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Djibouti’s greatest threat may come from within

By South African journalist Simon Allison, first published on Mail & Guardian.

A rocky, steep-banked promenade outlines the port of Djibouti. Old men use it for their late-afternoon constitutionals and the odd beggar sleeps on its benches. The breeze is thick with salt, which mostly disguises the faint tang of sewage.

To understand what Djibouti has become, it’s worth taking a slow stroll along that promenade.

The Jijiga, a Chinese freighter named after a city in eastern Ethiopia, is moored at the pier. Towering cranes, like giant mechanical giraffes, are ready to unload its precious contents, destined to sate Ethiopia’s growing consumer demand.

Behind it, a pair of tugboats are manoeuvring a French warship, registration L9014, into dock. It is the Tonnerre, a Mistral-class helicopter carrier, which has seen action during the civil war in Côte d’Ivoire and the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Waiting for a berth behind it is a Chinese frigate, the Yanchang, which was deployed to the region to combat piracy.

“The big boats come all the time, at least once a week,” says Abdi, who works at the marina. “Not just the French. The Chinese, the Americans. They’re all here.”

This strange juxtaposition of international trade and heavy-duty military hardware is no aberration. It has become Djibouti’s trademark, and it’s not hard to understand why.

From an economic perspective, Djibouti is bleak. Crops don’t grow in this rocky, rust-red desert hellscape, where the lakes are salty and it’s 30°C in the middle of winter.

There’s little under the surface, either, except more salt, which is a major — albeit not especially lucrative — export for the tiny East African nation.

Life here is hard and so unforgiving for its population of less than one million people that even refugees, mostly from neighbouring Somalia or nearby Yemen, don’t want to stay. “It’s too hot for them,” said one aid worker. “They would rather try their luck elsewhere.”

But there is one thing that Djibouti has going for it — an irresistible attraction that keeps bringing superpowers to its shores, like alpha dogs marking their territory on the same lamp post.

In geopolitics, as in property, location is everything — and, on the global political chessboard, few countries are more strategically important than Djibouti.

It sits on the Bab-el-Mandeb, which is the narrowest point of the Red Sea. This is one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, linking Asia to Europe, making it also the world’s most important trade artery. From Djibouti, superpowers can keep their fingers on the pulse of global commerce and guarantee uninterrupted passage for the dozens of container-laden freighters and bulging oil tankers that traverse the route every day.

The civil war in Yemen, just across the strait, has made Djibouti even more attractive.

“If Yemen had not disintegrated into civil war, you would have seen more basing in Aden rather than Djibouti. But Djibouti has managed to take advantage,” said Timothy Walker, a maritime security expert with the Institute of Security Studies.

Superpower playground

In a country at peace, especially such a small one, the roll call of superpowers and military hardware on show is staggering.

In a sprawling complex built adjacent to Djibouti City’s main commercial runway — and in full view of the civilian planes taking off and landing — the United States military maintains its largest base in Africa. There are 4 000-plus American soldiers stationed here, including a large continent of special forces. The base also houses a fleet of Predator drones and a Pizza Hut. The Americans have one eye on shipping — keeping the Red Sea pirates at bay — and another on the twin conflicts in Somalia and Yemen, where those drones have seen plenty of action.

Next to the Americans are the French, who operate an additional naval base a few miles away, on the Heron peninsula. Across the runway are the Japanese, whose Self Defence Force is there to self-defend the Japanese ships that make up 16% of the world’s cargo fleet. And a few hundred metres from there, Italy runs a military facility that can accommodate 300 soldiers, although the usual complement is only about 80.

Each superpower pays a hefty premium for the privilege of leasing land in Djibouti, making it one of the government’s major sources of foreign currency. The US pays $67-million a year and the French $30-million.

As unusual — and dangerous — as this conglomeration of military might sound, it’s not unprecedented. These countries are all more or less on the same side of the 21st century’s great conflagrations — they have worked together before, in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

The same cannot be said for China, the latest superpower to build a base in Djibouti. China is building a “string of pearls” across the Indian Ocean, a series of military and commercial facilities designed to guarantee its maritime security interests, to complement its plans to create a 21st-century maritime Silk Road. Djibouti is the first completed military outpost, making it the shiniest pearl of them all.

“The basic purpose of this military facility is for logistics supporting Chinese humanitarian and anti-piracy operations in this region,” said Professor Zhang Chun, of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies. “In the past several years, the Chinese navy has had lots of operations in this region, including anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and the evacuation of Chinese and foreign nationals from Yemen, among others.”

The Chinese base is 10km from the airport, next to the brand-new Port of Doraleh (also Chinese-built, of course, and soon to be Chinese-operated). Although the base has now been officially open for seven months, it remains shrouded in secrecy.

Here’s what we do know. The base, which is reportedly leased for $20-million a year, is built on 36 hectares of prime ocean-facing real estate, and currently houses about 1 000 troops, although there is apparently space for 10 000 if necessary. A short tarmac strip is built for helicopters to take off and land. Satellite images during construction reveal a vast subterranean labyrinth, rumoured to be between three and seven storeys deep, the purpose of which is unclear.

Security around the base is tight. When the Mail & Guardian approached in a taxi, we were turned away 50m before reaching the main gate. Previously, Chinese officials had either ignored requests for a tour or stated that media were not yet welcome.

The land surrounding the base has been forcibly cleared of human habitation. Occupants were compensated and moved into a nearby slum. Locals interviewed insist that the perimeter is dotted with landmines: “If you walk there, it goes ‘boom!’” said one.

Efforts to put this claim to Chinese officials, along with other questions about the Chinese presence in Djibouti, were repeatedly ignored. The closest the M&G got to an official interview was to doorstep a Chinese naval officer outside the Chinese embassy in Djibouti City. He declined to give his name, and said his country did not need to explain itself to journalists. “People have been saying bad things about China for hundreds of years, but we’re still here,” he said.

Whispers of discontent

China’s longevity, and its long-term plans, are precisely what keeps Doualeh Egueh Ofleh awake at night. He’s a politician with the opposition Movement for Democratic Renewal and Development.

When we meet, in his dingy office in downtown Djibouti City, desks squeezed into a decaying ground-floor shophouse, Ofleh was one of just three opposition MPs.

Two days later, he was out of a job, unseated in local elections that the main opposition parties declined to contest. Ofleh said the vote was rigged from the start, because the government, with President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh in charge for a 19th consecutive year, had failed to implement promised electoral reform.

Ofleh is one of the few political actors who would speak, on record, about China’s new military base. He’s not a fan. His laundry list of complaints begins with the fact that the base was built with Chinese labour.

“Why don’t Djiboutians like the Chinese?” he asks. “Because they bring their drivers and cooks and guards with them. Everyone. At least the French and Americans give us something, even if it’s small. The Chinese don’t do that. It’s unfortunate.”

Later, a taxi driver expressed a similar sentiment. “You know, the Chinese, they don’t even use our prostitutes,” he said.

Ofleh is also concerned about the proximity of the Chinese base to the new Doraleh port. “You have got your country’s main commercial port right next to the military base of a foreign power. What happens if the relationship goes bad?”

Even if all goes according to plan, Djibouti is going to struggle to keep up with the repayments on the enormous sums it has borrowed from China to build the port, as well as another airport, a fancy new railway line linking Djibouti with Addis Ababa, and a 102km water pipeline bringing fresh water from Ethiopia. These loans are worth at least $1.1-billion, according to the International Monetary Fund.

If recent history is any guide, the consequences of failing to repay Chinese debt can be severe. In 2017, the Sri Lankan government had to relinquish control of its Chinese-built port to the Chinese government when it found itself unable to keep up with repayments.

“The spectre of China’s dealings with Sri Lanka should serve as a major wake-up call to Djibouti. There are a number of obvious parallels between the two countries and, given Djibouti’s growing dependency on Beijing, there’s a very real threat it will fall victim to the same fate,” said Ronak Gopaldas, a director of Signal Risk, a risk analysis firm.

But Ofleh’s biggest gripe is what the presence of China, and other military powers, means for domestic politics. Although he doesn’t have a problem with the concept of hosting military bases — he knows, pragmatically, that the country has little choice but to monetise its strategic location — he is concerned that funds generated are being squandered by Guelleh’s notoriously corrupt administration and, of even greater concern, that Guelleh is using the military bases as cover to tighten his grip on power.

Having invested so much in Djibouti’s stability, superpowers are all too prepared to overlook the abuses of the Guelleh regime — well documented by Freedom House and others — in an effort to guarantee that stability.

But this hear-no-evil, see-no-evil strategy might backfire, warns Offleh. “Go to the poor areas, you will see that this country is not satisfied.”

Recipe for instability

The M&G followed Ofleh’s advice. Just a short drive away from the plush houses and hotels of the upmarket Heron district, which crawls with diplomats and intelligence agents and shady business people, and not far from the faded grandeur of downtown Djibouti City, is the sprawling, hilly suburb of Belbela.

Parts of it overlook the new Chinese military base but the suburb’s inhabitants are struggling to see how all these foreign soldiers and sailors are supposed to be improving their lives.

“None of the money is coming to us,” said one resident.

This is where “middle-class” Djiboutians live: some in rudimentary brick houses, others in colourful corrugated iron shacks.

There are no tarred roads and little sign of the economic development that Guelleh’s government has promised.

Beyond Belbela are suburbs that are even less developed, lacking basic services like water, electricity and sanitation, where the country’s poorest eke out a living among mountains of scrap metal.

Statistics bear out the fact that the hundreds of millions of dollars earned from military bases, and the billions in associated investment, are not reaching the majority of the population.

According to the World Bank, although gross domestic product has doubled in the past decade — from $848-million in 2007 to $1.7-billion in 2015 — 23% of the population still lives in extreme poverty. Unicef data show that nearly 60% are unemployed.

This is not a recipe for continued stability. Instead, Guelleh is maintaining control through a security apparatus that accounts for nearly 20% of the state’s annual budget. And there’s no doubt that his authority is reinforced by the visible presence of the foreign militaries he has welcomed into the country.

It is a state of affairs much to the president’s liking. In a recent interview with Afrique magazine, Guelleh dismissed criticism of China and said the two countries would continue to work closely together. “China is a genuine partner; indeed, the only one today that functions on co-operation on a long-term basis. China is our friend … They are unrivalled investors in Africa. They believe in our future, our emergence,” he said.

Back at the promenade, the Tonnerre completes its refuelling and resupplying, and moves off the dock. The Yanchang replaces it. The sheer size and might of these warships only highlights the vast gulf in power between tiny Djibouti and the superpowers competing so hard for its attention.

It’s also hard to escape the symbolism of the moment, as the old colonial masters make way for the neocolonial ambitions of another distant country.

With Guelleh having cozied up to Beijing, there’s no doubt that he and his government have become dangerously dependent on China’s continued largesse.

What would happen if those ships were to sail away? But China, and the other countries with military bases here, have also taken a risk — on Guelleh’s continued ability to maintain stability in this little corner of the Horn of Africa that he considers his own.

As development stalls and dissatisfaction continues to grow, could this gamble on Guelleh backfire first?

This work was produced as a result of a grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project managed by the Journalism Department of the University of the Witwatersrand.

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