- by Eileen Whitehead
- The Guardian
- Issue #1976
The Republic of Djibouti is located on the African shore of the Red Sea, at the southern entrance of this important waterway that passes through the Suez Canal, in Egypt. Djibouti is a country of modest size but geopolitically significant, especially when its proximity to Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya and Uganda, is considered. Moreover, it is part of a greater geopolitical configuration as a member of the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD).
Djibouti has a singular strategic dimension with obvious interests to the US. It controls, with Yemen, the Strait of Bab-el-Mandab, the minimum width of which is 30km and through which passes ten per cent of world trade. Nearly 19,000 ships used the strait in 2020. The Bab-el-Mandab overlooks the entrance to the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean. Not far away, two other gulfs, that of Oman and its Arab-Persian counterpart, linked by another strait, Hormuz.
This geographical advantage explains why so many international powers have installed military bases in Djibouti. France (a colonial power that remained influential) and the US gained a foothold there in 2002, followed by Japan in 2011, then Italy in 2012. The latest arrival, right on its Silk Road, China obtained its base in 2017. We also can’t forget to list the EU anti-piracy operation Atalanta, which has been in place since 2008, or the German, Spanish, and Dutch soldiers to whom Djiboutian soil is not unknown. For Japan and China, it is their first overseas base, while for the US, it is their only permanent military base in Africa. These bases are all sources of rents and other expenses on the local market (rental of housing, commercial purchases, etc.). According to the source, the total annual amount of base rents varies, a sign of insufficient transparency, but it is not less than US$128mil.
As you can imagine, such a strategic position for Djibouti does not only attract military bases, it also attracts the attention of certain economic operators. Thus, seduced by the port prospects of the country, which has become the main corridor for Ethiopian traffic since the Ethiopian-Eritrean war of 1998, Dubai Ports International, renamed Dubai Ports World, forged links with the local dictator, Ismail Omar Guelleh, and in 2000, was entrusted with the management of the country’s only international port and airport. From this partnership, two new ports were born, on the Doraleh site, on the outskirts of the capital, Djibouti-ville: a container terminal and an oil terminal. There is also a dry port, closer to the old port of Djibouti, near the presidential palace.
Another partnership has followed, this time with China, which has been generous in non-concessional loans to the state. Port developments, including a multipurpose port at Doraleh to replace the old port, the reconstruction of the Djiboutian portion of the railway connecting the capital to its Ethiopian counterpart, Addis Ababa, and a drinking water supply from Ethiopian territory, are the main projects that have emerged with Chinese blessing. Djibouti also owes China’s Exim Bank around US$1.5 bil.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF DJIBOUTI
How did Djibouti get to where it is today? Since its independence from France in 1977, Djibouti has only known two presidents – Hassan Gouled Aptidon and Ismail Omar Guelleh, who succeeded his uncle Aptidon in May 1999. Guelleh was Aptidon’s chief of staff who had charged him with national security in the aftermath of independence. State power thus passed from an aging uncle to his nephew, a former policeman in the colonial administration. So much for the values and principles of democracy.
From 1977 to 1992, a one-party system reigned in both law and practice, and this situation is ongoing. Thus, even with the creation of its constitution in 1992, Djibouti has not gained democracy. Elections were never free nor democratic since the election of Guelleh in 1999. Additionally, the presidential election in 2021 did not meet basic democratic standards. The opposition boycotted the ballot, and Guelleh could not even generate alibi candidatures, except for that of someone identified as one of his extended family members. Therefore with no opposition, he was elected with a total vote count of 97.44 per cent.
With its newfound independence, it was pertinent for the US that formal diplomatic relations with Djibouti began, resulting in the only enduring US military presence in Africa at Camp Lemonnier – established by formal agreement in 2003 – with access to Djibouti’s port facilities and airport. The US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Food for Peace programme maintains a warehouse for pre-positioned food assistance commodities in Djibouti, which serves as a hub for rapid response in parts of Africa and Asia. Also, International Broadcasting Bureau facilities in Djibouti transmit Arabic-language programming, and Voice of America Somali Service broadcasts to the Horn and the Arabian Peninsula. By allowing the US military to set up its base in 2001 (as part of its “war on terror”), it became the first major superpower tenant in Djibouti. Staying in Djibouti costs the US US$63mil annually which – combined with revenue from France’s military base – enabled Djibouti to stabilise its economy, as the rent base accounts for eighteen per cent of its GDP.
THE BATTLE FOR INFLUENCE IN DJIBOUTI
However, since the turn of the century, a new competition has developed for local loyalties in Djibouti from China, which is increasingly building its relationships across the continent.
In 2017, China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) opened its first overseas base in Djibouti. This grey concrete complex sits on a prime location next to one of Djibouti’s main ports and is just a 15-minute drive from the US military base.
One (anonymous) AFRICOM official stated that the physical PLA presence in Africa is becoming a long-term strategic concern for America. “They (China) have upped their game, in plain language, and ultimately they are offering things that our partners want, that our partners need, in places, we have concerns we are being out-competed.”
President Xi Jinping made it clear at a high-level summit in Beijing last September that he’s pursuing a “comprehensive strategic and cooperative partnership” with Africa. It includes a US$60 bil package of aid, investment, and loans to Africa.
For years, China has been expanding its military ties in Africa through extended peacekeeping missions, military personnel training, and the China-Africa Peace and Security Initiative forum. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in 2017 that the Djibouti base was part of ongoing efforts to help bring peace and security to the region. He added that the base would help China fulfil its international obligations and promote economic and social development in Djibouti.
The US, naturally, views the base with unease, given its proximity to Camp Lemonnier and Djibouti’s main container port, which is the primary source of supplies to sustain the 4,000 US personnel on the base. Ninety-eight per cent of the logistics support for Djibouti, as well as Somalia and East Africa, come through that port. Therefore access is essential, and its loss would be a devastating blow to American interests and operations.
Wake Forest University Assistant Professor Lina Benabdallah, whose research focuses on China-Africa relations, observed a spreading lack of trust between Washington and Beijing which is taking on a global dimension. She commented that “China has been operating (in Africa) for the better part of two decades now and has been doing so in a very smart way, with really close networks and connections that have been in work for several years.” She warned that America viewed China’s investment program as a front for a more sinister motive of establishing a military footprint worldwide. Pot calling kettle black?
DJIBOUTI POLITICS NOW
Guelleh is now 73 and has enjoyed twenty years of unchallenged power. He has had plenty of time to end the recurring violations of human rights and restore public freedoms, and set up the independent joint national electoral commission provided for in the framework agreement signed with the opposition in 2014. Such a body is provided for by the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, signed and ratified by Djibouti, and would have ensured a transparent election and provided real candidates with real projects, but he chose a fifth electoral masquerade and a fifth illegitimate mandate.
Unemployment is massive, affecting 60.5 per cent of 15-34 year olds. Poverty has gone from 41.1 per cent in 1996 to 79.4 per cent in 2012. Access to running water and electricity is inadequate, and the level of education is poor. The health system cannot cope, with malnutrition and diseases, such as malaria, choleriform diarrhea, chikungunya fever, etc., rife. And now there is the COVID-19 pandemic. The Human Development Index (HDI), published each year by the United Nations, does not contradict this situation: the country was ranked 171/189 for 2018.
In 2006, in a report on the country, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) noted: “Djibouti is a rich country but Djiboutians are poor.” But Guelleh prefers to govern through poverty and force. He has a stranglehold on the country’s resources and absolute control over state power. In 2004, a note from the diplomatic mission of the US stated:“Djibouti is less a country than a commercial city-state controlled by a man, Ismail Omar Guelleh.” He has become one of the richest presidents in Africa, yet he is still feted by imperialist world powers. In February 2021, a few weeks off his fifth electoral masquerade, he made an official visit to France, where President Macron said how “attached he is to democracy and African youth,” receiving him as a worthy and legitimate head of state.
Djiboutians do not intend to resign themselves to the fate inflicted on them by this man and his associates. They know that salvation is in their hands. They know that a national leap is needed to achieve this. There is no lack of resistance fighters who have been educated by the struggle. The words “Hope does not die, cannot die” are heard in the hovels in Djibouti-ville and in the interior regions, and they are growing louder. Djiboutians want to end the deadly links between international militarism and local nepotism. They believe that a true Republic of Djibouti – without Guelleh – democratic, inclusive and prosperous – is possible.