of Djibouti.
After meeting with the French President Nicolas Sarkozy on December 11, 2007, in Paris, it seemed as if you had mutually agreed to leave the “Borrel” issue alone, but this is apparently not the case. The French justice system can be criticised for its procedure and impartiality. However, these are not sufficient grounds to let states’ relations deteriorate.
It is claimed that Jacques Chirac, the Head of State, is the one who suggested to you to press charges against France at The Hague Court so as to get access to the “Borrel Case” files. Is that true?
It is. During a conversation I had with Jacques Chirac in 2005, I asked him the following question: “You say you have no influence over your legal system and that you cannot help me at all. Nevertheless, I have a complaint against your justice system. I feel betrayed, I feel sullied. What should I do? I am not going to sue Madam Borrel for all that, am I?” He then replied to me: “you can go ahead and accuse the French state at The Hague Court since it is within its purview. I am powerless.” And that is what we did.
Yet, at The Hague, it is the Djiboutian State Vs the French State. And it is in fact the French Minister of Foreign Affairs who, in his letter dated January 7, explicitly requested the International Court of Justice to proceed with the hearing of the “Borrel” widow.
I was told this resulted from a promise made by President Sarkozy to Ms. Borrel when she visited him at the Elysée in June 2007. As you are well aware, the Court rejected this request. It is quite perplexing. I wonder why this lady has so much influence over the French government.
According to one of the former members of the French military intelligence whose testimony had been heard in Paris by the examining magistrate, just before his death, on the request of the Djiboutian Minister of Justice of the time, Bernard Borrel was investigating different allegations of trafficking in which you were implicated. Among which, traffic of fissile matter used in the production of uranium . . .
This is ridiculous. Former Minister Bahdon Farah denied this tale. It was common knowledge that his rapport with Borrel was very bad and the Borrel’s status, as an advisor under the French Cooperation Chief of Mission, did not allow him to proceed to any kind of investigation on the Djiboutian territory. Motives are desperately looked for to implicate me in the death of Judge Borrel, even if it means fabricating them.
You have, on your side, followed a lead on a French paedophile network that was active in Djibouti in the 1990s and that could, according to you, explain the death of Bernard Borrel. Are the charges serious?
Two specific testimonies that have just been published in Paris substantiate this hypothesis. Last May, a Djiboutian investigator summoned for rape of minors; a dozen of French former overseas technical assistance staff officials, out of which, two were former advisors at the presidency, and two were missionary priests who had gone back to France. There were also arrests here in Djibouti. All this indeed appears to me serious and credible.
As long as the International Court of Justice does not render its verdict, it does not seem likely that President Sarkozy will come to visit Djibouti as he promised. I am not sure if there is any correlation between the two. A date had been set, sometime in February, for him to come on his way to South Africa. But, his information services have finally estimated that passing by Djibouti proved to be too long and tiring for him. I am thus waiting for them to suggest another date.
Does the establishment of a small French military base in Abu Dhabi threaten the existence of the Djiboutian one?
No, on the contrary, military officers in Abu Dhabi will come here to participate in joint trainings conducted with the French army. For the French, Djibouti is irreplaceable.
Who benefits most from the base, you or France?
It is obvious that it is France; and the American base benefits the United States (US). The French have a strong argument: if they were not here, Djibouti would have been absorbed by its Ethiopian or Somali neighbours, long ago. This guarantee had been essential until we gained our independence, a perspective that our neighbours denied us for a long time. But this is no more the case since Djibouti became a full member of the international community. The French and the Americans have the advantage of having here a territory for exercise and geo-strategically, an invaluable observation post.
Hosting both a French and American bases reduces your dependence as well. Are you playing on competition?
You can put it that way. Moreover, the presence of America in our territory makes our Arab investors from the Gulf feel secure.
How much rent do you receive for these bases?
We get per year 30 million euros (400 million Br) from the French and 30 million dollars from the Americans.
That is not much.
It is nothing, or almost nothing.
Could you not negotiate better?
[Sigh] You know we had to struggle very hard before getting these 30 million euros out of France. They were not paying a dime until 2003. It is just unbelievable.
Why are French investors so rare in Djibouti?
Ask them. Apart from TOTAL and one or two other companies, there is no one. As a consequence, France is gradually losing its economic, cultural and linguistic influences in Djibouti. And yet, I have always been by tradition Francophile. My father had been, in 1927, the first francophone teacher in the territory. France is the one who is not living up to its expectations.
When I launched the new oil port of Doraleh, I inquired with Paris starting from 1999. As a response, they suggested to me to tinker with the obsolete infrastructure existing in Djibouti. In reality, they laughed on my face. It was then that Dubai came into the scene. It should be clear that if France thinks that it does not need Djibouti anymore, the opposite is also true.
I imagine you clearly highlighted this lack of interest during your visit in France, last December?
Of course, I did. They listened politely. But of all the personalities I met only one really listened attentively. Steve Gentili, the Bred’s CEO. After the disengagement of the BNP, he decided to buy back the Trade and Industry Bank of Djibouti. He is a remarkable man.
What about China?
China is especially very much present in Ethiopia, but the Chinese are becoming increasingly active in Djibouti too, especially in the construction sector. We have signed, with a Chinese group, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to rent out the Moucha Island, located in the Golf of Tadjoura, off the coast of Djibouti. This group envisages establishing there four casino hotels for rest and entertainment of the Chinese workers living within a radius of five hours of flight around Djibouti. This would include workers coming from Ethiopia and the Gulf. The amount of this investment is two billion dollars.
When one is poor, it helps to be creative . . .Who are you telling that to? Not only are we poor, but also we are importing everything. We are struggling. Iceland is helping us to develop our enormous geothermic potential with Arab funding. India and Morocco are doing greenhouse farming here. Sudan granted us 16,000hct of its own territory in the Gedarif region where we harvest sorghum to be transported to Djibouti.
Ethiopia is preparing to do the same by granting us 5,000hct for wheat. Saudi Arabia and the Sultanate of Oman will plant a million of date palm trees here. We asked the World Bank and the BAD to assist us in collecting rainwater . . . Finally, the one who seeks finds. Hunger stimulates imagination. The Djiboutian opposition party, who boycotted the 2005 presidential election, is getting ready to repeat its actions on February 8, during the legislative elections [They already did]. This must be a dent in your image of prestige.
I am afraid it is true. But whose fault is it? We did everything for them to participate, we offered them every guarantee.
The French and the Americans advised them to go ahead, and to examine later on the eventual litigations. But they did not bulge. In reality, this opposition does not have a leader anymore since the disappearance of Ahmed Dini and his main leaders joining the Union for the presidential majority. According to your opponents, the poll is fixed in advance. But the money is on your side. That is their claim. But I believe that they rather fear the verdict of the ballot box.
Do you really believe that if the opposition had participated they would have won seats?
Why not; if they had carried out serious campaigning? Ten to 15 constituencies were within their reach, especially in the northern part of the country. But by participating, the opponents would give credibility to the party in power, a thought unbearable to them. The problem is that the same party, your party, is in power for the last 20 years.
Definitely; and for Europe it is a bad thing, is it not?
This means there is no political change; hence a governance problem. We have a country to build and people to feed: those are our priorities. I expect to be judged on my achievements in this regard. Change for the sake of change does not make any sense.
Why is there no opposition media in Djibouti?
There are two problems: First, the financing. Even, La Nation, a government-owned newspaper, is only published three times a week due to lack of readers who can afford to buy and lack of advertisers; thus the paper struggles hard to survive. The temptation is then high for opposition groups to get financial support from foreign embassies but the law does not allow this practice.
The law also stipulates that an editor-in-chief of a newspaper should reside in Djibouti. The case arose with Le Renouveau, a newspaper close to the opposition, and whose director lives in Brussels. As long as this situation is not remedied, to the point of even changing the director, this periodical cannot be released. But the paper is not forbidden, and this should be specified. I never restricted any newspaper in Djibouti.
You are at times blamed for blocking access to Websites of NGOs advocating for respect of human rights as well as Websites owned by opposition parties. False.
Had I even wanted it, I do not have the means to do so. You are also accused of wanting to silence the independent trade union, namely the LUD (Labour Union of Djibouti) which just published, jointly with the Djiboutian league of human rights of Jean-Noel Abdi, a report criticising matters related to the state of freedom in your country.
The Secretary General of this central office, Mohamed Abdou, persistently refuses to call for a congress and to hold a re-election. Moreover, he combines this office with that of being also a secretary general of an opposition party, the Republican Alliance for Democracy. All this is incompatible and illegal. I think that the National Labour Bureau, which defends him, is badly informed.
Do you still consider yourself to be an Issa?
The way it goes in our customs, among the Issas, when a chief gets to a highest hierarchy, he pays to his tribe a price for his blood. In other terms, one gives an indemnity to one’s community because the new elected representative does not belong to it anymore and is no more at its service. The chosen person has from then on no specific tribe and he identifies with everybody. Such is my case. The idea of caste, ethnical exclusion and all the deviations in which Kenya indulges today is a sad thing brought to us by the whites.
Is it natural that around President Mwai Kibaki, whom I consider as a respectable head of state, reckless ministers shout “Kikuyus first!”? Is it normal that on behalf of Raila Odinga, a courageous man but also a rebellious one since birth, leaders of his party push towards the massacre of these Kikuyus?
In the 1990s Djibouti experienced very serious ethnical confrontation between the Afars and the Issas. Can this occur again?
If we are not cautious, the worst can never be discounted. Everything stems from governance, good governance.
Would you allow a union between your own family and an Afar family?
It is actually the case. I took a second wife who already has Afar children. This means my own children have Afar brothers and sisters. Where is the problem?
Even my grandfather had an Afar wife. And you know where I intend to live once I retire? In the north, in the country of the Afars!
You have behind you a long career in the national security, and your background of a rigorous man reminds that of the Tunisian President Ben Ali. Is he your role model?
Without a doubt, President Ben Ali is much stronger than I am. Tunisia is for us a real model, especially in the key sector of the fight against poverty.
You had been a member of the French police in Djibouti for 10 years, before being fired in 1974, three years before the independence. What were the reasons?
It was for political reasons; like so many other Djiboutians, I considered the local government of Ali Aref detrimental, manipulated from Paris by Jacques Foccart and after that by René Journiac and supported by an Afar militia ruled by terror. Convinced that I was plotting against him, Ali Aref ordered my dismissal. It was justifiable, considering the fact that that was exactly what you were doing. True! Ali Aref represented a threat to the future of Djibouti.
From 1977 to 1999, you were the cabinet director of President Gouled. You were the coordinator of the security services as well. Always into the police business . . . Having led the intelligence services is a precious experience one can have. I have learned to understand this country and its people better than so many others. I know the aspirations of the Djiboutians, their needs, what irritates them, and what galvanises them.
I understand the socio-economic fabric of the country, the problems faced by the youth and those of women.
A good policeman should be attuned to the people’s needs; one who thinks of prevention before repression; when repression proves to be inevitable, immediately trust must be established. In Africa, this aspect is too often neglected.
Your second mandate expires in 2011 and the Constitution does not allow you to run for a third one. Do you abide by this agreement?
Houphouet once said: “A Baoulé Chief dies when in power.” This is not our tradition, to us Djiboutians.
Some of your counterparts believe that limiting the number of mandates is anti-democratic. Do you share their view?
In 2011, I will have finished my 12th year in power. It is a lot of time. I would not want to fall into a routine and sensitive to the flatteries of courtiers. It is not in my nature to tear a constitution because it does not suit me.
And what if you happen to realise you were irreplaceable?
I do not wish to come to that.
Then, you will not be candidate again?
As I speak with you now, my answer is no. But I am a man of faith, and I know the future is not up to me. It is up to God. We will thus have to talk about it again, when the time comes.
Source: Addis Fortune