Not that long ago Djibouti was known for little more than French legionnaires’ disease, atrocious heat and a small ramshackle port. Nowadays, however, this tiny republic of only about 900, 000 people on the Horn of Africa coast has big plans, including turning its capital into the Dubai of Africa. James Jeffery reports.
Since gaining independence from France in 1977, Djibouti has steadily carved out a regional role through its strategic and commercial relevance at the junction of Africa and the Middle East, and at the confluence of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, overlooking a passage of water used by 30% of the world’s shipping, transiting to and from the Suez Canal.
Recently-acquired Chinese investment totalling $12bn is funding the building of six new ports, two new airports, and what is being touted as the biggest and most dynamic free trade zone (FTZ) in Africa, potentially giving the capital, Djibouti City, an edge over its rivals.
“About two million African customers travel to Dubai each year,” says Dawit Gebre-ab, a senior director with the Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority, responsible for overseeing the city’s commercial infrastructure development. “We know what is on their shopping lists, and they could be coming here instead.” Helping secure such ambitions is the fact that Djibouti is perceived as offering some of the most prime military real-estate in the world. Security is needed to both counter piracy threatening that key shipping lane (since peaking in 2011, when 151 vessels were attacked and 25 hijacked, piracy has steeply declined) and to shore up regional stability. One diplomat has referred to Djibouti as
“an oasis in a bad neighbourhood”. Foreign military personnel stationed in Djibouti from the US, France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and Japan number around 25,000, according to some estimates.
In 2014, the US military agreed a 10-year extension to its presence (with an option to extend for another 10 years) centred on Camp Lemonnier, its African headquarters. US president Barack Obama described the camp as “extraordinarily important not only to our work throughout the Horn of Africa but throughout the region.”
A similar perspective happens to be held by China. Having invested huge amounts in the rest of East Africa – especially in neighbouring Ethiopia, one of the world’s fastestgrowing economies – it wants to secure its interests and to be able to protect further investments throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Furthermore, ever thirsty for crude oil, China wants to shield its heavy dependence on imports from the Middle East, which pass from the Gulf of Aden into the Indian Ocean and then on to the South China Sea.
In 2016 China finalised plans for a new base in Obock, a northern port a couple of hours by boat from Djibouti City across the Gulf of Tadjoura. About 10,000 Chinese personnel will occupy the base, once it is complete.
But behind all the construction cranes, flashy hotels and military camps, there still exists a very different Djibouti.
Every morning in the small town of Tadjoura, about 40km west of Obock along the coastline, local Djiboutians queue to collect their daily quota of baguettes – a scene repeated across the country. Djibouti’s former existence as colonial French Somaliland has left an indelible Gallic stamp.
Along with Somali, Afar and Arabic, French remains one of the main languages used. A constant stream of bonsoirs greet the visitor during an evening wandering around Djibouti City’s so-called European quarter and its focal point: Place du 27 Juin 1977, a large square of whitewashed buildings and Moorish arcades named for the date of independence.
South of the quarter’s Frenchcolonial-inspired architecture and orderly avenues and boulevards, lies the dustier and more ramshackle African quarter. Here, befitting a crossroads nation, a heady meltingpot culture exists: cafés brewing coffee in the traditional Ethiopian style, Yemeni restaurants serving the specialty poisson Yemenite, and haggling at open-air markets in rapid-fire Somali, all add to the surprising melting pot within this small capital city.
Flipside of modernisation
Whether that lively cultural mix can withstand the brash new modernising development is a concern for some locals, proud of the country’s past and heterogeneous mix of traditions.
“My fear is not about cultural change, because we need that as this is an ultra-conservative society,” says an elegant Djiboutian professional in her early thirties, her hair covered in the Muslim style, as the sun dips behind the original old port in the distance, “but more the effects on our customs, such as traditional clothing, food and decorations that symbolise our identity.”
Djibouti’s geopolitical importance rests in its strategic location. It is an ideal place to bunker fuel.
Others are more outspoken in their criticism of Djibouti’s current strategic and economic upswing – with growth chugging along at a healthy 6% a year, and likely to surpass 7% amid the construction boom. Some locals speak of a country run by a business-savvy leadership that has reaped profits from its superpower tenants. Having signed an initial 10-year lease for the base, China will pay $20m per year in rent. The US pays $60m a year to lease Camp Lemonnier. However, despite the wealth flowing into the small country, with its equally tiny population, poverty still persists. The challenge for the government is to challenge this inflow into wealth-generating activities for its people.
Dreams of a Dubai-type future don’t yet appear to have much relevance for most local Djiboutians, 42% of whom live in extreme poverty, while 48% of the labour force are unemployed, according to 2014 figures.
This is hardly surprising. Djibouti’s main asset has been its port and its trading position as a half-way house linking the African hinterland to the Gulf. Traditionally, the people have lived off subsistence agriculture, animal husbandry, fishing and local retailing. Change will come if and when the export processing zones (EPZs) take off and the construction boom absorbs the unemployed.
It would be naïve in the extreme to imagine that the country’s political structure would not reflect or be influenced by the wider geopolitical rivalries and intrigues around its strategically vital geographical position.
In 2014, the same year that Barack Obama signed a 10-year military presence extension, the US State Department published a human-rights report on the country accusing the government of restrictions on free speech and assembly; use of excessive force, including torture, as well as the harassment and detention of government critics.
Some analysts say that is standard practice, bouquets on the one hand, brickbats on the other, in order to maintain control.
What is disturbing has been the tilt towards Saudi Arabia. Critics say that while investments from that quarter have poured in, it has also been accompanied by Wahhabist ideology. Now, further down the line, the Islamists have reportedly grown strong and populous, infiltrating the regime, and posing a real problem for President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh.
Meanwhile, beyond the political intrigue, ships endlessly glide to and from the ports, where cranes offload containers to waiting trucks late into
the night under arc lights. Djibouti’s location has always been its most precious resource – devoid of a single river or the likes of extractable minerals, it produces almost nothing. Nevertheless, for nearly 150 years it has attracted armies, mercenaries, smugglers, and traders: anyone and everyone concerned with the movement or control of merchandise.
A Russian military base could be the next in the pipeline, although Djibouti did turn down a request from Iran’s military. Some commentators talk of Djibouti’s role in shaping a new world order as superpowers jostle for strategic realignment in a changing world.
Meanwhile, a Chinese-built $4bn railway opened in January this year linking Djibouti to the Ethiopian interior – 90% of Ethiopia’s imports come through Djibouti – which could also eventually connect to other Chinese-built railways emerging across the African continent.
Ethiopia’s PM Hailemariam Desalegn described the railway opening as “a historic moment” – a far cry from the assessment by the writer Evelyn Waugh, who in 1930 lamented the “intolerable desolation” of French Somaliland, “a country of dust and boulders, utterly devoid of any sign of life.”