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Article on The Times ahead of the UK-Djibouti Trade & Investment Forum

Thursday 9 May 2013 | News | Comments: 0

On Monday 6 May, The Times ran an important article ahead of the UK-Djibouti Trade & Investment Forum which took place yesterday.

The article, copied in full below, spotlights the forum, questions Guelleh’s human right record and introduces the USN.

Djibouti seeks stronger ties with Britain

President Guelleh says that he is cracking down on corruption in Djibouti.

It is used to getting far less attention than its bigger, more troublesome neighbours, but this week in London Djibouti will get its turn in the diplomatic spotlight.

President Guelleh, in London for a conference on Somalia, will extend his visit for talks with politicians and business leaders aimed at attracting British investment to his country, whose small size belies its growing strategic significance in the Horn of Africa.

“The UK is becoming a vital partner in the region, both economically and politically,” Mr Guelleh said. “For Djibouti, in particular, the reinforcement of our diplomatic relations is important.”

He is keen to attract investors to cement Djibouti’s growing status as the main maritime and military hub in one of the world’s roughest neighbourhoods. A poor, tiny country of fewer than a million people, which secured independence from France only in the late 1970s, Djibouti also happens to boast one of the most advanced ports in the region.

It has become the main commercial outlet for booming Ethiopia and is home to the only permanent American military base in sub-Saharan Africa. Camp Lemmonier, a former French army camp, is the hub for the controversial American drone strikes on Yemen and Somalia. Japan and France also have a significant military presence, while Djibouti has also become a crucial base for international naval operations against Somali pirates.

But while President Guelleh is eager to emphasise Djibouti’s potential, opposition figures have raised concerns about his administration’s human rights record, including claims that elections in February were marred by attacks on opposition activists.

One group, L’Union Pour le Salut National, has called for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to use the UK-Djibouti investment talks to put pressure on his administration.

Abdourahman Boreh, the USN’s overseas spokesman, said: “The international community must use talks in London to directly address the grave situation in Djibouti.”

Mr Boreh is no ordinary dissident. He was one of Djibouti’s most powerful businessmen and a confidant of the President. Now exiled in Dubai and London, he is being pursued by the administration through the English courts for allegedly siphoning millions of dollars during his time as head of Djibouti’s ports. Mr Boreh denies the allegations and claims the legal action against him is politically motivated.

Yet President Guelleh is eager not to let a public clash with his most visible opponent get in the way of his attempts to build closer relations with the UK this week. Responding to the USN’s criticisms, he argues that the parliamentary elections in February were a “democratic milestone … Ahead of the elections, political debates open to all parties were broadcast on national TV … The Opposition, which last year won local elections in the city of Djibouti, won 20 per cent of the seats in the parliament under the new system. All four international observer missions, along with the embassies of the US and France, declared that the elections were free and fair.”

The President said he was improving governance and creating a friendlier climate for international businesses: “This is not an easy task, as it requires important cultural and institutional changes. But, as a Government, we are committed and making great progress.”

Among the British officials attending Wednesday’s conference will be Mark Simmonds, the Minister for Africa. A spokesman for the Foreign Office said: “We want to see an improvement on human rights in Djibouti. The UK-Djibouti Investment Forum is an opportunity to use our influence to seek improvements.”

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