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|ISSUE 51 January 11, 2003||
Priorities Clash As Superpower Meets Super-Poverty
DJIBOUTI (Los Angeles Times) - Just beyond the barbed-wire berms and guard posts that mask the U.S. military's secretive special-operations base, past a cratered road strewn with scrap heaps and human waste, Kadija Omar expects the Americans to deliver.
Like her desperate nation, the 40-year-old mother of six has been waiting for American jobs, food, money, schools, medicine and even a bit of U.S.-style democracy, says Omar, who earns less than $10 a month smuggling diesel fuel into neighboring Somalia.
But for the moment, she and her 2,000 neighbors in a parched squatters' patch of tin, plywood and sand in the shadow of the U.S. military's Camp Lemonier would settle for a few engine parts to get the pump in their well up and running. It has been broken since August, leaving a vegetable crop to wither.
Villagers asked the American soldiers for help weeks ago, she says, when their Humvees rumbled through on a security patrol. Omar sighs as she cradles a baby covered in flies. "We are waiting," she says.
A full year after the Djiboutian government quietly gave the U.S. military free land, free rein and full secrecy for a forward base to hunt Al Qa’eda and other terrorist groups in troubled East Africa, even senior officials grumble that they've received precious little in return.
The United States must do more to contribute to this deeply impoverished Muslim nation, they and others say, or it soon will lose the hearts and minds of a country that is culturally, linguistically and socially almost identical to neighboring Somalia - the failed nation where U.S. soldiers were savagely beaten to death and dragged through the streets in a fierce battle that ended America's last military venture in East Africa nearly a decade ago.
The U.S. military's return to this turbulent region through a strategic beachhead in so needy a land says much about the often-conflicting priorities in America's global war on terror. It's a portrait of what ensues when superpower meets super poverty in a quirky, little-known nation suddenly thrust to the center of a new kind of war.
"We are poor. We have nothing," says Mahmoud Ali Youssouf, minister of international co-operation. "We readily enrolled in this global war on terror after 9/11, and we've given the Americans everything they have wanted. But for the time being, we haven't seen anything from the United States in return." Several weeks ago, a visiting U.S. delegation added insult to injury, Youssouf says. The Agency for International Development (AID) offered just $4 million (all figures U.S.) in development aid for this nation of 600,000 people. Three-fourths of it was earmarked for upgrading security at Djibouti's international airport.
"I was so angry," says Youssouf. "Don't give us $3 million for security at our airport when we need schools, jobs, clinics, wells and roads. I told them: `We don't want this money. Take it back to Washington. We're not begging for such money. But if you're going to spend money here, spend it more effectively. We have basic needs.'"
The scene from dawn until dusk at the corner of Athens and London Sts. in downtown Djibouti, the capital city, is testimony to the most basic need: Hundreds of young men waving résumés and trade certificates gather each workday at the Personnel Management Agency. The tiny storefront allots the precious few menial jobs the American base has on offer.
"America! America! We want a job," they chanted one recent day, crushing against the entrance. A manager later explained that thousands had applied for 250 day-labor jobs that the base had filled three weeks before. "And still they come every day," he said.
Since independence from France in 1977, Djibouti has survived on foreign aid; its main domestic product is salt. Official corruption, which is as endemic here as cholera, has kept much of the aid from those who need it most.
Djibouti has the highest rate of malnutrition in all of Africa, a chronic condition that draws none of the emergency food given to its neighbors fighting famine. The United States gives Djibouti about 8,000 tones of food a year through the United Nations in an aid program that long predates the American military base.
Ninety-nine of every 1,000 Djiboutians die at birth and the maternal death rate is triple that of Rwanda - the result of bad diet, widespread maternal anemia and rampant female genital excision. About 60 per cent of Djiboutians are unemployed. Female rural illiteracy tops 85 per cent. And the average Djiboutian lives just 51 years.
"The needs are enormous here," says Jorge Mejia, resident representative of UNICEF. "All the economic indicators are extremely low."
The prices of Djibouti's consumer goods also top the list for Africa. Everything is imported and heavily taxed. The result is a skewed, split-screen national economy, where government ministers and a tiny elite of powerful businessmen dine on lobster and steak au poivre with European dignitaries in fine French restaurants, while most Djiboutians cook vegetables and pasta over open fires fed with scrap wood outside tin shacks.
So far, though, U.S. aid for Djibouti appears to be targeting America's most basic needs. The airport-security funds that U.S. AID officials recently offered are for an international airport that abuts the new Camp Lemonier, which reportedly houses the most secretive intelligence forces in the terror war.
Washington has also committed an additional $2 million to renovate state-run Radio Djibouti, along with $100,000 in annual rent, in exchange for a strategic transmission station the United States is building for the Voice of America just outside the capital. The targeted audience: Yemen and the southern regions of Saudi Arabia ^× rich recruiting grounds for Al Qa’eda and home to more than half the Sept. 11 hijackers.
President Ismail Omar Guelleh says it's "normal that we should get something" in exchange for allowing the U.S. military to have a base in Djibouti. Negotiations for a formal base agreement that will fix those benefits are under way and will be signed this month, he says, but he rules out any anti-American backlash by the Djiboutians if the benefits fall short.
U.S. Marine Maj.-Gen. John Sattler, commander of the region's new military forces, says he would fight the shortcomings in American aid.
"Guilty as charged," says Sattler. "If we just build a camp, and we stay inside that camp, and we don't bring folks in to work in the camp, and there's no distribution of wealth outside by virtue of spending our money in the Djiboutian economy, I would feel the same way they did."