Djibouti's president Ismail Guelleh will find out in the coming days whether he has to appear as a witness at a High Court case in London. If so, he becomes the first head of state called to an English court in nearly four centuries.
On Monday October 5, a case started by the Guelleh government will proceed against opposition leader Abdourahman Boreh, who is accused of siphoning off millions of dollars from a contract to expand the harbour near the capital Djibouti City.
Until 2008, the president counted the accused among his closest friends, but as President Guelleh moved to change the constitution and grant himself a third term in office, Mr Boreh raised issues of human rights and a lack of democracy, and pledged to stand for the top job.
In March 2009, a series of grenade attacks was launched around the capital, and Mr Boreh fled while the state laid a charge of terrorism and jailed him in-absentia for 15 years.
Djibouti used Britain’s wide-ranging terror laws to freeze Mr Boreh’s assets via a court order in London. The businessman is worth an estimated $5 million, with investments in Dubai, Singapore and Kenya.
In 2014, the London High Court found key parts of the evidence against Mr Boreh had been fabricated and threw out the case, only to have the Guelleh government lay a fresh charge of corruption.
But barristers for the defence convinced Judge Sir Julian Flaux that the harbour deal between Mr Boreh and the president was largely a verbal contract, something President Guelleh does not deny.
And in a surprise move last month, Sir Julian said the case could only proceed if his court were able to, “call the people with whom you say the deal was orally agreed.” Chief among these is President Guelleh.
A request for the president to appear via video link was rejected. President Guelleh’s appearance at a high-profile case would bring media focus to a country listed by Amnesty International as among the most repressive in Africa.
In nearly four decades of Independence from France, the only two presidents have been President Guelleh and his late uncle Hassan Gouled Aptidon. Press, radio and television are under state control and his party holds all 65 seats in the House of Assembly. The opposition has been driven underground or into exile.
Djibouti lies at the mouth of the Red Sea and controls access from the Indian Ocean to the Suez Canal, a vital route for Europe-bound exports from India, China and East Africa.
It is also home to America’s only military base in Africa and a unit of the French Foreign Legion. President Guelleh has been among the West’s strongest allies in the war on terror.
Djibouti earns billions from Africa’s busiest shipping lane, yet many of its citizens have no access to clean water and cross the border to Somaliland in search of work and basic health care.