Article written

  • on 30.09.2015
  • at 12:35 PM
  • by Naomi Cohen

Djibouti’s strongman president faces strongest cross-examination of his career 0

Ismail Omar Guelleh will be the first African president to appear as a witness in a UK corruption case. But this trial of intrigue is just one of many challenges facing the 16-year president. 

For the first time in history, a sitting African president will be summoned to give evidence in person before the British High Court. Ismail Omar Guelleh, the long-standing president of Djibouti is set to travel to London next month to testify in a long drawn-out trial involving his millionaire compatriot, former ally and now rival Abdourahman Boreh.

A former presidential candidate, Boreh was accused of terrorism, saw his worldwide assets frozen and was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2009 by a Djiboutian court. However, that decision, made in absentia, was later overturned after the British court deemed the trial politically motivated.

A spectacular round two is now set to start after Justice Flaux insisted that Guelleh must give personal testimony in court and set the record straight given that the case against Boreh is based almost entirely on oral evidence.

16 years into his presidency of Djibouti, Guelleh faces the dubious honour of being the first African president to appear as a witness in a UK corruption case. But while this legal battle between two Djiboutian bigwigs and former allies looks set to heat up in the following months, the dramatic international case is not the only headache on the horizon for the president.

Guelleh has long been engaged in a delicate balancing act in his rule of Djibouti, and it will require the deftest of political touches for him to continue on this road.

Economic boom, humanitarian bust

Ismail Omar Guelleh, now 67, has been president of Djibouti since 1999, after he was handpicked by his predecessor and uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, to succeed him after 22 years in power. Guelleh quickly established members of his Issa clan in key governmental positions and positioned himself strategically to oversee political operations. Indeed, a Wikileaks cable from 2004 describes Djibouti as “less a country than a commercial city state controlled by one man, Ismail Omar Guelleh.”

Under his watch, Djibouti has seen healthy economic growth, driven by Guelleh’s outwards-looking approach, which has helped the pin-sized East African country punch well above its weight internationally.

In particular, Djibouti has benefitted from its geostrategic positioning on the Horn of Africa and plays host to several foreign armies. France and Japan each pay $30 million per year to rent out military real estate, while the US doles out $67 million for its 500-acre Camp Lemonnier, its only official permanent base on the continent. Beijing is also now looking to get in on the action with Djibouti poised to become the first in the world to host a Chinese overseas military base.  Guelleh announced in May that he is in talks with Beijing to open a bricks and mortar installation in the northern Obock region, which, according to reports, will house 10,000 Chinese troops at a yearly cost of $100 million.

Djibouti is also hoping to further capitalise commercially on its strategic position at the juncture of various busy international shipping routes. The country already generates significant revenues from its port and is looking to become a key East African hub – or Africa’s “Singapore” or “Dubai” in the words of Saad Omar Guelleh, the manager of the Port of Djibouti and half-brother of the president.

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by Malik Ibrahim

Photo Credit: FCO

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