Ever since Djibouti’s official independence from France in 1977, the country has never experienced a civil war, a military coup or one of the many other political calamities that have become commonplace in much of East Africa. The two largest ethnic groups, the Somali and the Afar, co-exist peacefully and the economy has grown consistently over the last decade.
All this is in spite of the fact that Djibouti has practically no natural resources and, due to its arid climate, is unable to achieve self-sufficiency in food production. If Djibouti has been able to develop stable post-independence economic and political institutions, it is because the country has effectively recognized and used its one main asset: its geostrategic location.
Perched on the Horn of Africa with access to both the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, which is home to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, Djibouti’s utility was first noticed by the French, who founded Camp Lemonnier as a military base for their Foreign Legion. Today, Camp Lemonnier belongs to the Americans and represents the busiest Predator drone base outside the Afghan war zone. From issues such as piracy to terrorism, Djibouti has repeatedly proved to be a valuable launching pad for US operations. When US Navy SEALs rescued aid workers Jessica Buchanan and Poul Hagen Thisted from the Somali pirates that had been holding them hostage, Camp Lemonnier was where the soldiers took off and landed from.
Djibouti has only had two presidents since independence, Hassan Goulad Aptidon (1977-1999) and Ismail Omar Guelleh, Aptidon’s nephew; this continuity has been partly responsible for the country’s political stability. Just as influential has been the stability of Djibouti’s political relations on the international level. Even after French colonial rule officially ended, Djibouti maintained close relations with Paris and other Western allies. It wasn’t until 9/11 that the United States recognized the strategic importance of Djibouti but, when it did, the small African country was ready to welcome US troops with open arms.
Lately though, Guelleh’s leadership has been shaky at best, which could discourage much-needed investment. In 2000, Dubai launched an unprecedented level of investment in Djibouti, notably signing a 20-year concession to operate the Port of Djibouti, including building the lucrative Doraleh Container Terminal, through their maritime operator DP World. When the businessman who set up the Dubai deal, Abdourahman Boreh, dared to publicly criticize Guelleh, the President promptly had him fired and filed criminal charges against him. Boreh, who was in Dubai at the time, refused to return to Djibouti and the Emirates refused to extradite him. In retaliation, Guelleh informed DP World their concession was “cancelled” and swiftly sold a 23.5% share of the Port of Djibouti to Hong Kong-based China Merchants for $185 million.
Furthermore, the DP World episode seems to be part of a broader trend whereby President Guelleh appears worryingly ready to forsake historic allies if the price is right. As China’s wave of African investment swept across Africa (the People’s Republic is now Africa’s number one trading partner), Guelleh has consistently jumped to make way for the wealthy newcomers. On 25 February, the President of Djibouti gave the go-ahead for a landmark defence agreement with China, allowing the Chinese Navy to use his country as a home port. Susan Rice, US President Obama’s top national security advisor, reportedly expressed deep concern at China’s increasing military presence in the country during her latest meeting with Guelleh, as it flies in the face of the partnership the United States and Djibouti have been building.
If anything, it seems as if the strategic value of Djibouti’s location has gone to Guelleh’s head, making him feel untouchable from foreign powers. There is little doubt that the United States and other Western countries might be more critical of the Guelleh regime’s human rights record if they weren’t concerned about upsetting the stability of a key African ally. In 2011, Guelleh broke Djibouti’s commitment to honour the rulings of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which he himself signed nine years earlier, by welcoming Sudan’s President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir to his country, on the lam from the ICC for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Such blatant disregard for signed agreements, political and economic, risk undermining the foundation that Djibouti’s long-standing relative stability is built upon. And even China, who is currently poised to profit from Guelleh’s lack of good faith with his historic allies, will not support Djibouti for long if its President does not prove reliable.