Djibouti? Where the heck IS that?
That was the first question that came to mind when Fort Worth-raised Larry Andre, 57, was named ambassador to the Republic of Djibouti.
Well, Djibouti is a small, politically neutral, developing country just short of a million people, in a highly strategic location on the Horn of Africa. It sits along one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, the Bab-el-Mandab Strait, where the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden meet.
“Much of the world's trade, and much of world trade in oil especially, passes through that very narrow waterway,” said Andre, in Fort Worth for a visit before he heads to his new job.
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Andre was born in California before his family moved to Michigan and then eventually to Fort Worth where he spent most of his childhood and early adult life. When he and his Niger-born wife, 35-year-old Ouroukou Younoussi Andre, got to town, the first stop was to get some Tex-Mex and celebrate his birthday.
“I definitely miss Tex-Mex,” said Andre. “My dad knows as soon as I get back we have to go to my favorite Tex-Mex restaurant and the same goes when I visit my family in Austin.”
His favorite spot: Abuelo’s in southwest Fort Worth.
Road to becoming a U.S. ambassador
Andre's family moved from Michigan to Fort Worth when he was in eighth grade, he said.
A Meadowbrook Middle School Texas history course sparked his interest in history, which continued when at Nolan High School a year later.
“It’s what really inspired me to fall in love with history in general,” Andre said. “I had a great French teacher in high school. I use French to this day. So that made me start thinking about an international career.”
After graduating, he attended Claremont McKenna College in California and finished with a bachelor of arts in political science in 1983. Next, he decided to join the Peace Corps as a volunteer, with no initial interest in going to Africa.
“The Peace Corps sent me to a French-speaking country in West Africa (Senegal),” said Andre. “I loved that and quickly decided that I would make my career in Africa.”
He did exactly that, by joining a refugee resettlement project in Chad in 1988 after Libyan forces, which had invaded Chad in the early 1970s, had been removed.
“We brought refugees back from northern Cameroon and while I was working in Chad I got the call from State,” Andre said.
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He was officially on board working for the U.S. government at that point and remained in the region until 1990. But even as he ascended the ranks, becoming an ambassador still was not an actual goal.
He said he sort of stumbled into the job — once his higher-ups noticed the work he had been putting in on the ground across Africa. He worked, among many other positions, as the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, under U.S. Ambassador Mark Green from 2008 to 2009.
“Green was an appointee of President George W. Bush. When the change took place from the Bush administration to the Obama administration, for about a year there was no ambassador,” Andre said.
During that time, he was the de facto U.S. ambassador in Tanzania, assuming all responsibilities.
“After a year of doing it, I said, ‘Hey! I could do this. I can make it as an ambassador,' ” Andre said.
Luckily for him, his colleagues in the nation’s capital shared the sentiment and he was offered his first full-fledged ambassadorship by the White House. He went through a series of courses and additional training before he began his ambassadorship in Mauritania in September 2014.
With his appointment as U.S. ambassador of Djibouti, he joins 141 active U.S. ambassadors spread across different countries on every continent, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2018 list of Ambassadorial Assignments Overseas.
While that might seem like a lot of appointments, 64 U.S. ambassadorial assignments are vacant for 2018.
What does a U.S. ambassador actually do?
The technical description of an ambassador, according to the State Department, is "the President’s highest-ranking representative to a specific nation or international organization abroad. A key role of an ambassador is to coordinate the activities not only of the Foreign Service Officers and staff serving under him, but also representatives of other U.S. agencies in the country."
But for Andre, it’s a little simpler.
“It’s hard to say what the routine is because you do whatever is necessary,” Andre said.
He is essentially the head of the U.S. government in that area, except for the U.S. military force of about 5,000 soldiers, who report to their commander.
“So there is a commander for the U.S. forces there and they are not responsive to the authority of the ambassador,” Andre said. “They have their own chain of hierarchy of supervision.”
Outside that, he leads branches of the U.S. government at the embassy, which has about 50 employees, along with the FBI, the U.S. Agency for International Development and more, to achieve a set of U.S. interest goals set by the White House.
“We have a list of goals set out by Washington and we also send back information in reporting to senior-level policymakers on what is going on in the country and how our interest can best be served,” Andre said.
Why is Djibouti important?
The country is surrounded by Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
“Yemen which is suffering from a horrible civil war right now," Andre said, adding that Djibouti has received many refugees from Yemen and from Somalia.
Djibouti has hosted the only enduring U.S. military base in Africa, called Camp Lemonnier, since a formal agreement was made in 2003.
It allows the government of Djibouti to provide the United States with access to its port facilities, a railway running between Djibouti and Ethiopia and two recently built airports. Other countries such as Japan, China and France also have a military and naval presence.
Djibouti’s unemployment rate ranges from 60 percent to nearly 80 percent in some areas of its six territories. Leaders have focused most of their government spending on education.
“The country doesn’t have that much in natural resources since most of it is desert,” Andre said. “But the leadership of the country sees the future in education and a service economy.”
Andre said he is eager to embark on his next assignment, which begins when he leaves Fort Worth on Jan. 22.