The London high court this week ruled against the government of Djibouti in what Justice Julian Flaux said was a “political” case against the country’s exiled opposition leader Abdourahman Boreh.
The blow comes just weeks before President Ismaïl Guelleh stands for an unconstitutional fourth term as president of the former French colony on the Horn of Africa.
Djibouti was claiming damages of $130-million from Boreh on charges of corruption linked to his work of developing the harbour in the capital, Djibouti City.
But in delivering his verdict on Wednesday, the judge said it was not the state but Guelleh who was “clearly in ultimate control of the litigation”. The case, he said, was “politically motivated and designed to ruin Mr Boreh”.
Djibouti has only had two presidents since independence from France in 1977 – Guelleh and his uncle before him.
Throughout the trial, where Boreh was on the stand for four days, the court was in stitches as persistent questions to the opposition leader were met with: “Why don’t you ask President Guelleh.”
The president had been instructed by Flaux to appear in court, but Guelleh responded that he was too busy running the country.
Enemy of the state
Exiled opposition groups had threatened to protest outside the president’s London hotel and use the court case to expose the endemic corruption in Guelleh’s government.
Over the years Guelleh has ratcheted up the pressure on his rival, managing to freeze his assets overseas and trying Boreh in absentia for terrorism.
The asset freeze has since been lifted after the government of Djibouti was found to have falsified information presented in court.
The two men had been friends until the president announced he would change the Constitution to stand for a third term in the 2011 poll. Up until then Boreh, a wealthy businessperson, had been Guelleh’s key ally and financial backer.
Boreh opposed Guelleh’s decision to change the Constitution and suggested he may stand as an opposition candidate. Within months, he had been forced to flee the country on charges of terror and corruption.
Djibouti has spent an estimated $60-million pursuing him through the Middle East, continental Europe and finally to London.
In his ruling, Flaux hailed Boreh as “an essentially honest witness who was telling the truth about the issues which really mattered in the case”.
Boreh had not only denied the charge of corruption, but also tabled documents showing how the president and his family controlled much of the wealth in the country, where human rights groups claim a majority of the population lack access to water and sanitation.
The ‘tyrant’ must be ‘held to account’
Outside the London court, Boreh told the Mail & Guardian he had been sued “because I dared stand up to President Guelleh and his rigged elections. And I think that, through my years of persecution, Mr Guelleh has emerged as a tyrant in a world where democracy is on the march.”
But he said his joy at the judgment was tempered by sadness that, in Djibouti, those who challenge the state “have no access to the kind of justice I have enjoyed in London”.
In January, Djibouti journalist Mohamed Waïss was allegedly beaten by police until he revealed his social media passwords, after which the authorities used his accounts to attack the opposition.
At present, Guelleh’s party controls all 65 seats in Parliament.
“In my country, torture and killing is rife, and the government stays in power through rigged elections,” Boreh said. “That cannot make anyone happy.”
He called on the African Union, the United States and France to monitor elections due next month. Both Washington and Paris have military bases in the country and have been slow to criticise Guelleh.
Boreh said it was time the world “held this dictatorship to account”.
Djibouti, he said, was “ruled by one man who uses the resources of the state to persecute anyone who stands against him. In 2016, this is an obscenity.”