AFRICOM's General Ham Waging War from Djibouti
By Carl Bloice, March 23, 2011
Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command
(AFRICOM) arrived on the continent a couple of weeks ago
just in time for the big doings. Ham, who had only taken
over his new post three days earlier, conferred with local
and U.S. military and political officials in the east
African nation of Djibouti, in the words of the newspaper
Stars and Stripes, just as the United States and other
nations debated “whether to place a no-fly zone over
Libya.” If that were to happen, the paper said, AFRICOM
“would play its first lead role.” Djibouti’s chief of
defense, Maj. Gen. Fathi Ahmed Houssein, is said to have
“advised circumspection, since any use of military force
in Libya would have long-term ramifications.” Ham said he
took it under advisement.
Ham’s visit to Djibouti, where the U.S. maintains its only
military base on the continent, the timing of it and its
subsequent use as coordinating point for the attacks on
Libya, speak volumes about the quandary of U.S. policy
toward Africa. It forms a contentious backdrop for the
tour President Barak Obama in planning there for later
Ham, who once served as an advisor with a Saudi Arabian
National Guard Brigade, is based at AFRICOM headquarters
in Stuttgart, Germany. That it is not located somewhere in
Africa owes to the fact that most African governments view
it with, at best, suspicion and all the countries that
really matter have refused to host it.
Ham’s predecessor in the job was Gen. William “Kip” Ward,
one of the highest-ranking African Americans in the U.S.
military. The new chief faces “some tough questions about
the mandate and intentions of the nascent command” said
Stars and Stripes. Ward “had gone to great lengths to
assure African nations that the United States does not
seek to build bases on the continent,” the paper said. And
“Ham said that while he was looking at other locations in
the U.S. and Europe as a long-term command headquarters,
and will decide on one next year, he would not rule out
The troubling little matter of where the command is to be
headquartered is something that most major media reports
leave out, along with another aspect of the current story.
In a number of respects tiny Djibouti could be considered
in some ways the Bahrain of Africa.
Since the early 1990s Bahrain has been the site of the
U.S. military base at Juffair, home of the headquarters
for the United States Naval Forces Central Command and the
U.S. Fifth Fleet involving about 1,500 military personnel.
Built by the colonial French, Djibouti’s Camp Lemonier is
home to about 2,000 U.S. military personnel attached to
the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa. But the
similarities don’t end there.
There are said to be no foreign correspondents stationed
in Djibouti but that’s no excuse for a paucity of news
from there. There has been plenty of time to get someone
there because, drawing inspiration from events in North
Africa, people in Djibouti have taken to the streets in
large number since early last month. Their calls for
reform have been beaten back by clubs, water cannons and
sometimes bullets. Political parties have been outlawed
and opposition figures jailed. Last week, the government
expelled a group of U.S. election monitors there to
witness a disputed presidential election slated for next
month. Opposition groups are boycotting the vote because
they say the current regime is repressing dissent.
“The country is nominally democratic, but events leading
up to the April 8 presidential election appear to show a
hard line approach by President Ismail Omar Guelleh at a
time when democracy movements are upending
administrations,” the Associated Press reported last week
from nearby Kenya.
“The unrest in the Arab world has spread south to the
small Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti, host to the only
official U.S. military base on the African mainland,”
wrote Stephen Roblin on ZNet March 10. “In what have been
called protests triggered by a wave of political unrest
sweeping through the Middle East, Djiboutians numbering in
the thousands have taken to the streets in opposition to
President Ismail Omar Guelleh, who has held power since
succeeding his uncle in 1999. The Guelleh family has
maintained its grip over the small nation of 750,000
people since its independence from France in 1977.
“Demonstrations broke out in anticipation of the upcoming
election in April, when Guelleh hopes to extend his reign
by winning a third term. His bid for presidency comes a
year after he scrapped the two-term limit in the
constitution in a move the opposition considers
“The first political rally took place on January 28 and
was attended by an estimated 2-3,000 people. Djiboutians
continued to organize demonstrations throughout the month
of February,” wrote Roblin. “The Guelleh regime responded
by ordering state security forces to disperse
demonstrators through force and perform mass arbitrary
arrests in a campaign to stifle the democratic
An estimated 30,000 Djiboutians calling for Guelleh to
step down gathered in Djibouti City March 19. (Again,
there are only 750,000 people in the country.) They “were
met by riot police, who violently dispersed the
protesters,” wrote Roblin. “Unlike in Egypt, where
citizens temporarily took control over Tahrir Square,
state violence in Djibouti successfully repressed the
attempt by pro-democracy forces to establish a permanent
protest camp in the center of the capital.”
“Djibouti's primary donor, the United States, is fully
aware of the harsh economic conditions facing the country,
as well as the government's poor human rights record and
corrupt rule,” wrote Roblin. “But the paymaster has been
willing to put aside its unflinching commitment to high
principles due to the Guelleh regime's well-demonstrated
reliability as a regional client.
The Guelleh regime is also charged with direct involvement
in the US CIA’s secret detention and rendition program
that saw alleged terrorism suspects secreted off to
foreign locations for interrogation said to have involved
The similarity of Bahrain and Djibouti these days is
apparent in another respect: The failure of the U.S. to
resolutely condemn the brutal repression by the regime on
the former is in line with the soft gloves treatment and
even support to the regime in the latter – as Ham’s visit
Events these days in Djibouti certainly shed light on the
real scope of AFRICOM’s mission. On March 21, Eric Schmitt
of the New York Times wrote from Washington that it was
‘the military’s first ‘smart power’ command. “It has no
assigned troops, no headquarters in Africa itself, and one
of its two top deputies is a seasoned American diplomat,”
“Indeed, the command, known as AFRICOM, is designed
largely to train and assist the armed forces of 53 African
nations and to work with the State Department and other
American agencies to strengthen social, political and
economic programs in the region including improving H.I.V.
awareness in African militaries and removing land mines.”
Descriptions like that have floated through the media
repeatedly over the three years of the command’s
existence. And now, suddenly it blossomed into control
center for war in a neighboring country.
For three years, critics of AFRICOM in Africa and the U.S.
have charged that it serves to militarize U.S. foreign
policy in the region, as opposed to aid and diplomacy.
Schmitt says Ward and others have consistently emphasized
that AFRICOM’s role is “to train African militaries only
when requested by governments.”
“Now the young, untested command and its new boss, Gen.
Carter F. Ham, find themselves at their headquarters in
Stuttgart, Germany, setting aside public diplomacy talks
and other civilian-military duties to lead the initial
phase of a complex, multinational shooting war with
Libya,” wrote Schmitt.
Obama will no doubt have trouble explaining that away as
he arrives in various African capitals.
Carl Bloice, a member of the National Coordinating
Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for
Democracy and Socialism, is a columnist for the Black
Commentator. He also serves on its editorial board.
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