U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis made a trip to Djibouti in April in a show of friendship with the small East African country, at a time when other nations are also bolstering relations with Djibouti. China, for example, is building its first overseas military base there, just a few miles from Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. military’s primary base in the Horn of Africa. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder asked H.E. Mohamed Siad Doualeh, Djibouti’s Ambassador to the United States, about the strength of relations with the U.S. and top security threats that the U.S. and Djibouti are watching.
The Cipher Brief: U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis visited Djibouti in April. After his meeting with Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh, he issued a statement saying that the partnership between the U.S. and Djibouti is “strengthening.” What does that mean? And how close is the current defense/military relationship between the U.S. and Djibouti?
Ambassador H. E. Mohamed Siad Doualeh: First of all, the relationship between Djibouti and the U.S. has grown by leaps and bounds as of late. As far back as after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, Djibouti willingly agreed to host the U.S. army in Djibouti. Ever since, the relationship has been strengthening.
To the visit – it went extremely well. The interaction between Secretary Mattis and President Guelleh highlighted the importance of the Djibouti-U.S. relationship. Mattis expressed his gratitude to Djibouti for its loyalty. And we also expressed to Secretary Mattis how proud we were to be part of the week-long tour in the region.
The relationship is strengthening, because on May 18, we had a bilateral meeting between Djibouti and the United States, the third of its kind, where we had a high-level delegation coming from Djibouti to interact with U.S. officials and discuss ways of further advancing the many aspects of the cooperation between Djibouti and the United States. It was a very successful meeting, with a lot of preparatory work, some key deliverables, and a lot of homework. It has proven how relevant such a forum is to advance bilateral relations.
TCB: You were there when Secretary Mattis visited Djibouti, and you mentioned to me that you went beforehand for preparations. Is there anything that stands out in your mind as the highlight of his trip?
MD: A desire on both parts to emphasize the strong relations; I was there to see the words used and the warmth of the relationship so I can testify to it. The Secretary of Defense said to Djibouti, you are loyal, you are a reliable friend, and the U.S. does not forget their friends. We felt also that we had to convey a message to the U.S. to reemphasize how we value the strategic partnership between Djibouti and the United States. So it was a significant moment, as he was the first high-official from the new U.S. administration to visit.
TCB: At the same time the U.S. and Djibouti are making this show of strong relations, another country is coming into your country, and that’s China, which is building its first overseas military base there. Why is this happening? What is in this for China? And what’s in it for Djibouti?
MD: We also have very good relations with China. They are involved economically, as they were crucial in funding major infrastructure projects in Djibouti. And then they made the request for Djibouti to host a logistical base that would man around 300 to 400 soldiers. So we accepted, because China is also a friend.
TCB: Will this have any impact on U.S. interests or operations in the region?
MD: We expect all countries to cooperate based on international law. And we also expect all nations present on our soil to respect Djibouti sovereignty.
TCB: Turning now to some specific threats facing Djibouti, General Thomas Waldhauser, the head of the U.S. Africa Command, has recently talked about piracy off the coast of Djibouti. He said that he doesn’t think there’s a trend there yet, but it’s something that the U.S. is going to continue to watch. Do you think piracy is a trend developing again in the area?
MD: I think we are all surprised to see the recent spike [in piracy]. We don’t know any specific cause that can be attributed to the recent spike. Some say it’s because of the wide-spread drought, and the ensuing famine. Others say that it may be due to complacency and the relaxation of security procedures, the lack of vigilance from shipping companies. But we do feel that it’s a cause for concern, and it stands to reason that while there is an effort currently aimed at assessing the resurgent threat, companies should shore up their defenses at sea.
Piracy will remain a threat until there is total peace in Somalia.
TCB: What are some other top security concerns right now for you, for Djibouti?
MD: We continue to watch the situation in Somalia. We support the request by the African Union (AU) that was made for a surge in AMISOM troops to help us decisively degrade and destroy al Shabaab in Somalia.
The other concern we have is the behavior of the state of Eritrea and the stalemate in the border dispute with Djibouti and the fact that our prisoners – the remaining prisoners of war – that they detained incommunicado in Eritrea are still there. We don’t have any updates on their whereabouts, their health, and this is a cause for serious concern both for the state of Djibouti and the families concerned.
Eritrea is also engaged in an effort to equip, train, and recruit rebels from Djibouti with the ultimate objective of destabilizing Djibouti – another serious concern.
TCB: Are there documented cases of that?
MD: Of course.
TCB: Do you have any numbers – for example, how many Djibouti citizens have been recruited as rebels by Eritreans?
MD: Around 200, but the number fluctuates. We have shared this information with the UN monitoring group on Somalia and Eritrea.
TCB: And what about on the Somalia front? You’ve worked on Somalia in the past. You were on the Ministerial Delegation to the Special Session of the Security Council on Sudan and Somalia. How does that color your view of the security situation there? Do you believe that the threat is bigger than some other people think it is?
MD: No. What we see is that there has been constant political progress in Somalia. But on the security front, the threat that we had a decade ago was warlords torpedoing every effort to peace. Today, the threat that we have is al Shabaab. Al Shabaab is the major impediment to peace and security in Somalia today. We had hoped that the international peacekeeping support we have in Somalia today would be instrumental in boosting Somalia’s own security apparatus. But to date, I think progress needs to be made on that front for AMISOM to exit.
The London conference on May 11 helped us define and design a security architecture for Somalia to really help Somalia decisively defeat al Shabaab. We will help coordinate international efforts to support Somalia.
TCB: Certainly the United States understands the threat of terrorist organizations such as al Shabaab, not just in the African region, but also how those terrorist groups connect across the world and can threaten U.S. national security interests. At the same time, you mentioned the UN monitoring group and how it plays a central part to securing places such as Somalia. The Trump Administration has talked about cutting U.S. aid to organizations such as the UN and UN peacekeeping missions. What are your thoughts on that?
MD: On the UN the peacekeeping operations, an effort is currently underway to try to assess which peacekeeping missions are correctly executing their mandates, based on objective assessments. So let’s wait to see how the assessment of each peacekeeping mission goes before we jump to any conclusion. But we agree that they should be fit for purpose.
TCB: Do you have any final thoughts?
MD: The African continent has a lot of potential, and we’re extremely happy that in his May 3rd address to State Department employees, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson underscored the potential of Africa.
Africa in general, and Djibouti in particular, values the relationship with the United States, and I think the future is bright. We need to really work together, talk as often as we can, and try to chart the way forward together in a collaborative effort to try to tackle the obstacles together.