It's hot, dusty, and tiny, but this city-state is on the way to be one of Africa’s few real ‘superpowers'

Forget Nigeria, South Africa or Kenya—Djibouti, a country of less than one million people has been punching well above its weight in world affairs.

A TINY land of 850,000, nearly all who live in the capital city, and whose economy survives on rent, could become home to both American and Chinese military bases, feeding off the two powers’ geopolitical ambitions to reap lucrative rewards.

The Horn of Africa country Djibouti has until now been best known for hosting Camp Lemmonier, the only permanent military base the US runs in Africa, in addition to accommodating army presences for France, Japan, Italy and Germany. 

The US base is a launch pad for counterterrorism offensives into the volatile Horn of Africa region, including a range of strikes that have helped to systematically take out the leaders of Somali terror group Al-Shabaab.

Last year, after he secured a new long-term multi-million dollar lease on it, US president Barack Obama termed the base as “extraordinarily important” as he hosted Djibouti leader Ismail Omar Guelleh at the White House. 

But it is Djibouti’s geographic location where it guards the strategic chokepoint of Bab el-Mandeb, the world’s fourth busiest shipping lane for crude oil and petroleum products, that is turning it a growing major player on the continent and one that belies its size—Algeria, Africa’s largest country, is 100 times larger.

It puts Djibouti almost at the centre of the world’s energy trade, guarding the sea route used by tankers shipping oil from the Persian Gulf to the West. The importance of the pathway explains why global oil prices begun rising when Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest crude exporter, begun bombing the Houthi rebels of Yemen, Djibouti’s neighbour across the Gulf of Aden.

China comes calling

Given most of China’s oil uses the more important straits of Hormuz and Malacca, Beijing’s interest in setting up a military base in Djibouti is giving the country a ringside to the Sino-American power tussle, a situation Guelleh would be only too happy to profit from.

“Discussions are ongoing [with China],” Guelleh told news agency AFP in an interview last week.

Beijing would neither confirm no deny this, only saying that it had “noted” the president’s comments. 

The northern port city of Obock has been mooted, but it would also mean Beijing would have overcome its reticence towards having military bases abroad.

The realignments ensure Djibouti can extract even more rent for its resource-scarce economy. With less than 1% of its land being arable, its revenue has come from leases on military bases, services at its lifeline bustling port, and foreign aid and investment. 

“France’s presence is old, and the Americans found that the position of Djibouti could help in the fight against terrorism in the region,” Guelleh said.

“The Japanese want to protect themselves from piracy - and now the Chinese also want to protect their interests, and they are welcome.” 

Beijing is already financing billion-dollar infrastructure projects in Djibouti and key ally Ethiopia, while a Chinese firm now manages the main port.

China’s expansion of its sphere of influence is seen as anchoring its ambitious Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road infrastructure projects outlined early this year, the latter which would link it to the Indian Ocean.    

“The biggest trade ships of this decade will be Chinese,” Guelleh said. There has also speculation that Russia would wants a base in his country too.

The strategic port of Djibouti. Photo/AFP

The repositioning makes Guelleh an unlikely major player, both in Africa and around the Arabian peninsula, catapulting him into a position of influence the continent’s other major players of Nigeria, South Africa, Kenyan and Nigerian can only dream of.

Djibouti is majority Islam, mainly of the Sunni variety practised in Saudi Arabia. Guelleh, who has flung his country’s doors open for fleeing refugees, warned of the potential of the conflict to destabilise the Middle East and allow the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) more traction in the immediate neighbourhood.

Few survival options

Already stretched with refugees—it now has 28,000 mainly from Somalia but is braced for more from Yemen—this ensures more foreign aid flows into the Djibouti economy while earning it international goodwill. 

In truth Djibouti has few survival options. While its economy has steadily grown in recent years—over 5% last year— and it has largely contained inflation by pegging its currency to the dollar, the majority of its citizens remain dirt poor despite a relatively high per capita income.

It has few resources to speak of, little rainfall and is water scarce, while its hinterland is sparsely occupied by a poor and nomadic pastoral population. Manufacturing and agriculture remain extremely weak.

The country imports nearly all its food, and is thus extremely vulnerable to world commodity prices including that of oil, and also financial markets from which it derives valuable investment from.

It has however in recent years begun attracting foreign direct investment especially into its services sector which supports 70% of the economy.

Punters are attracted by its stability. Guelleh, 67, has been in power for 16 years and has said he has not yet made a decision whether he will go for a fourth term in 2016 elections. Legislators scrapped term limits in 2010.

Known in Djibouti by his initials IOG, he would win outright—the country is a one party dominant state, with the main opposition party having been co-opted after a fractious relationship in the 1990s.

An agreement signed in 2001 between its two main cultural groups—the Issas who are a Somali clan, and the Affars—has held, while the country’s strategic importance has shielded him from scrutiny over his human rights record. 

Guelleh, recognising its capital-base constraints, has also built up strong allies particularly with regional hegemony Ethiopia, which depends on Djibouti’s ports for all its imports and exports.

Double-teaming Eritrea

In February following a week-long meeting, the leaders of both countries accused Eritrea of sabotaging regional instability but gave few details, leaving pressure on their beleaguered rival.

Both Ethiopia and Djibouti have fought with Eritrea, which has in recent years found itself internationally isolated following crippling sanctions imposed by the United Nations, with little sign of their being eased due to the array of Western interests in the Horn of Africa.

The UN accuses Eritrea of supporting insurgents in Somalia. Last year Al-Shabaab launched their first ever suicide attack in Djibouti soil. The militants said they were retaliating for the presence of Djiboutian troops in Somalia as part of a peacekeeping force, but it was not lost on observers that their target was a restaurant frequented by Westerners, both tourists and soldiers. 

Djibouti’s role in the AU force-Amisom—adds to its growing role in stabilising the Horn of Africa region. The country hosts the headquarters of the Intergovenmental Authority in Development (IGAD), an eight-country bloc that is currently sweating to defuse the intractable crisis in South Sudan.

It is a regional visibility that Guelleh relishes, and which may serve to give him a better seat up the African dining table.

Africa is on the rise… our position must be used for regional integration in Africa,” he said, adding that he hoped the new railway line to be opened later this year between Djibouti and Ethiopia would be extended to Dakar, Senegal.

It is a dream that would fit right in into the integration effort underway in Africa, but which also highlights his recognition of the potential for further regional influence Djibouti has. Many African capitals would be envious.

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