DJIBOUTI — Allow us to introduce you to Djibouti, the United States’ new East African ally in its campaign against terrorists:

Its territory is slightly smaller than the state of New Hampshire. It is arid and torridly hot, 9,000 square miles of volcanic rock sticking out like a sore thumb on the Horn of Africa. It exports practically nothing that is locally produced and has almost no arable land. Once a French colony, its post-colonial trajectory has been wobbly and worse, including a civil war between ethnic groups that ended only five years ago. To think of Djibouti as a nation in the Western sense would be deeply misleading: Its institutions are at best weak and at worst nonfunctioning; its budget is a confusing, unreliable mess. And its strongman president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, seems to care little about economic development despite the deep poverty that afflicts his people.

What Djibouti has going for it is a strategic location that Western military powers, especially U.S. terrorist hunters, crave: It’s at the mouth of the Red Sea, directly across a narrow strait from Yemen, the ancestral home of Osama bin Laden’s father and a country with a history of Islamic extremism. To its south lies the disintegrated state of Somalia, seething with warlords and Islamists, which the U.S. says is home to al Qaeda training camps. So there’s little surprise that the United States made a deal with Djibouti to lease a former French Foreign Legion outpost for what the Central Intelligence Agency’s Factbook describes as “the only U.S. military base in sub-Saharan Africa” and moved in special operations teams as well as troops to carry out humanitarian missions.

Indeed, it was reportedly from Djibouti that in 2002 a U.S. Predator drone took off across the Bāb al Mandab strait for an attack in Yemen that blew up a jeep and killed six men, including one the U.S. identified as an al Qaeda operative. And from where a U.S. AC-130 gunship reportedly took off for a January 2007 mission to attack what the U.S. has identified as al Qaeda outposts in southern Somalia near its border with Kenya. The raids received press attention around the world, but the base is also useful in ways the United States prefers remain unseen.

Amnesty International reported last year that CIA jets known to have participated in “extraordinary renditions” — the kidnapping of terror suspects who are then transported for questioning, outside of any legal process, to friendly countries that may permit torture — had landed in Djibouti. The report tells of a former “ghost detainee,” Muhammad Abdullah Saleh al-Assad, who believes the aircraft that took him from Tanzania to Afghanistan (or possibly Pakistan, al-Assad wasn’t sure) stopped over at Djibouti, where he was interrogated.

Djiboutians in all walks of life say they have no idea what goes on inside the 88 acres known as Camp Lemonier. The camp houses the U.S. Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), about 1,500 civilians and military troops whose primary mission is “detecting, disrupting and ultimately defeating transnational terrorist groups operating in the region — denying safe havens, external support and material assistance for terrorist activity.” The secrecy may help fuel rumors among Djibouti’s population — predominantly Muslim and mostly ethnic Somalis already angered by the war in Iraq — that U.S. intelligence agents use Djibouti to make deals to support secular warlords who fight Muslim militants in Somalia and to serve as a secret detention and interrogation center.

A Somali guard at a modest-looking building outside of France’s current military installation near Camp Lemonier described for a reporter from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) how prisoners came and went from the building, including three Arab prisoners, accompanied by Americans, in 2005. Another source told of seeing two Somali warlords and five of their fighters spend a week of rest and relaxation at a middle-class downtown hotel during the height of the Somali civil war in 2006. At the end of the week, a car from the U.S. Embassy dropped off one of the warlords with an envelope full of U.S. dollars to pay for the rooms and to give to the fighters to pay their airfare back to the fighting in Somalia.

The ICIJ reporter, one of the first Western journalists to explore Camp Lemonier and to interview President Guelleh, was unable to confirm these stories and rumors he heard but found both Islamism and anti-Americanism to be rampant in Djibouti. CJTF-HOA humanitarian assistance projects in Djibouti and surrounding East African countries, from building schools to drilling wells, have done little to cool the anger.

“Djiboutians feel that this is propaganda,” Giorgio Bertin, the Roman Catholic bishop of Djibouti, said of the humanitarian efforts. “Traditionally, our Catholic presence is linked to France and to the pope, two elements opposed to the war in Iraq. This has protected us. So, when U.S. troops asked if they could help me by refreshing or rebuilding this or that, I had to decline: This would have affected us in term of our image.

“Islamists give to the population a very negative depiction of what’s happening,” the bishop told an ICIJ interviewer. “If U.S. troops vaccinate people, the Islamists interpret that as being a birth control campaign, a threat to fertility.”

Base rental comes at a cost

The United States paid little attention to Djibouti before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, although it leased Camp Lemonier for a modest amount of money earlier that year. After the attacks, things changed fast. By the following February, U.S. Gen. Tommy R. Franks was telling the House Armed Services Committee that “we have seen credible reporting of al Qaeda and its regional affiliate, AIAI, targeting Western interests in Djibouti for its support of coalition operations,” noting, “Djiboutian President Guelleh expressed his solidarity with the U.S. following the 11 September attacks.”

Map: CIA World Factbook
Map: CIA World Factbook

In September 2002, when the Americans renegotiated the deal to include use of the nearby harbor and the Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, Djibouti used its post-9/11 leverage to make sure it was sufficiently compensated. Although Djibouti’s total U.S. aid is modest compared with the amounts some larger countries receive, few other countries have seen a more dramatic increase in U.S. military aid since 9/11: Djibouti’s take of U.S. taxpayer money in the three years after 9/11 stood at more than $53 million, a more than 30-fold increase from the $1.6 million in the three years prior. Last year, the Lemonier lease was again renegotiated, this time to expand the base to nearly 500 acres. The lease had been costing the U.S. about $30 million a year; the new terms were not disclosed. The State Department has not responded to an ICIJ Freedom of Information Act request seeking details of the lease payments.

Located on the outskirts of the capital, next to the Djibouti-Ethiopian railway, Camp Lemonier is close to Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport and the French military’s current base in Djibouti. It looks like a typical U.S. military camp that happens to have been dropped in the middle of the desert. The U.S. barracks serve as home for a group that is comprised roughly half of soldiers and half — at the back of the camp — of employees of military contracting giant KBR (a subsidiary of Halliburton soon to be spun off). Today, the compound boasts a large restaurant, a large athletic facility, a swimming pool, a hairdresser, a shopping center and even a local handicraft market. The camp, where more than 400 local Djiboutians work, is one of the largest employers in the impoverished country.

Djibouti’s pre-9/11 aid was mostly State Department money for removal of land mines and counterterrorism training. In the three years after 9/11, Economic Support Fund, a catchall funding source Washington uses to funnel aid to key allies, shot up from zero to $25 million. Foreign Military Financing increased from $100,000 total in the three years before the attacks to more than $21 million in the three years after. Djibouti was also the recipient of more than $5 million of the Pentagon’s new post-9/11 Coalition Support Funds.

Well-heeled lobbyists played a role in securing those additional funds for the Djiboutian government. To advocate for its interests in Washington, the government of Djibouti hired three high-profile lobbying and public relations firms: the Gallagher Group; Foley Hoag LLP, a major Boston-based law firm; and BKSH & Associates, which is headed by Charles R. Black, whose close ties to the Republican Party span from the Reagan administration to the current Bush administration. According to his official biography, Black served as an adviser to some of the GOP’s most influential members, including former Sens. Robert J. Dole, Jesse Helms and Phil Gramm, and he bills himself as “one of America’s leading Republican political strategists.”

According to records filed with the Department of Justice, the Gallagher Group’s lobbyists set up several meetings in 2003 between the Djiboutian ambassador and key U.S. officials. The lobbying records describe the focus of the meetings as discussing the countries’ bilateral relationship, Djiboutian cooperation in the war on terrorism, foreign aid to Djibouti and military base rights.

The U.S. military is not alone in paying for access to Djiboutian facilities. The French pay about $38 million a year to rent a military camp and training grounds; the Germans pay roughly $10 million. The Spanish also have a base, but no figures are publicly available for the rent they pay.

All of this income associated with base rentals and military assistance should place Djibouti among the wealthiest nations of East Africa, far above the average income levels of most sub-Saharan African countries.

Apart from military aid and rent for base access, the U.S. Agency for International Development chipped in $4.95 million for fiscal 2006 with programs focused on education, health, food security, democracy and good governance.

Where does the money go?

That focus on good governance is certainly needed in Djibouti. Despite all the aid money flowing in — augmented by earnings from Djibouti’s port — the economy is seen as a disaster by institutions ranging from the Djiboutian Human Rights League to the International Monetary Fund, which refuses to support new lending programs to the country.

To understand how a government works, it generally helps to follow the money. But reviewing Djibouti’s annual budgets doesn’t help much. They don’t even mention some important revenue streams like port income. Being the favored harbor of landlocked Ethiopia, the port’s activities are flourishing, with a 300 percent increase in import and export shipments over the last 10 years.

But how much income does the government get? No one seems to know except, perhaps, President Guelleh. In an interview with ICIJ, the president said that after splitting the revenue with the company that operates the port, his government gets 7 billion Djiboutian francs, a little more than $40 million. This amount is credible in terms of the volume of port traffic, but it exceeds the entire “non-fiscal income” shown in the official budget.

Not even the Djiboutian Parliament has received an accounting. A confidential report prepared in December 2004 by the Djiboutian Court of Auditors about the harbor’s operations, obtained by ICIJ, reveals “a certain amount of abnormalities and irregularities.” For example, the audit report states that yearly accountings of revenue and expenses are not required; the company that operates the port has an “expensive” management structure, and due to a lack of capital investment, the harbor is suffering “progressive impoverishment.”

That is hardly the only irregularity. One prominent member of the political opposition claims that thousands of state employees receive a salary without performing any work or even bothering to come into the office. In local slang, these employees are called “broken arms.”

Public mismanagement is so rampant, in fact, that the administration is broke and health standards are declining. While health care was free under the French colonial authority, today admission to the emergency room has to be prepaid by the patient and drugs are not available even while the Red Crescent Society of Djibouti somehow manages to send 19 tons of medicine to neighboring Somalia. The International Committee of the Red Cross does not provide direct medical support to Djibouti, using the country mainly as a staging area for its assistance to other nearby countries: “ICRC operates in war zones, and Djibouti is not a war zone,” says one ICRC official. The only free medical care in the country is at the French military’s facility, Hôpital Bouffard, which offers its 63 beds free of charge to Djiboutians working for the government.

So where does all the money go? A French government finance source based in Djibouti says he knows the destination of a lot of it: “The presidency traps the revenues of the State, including [revenues] from the harbor.”

Human rights record abysmal

The Guelleh regime is so repressive that the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Practices report each year openly criticizes the new U.S. ally in the Horn of Africa; its most recent report, released in March 2007, states plainly, “The government’s human rights record remained poor, and it continued to commit serious abuses.” As Guelleh’s citizens wallow in poverty, his regime harasses labor unions and the police fire on crowds.

In 2005, the government sent bulldozers to destroy and burn the shanties in Arhiba, an illegal slum near Djibouti City inhabited mainly by dock workers who try to sleep as close as they can to the harbor. When families of the dockworkers responded by throwing stones, security forces opened fire, killing four civilians and wounding 10. Two and perhaps as many as five people were reported to have disappeared.

That came just a month after security forces opened fire on students violently protesting price increases, killing an 18-year-old man.

Local labor unions are harassed by the government. ICIJ met with three labor union representatives who were imprisoned briefly in March 2006 on charges of “providing intelligence to a foreign power, leaking information, and outrage to the president” for going to a training session in Israel organized by the Israeli labor association Histadrut.

There are allegations of torture and physical mistreatment of prisoners at the Gabode prison. Hassan Cher Hared, one of the three imprisoned labor union representatives, told ICIJ of “a room of less than one meter square, made out of concrete, where you are kept almost naked, just in underpants, with a bottle of water. This room is hermetically sealed. You have just a two-inch-large hole through which to breathe. The guards sometimes put pepper in the hole.”

The imprisoned labor activists also told ICIJ about the style of punishment they witnessed in Djiboutian prisons. “They have a specific chain, a double one, like a cross with a hook in its middle,” explained Mohamed Ahmed Mohamed. “Your hands and feet are cuffed to the extremities of the chain, and with the hook, they hang you on a tree inside the prison. Then they beat you. The suffering is so intense that I saw an inmate defecate in his trousers while being hanged. You cannot stand this for more than 10 minutes.”

The nation’s courts are of little use. In case you want to file a claim against the government, you’re out of luck: The administrative court, or “Conseil de Contentieux,” has not held a session for years. Last year the Djibouti bar association complained in a letter to the minister of justice that judgments issued by all levels of the courts in Djibouti take months or even years to be transcribed. The letter further complained that the text of some judgments are published after the deadline for filing an appeal has expired — and sometimes are the opposite of the decision as read in court.

One famous case illustrating how badly the justice system is broken arises from a French investigation into the alleged assassination in 1995 of French magistrate Bernard Borrel, former Counselor of the Djiboutian Minister of Justice. French investigators now accuse associates of Guelleh, who at that time was chief of staff of former Djiboutian president Hassan Gouled Aptidon, of killing Borrel. (Guelleh contends Borrel committed suicide.) On a 2005 trip to Paris, Guelleh refused to answer questions from the French prosecutor in charge of the case. Five month later, Djibouti unilaterally suspended all judicial cooperation with France.

Talking to ICIJ about the State Department human rights criticisms, Guelleh shrugged: “These are the administration’s ‘juniors’ that collect rumors and give themselves a good conscience. This is not [a big deal].”