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US Signs Strategic 20-year Lease Deal for its Military Base in Africa
May 12, 2014

The US had signed a 20-year lease on its military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, the only American installation on the continent and a staging ground for counter-terrorism operations in Yemen and Somalia.  Djibouti, a small country of fewer than one million people that borders the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, has played an increasingly significant role in seeking to stabilize regional crises. The deal reflects the small country’s outsize strategic importance in helping the United States and other Western allies combat terrorists, pirates and smugglers in the region.

In a meeting in the Oval Office, Barack Obama and Ismail Omar Guelleh, the president of Djibouti, covered a range of security and development issues. But the talks centered on the critical role played by Camp Lemonnier , a sprawling base of 4,000 American service members and civilians that serves as a hub for counter-terrorism operations and training.

The renewal of the long-term lease illustrates the base’s rise from an expeditionary way stop for American troops in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to the focus of a Pentagon plan to invest nearly $1 billion to upgrade the camp and other facilities. US Defence officials envision Camp Lemonnier as a major regional base supporting operations throughout Africa, as well as part of the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian Ocean.

The agreement reinforces strategic ties between the two nations, which were strained last year after the Pentagon was forced to relocate a large fleet of Drones from the base in Djibouti’s congested capital to a desert location several miles away after a string of crashes heightened local fears that the remotely piloted aircraft might collide with passenger jets.

The deal also appears to end speculation that Djibouti might lease a small parcel of land to Russia and grant it military landing rights at a time when relations between US and Russia have badly deteriorated over the crisis in Ukraine. Russia has been an active contributor to the international anti-piracy effort in the region since it first deployed warships in 2008.

For the lease the United States would pay a total of about $70 million a year—$63 million in lease fees and the rest in development aid—more than double the current leasing fees of roughly $30 million a year.

Camp Lemonnier is on the southwest side of Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, between the runway overflow areas and a French military munitions storage facility. The base has grown from the several hundred Marines and members of Special Operations forces that landed in 2003 when the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa relocated. It had been based on a warship when the mission was conceived a year before, dedicated to hunting for remnants of Al Qaeda in the wake of the Taliban’s ouster from Afghanistan.

In January 2007, the United States and Djiboutian governments announced that a lease agreement had been signed to expand Camp Lemonnier from 88 acres to nearly 500 acres. In the past several years, the US has spent more than $500 million on an array of construction projects that signal US plans to stay in Djibouti for the long haul. The facilities include aircraft hangars, two new taxiways for aircraft, housing, a second recreation centre, a water production and distribution centre and a waste-water treatment plant.

Djibouti’s strategic importance has drawn interest from not only the United States, but also France, Japan and Italy, all of which have security forces in Djibouti. Russia wanted to establish a presence in Djibouti but was stymied by the Djiboutians. The Djibouti government wanted to avoid conflicting interests between those countries, and did not strike a deal with Russia.

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