Djibouti: Africa’s Tiny, Surprisingly Popular Port Nation


With a population of less than one million and little more than a port to its name, the dry, arid country of Djibouti may not be the first African nation that comes to mind.

If you happened to visit this tiny country, though, you would be joining a multinational crowd of Americans, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, French, Japanese, and more recently Chinese.

However, these aren’t tourists you would be sharing your trip with. No, Djibouti’s tourism industry is all but non-existent. This unlikely mix of nationalities is of a purely military nature. You see, Djibouti is home to the military bases of no less than seven different overseas nations – all of which have a vested interest in this small, strategically placed country.

Why does everyone want to come to Djibouti?

It’s not because of the oppressive heat or equally smothering regime ruling over Djibouti – that’s for sure. It’s probably not the arid plains of dust and rubble that make up the majority of its intolerably dry landscape either.

Instead, it’s Djibouti’s privileged position of being a relatively peaceful spot in one of the world’s most conflict-ridden region. Sitting just above Somalia, where militant group Al-Shabaab causes a constant threat to security, Djibouti falls on the opposite side of the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, where Al-Qaeda runs riot.

Suddenly Djibouti found itself engulfed in the war on terror, without succumbing to any of its violence. When the US military scrambled to open its first counterterrorism base in the region, Djibouti was the only country not smouldering from conflict.

This reputation for peace makes Djibouti one of few secure entry points into Africa from the East. This was until a new threat emerged from neighboring Somalia – this time from pirates attacking ships on their way in/out of the region. Djibouti’s position along the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait – which just so happens to be one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes – prompted Germany, Italy and Spain to join a French military presence that remained from colonial times.

The growing threat to major trade routes and security concerns in the region keep the list of countries coming to Djibouti growing. Japan arrived in 2011 – building its first military base on foreign soil since World War II – and now China is poised to open its the first overseas base in its history.

The fruits of popularity

Economically speaking, the country itself does very well out of its privileged position in the Horn of Africa. Aside from the money being pumped into Djibouti via investment, it earns a cool $70 million every year from leasing Camp Lemonnier to the Americans, while the Chinese will dish out some $20 million for the coming ten years. On top of rents, Djibouti has secured investments worth a staggering $12.4 billion (mostly from China) to develop its ports, build new airports and shore up its non-existent infrastructure. In so doing, though, Djibouti’s public debt has soared to 80%, sparking fears from the IMF that the country might default or end up in China’s pocket.

It may be the smallest country in East Africa and surrounded by conflict but it’s hard to imagine anyone knocking on the door to challenge its seven nation army.

The dark side of Djibouti

All of this popularity doesn’t come without its drawbacks, though. Ongoing human rights abuses in Djibouti are no secret to the world. Sadly, it’s equally well-known that Djibouti’s allies are afraid to speak up about such atrocities, for fear of damaging ties with the valuable nation. The country is accused of persecuting journalists, opposition figures and activists, and boasts the ignoble honor of having one of Africa’s most repressive laws to gag freedom of expression. China’s arrival on the scene has only hardened President Ismail Omar Guelleh uncompromising stance to dissent.

“America and the EU [European Union] are terrified of upsetting countries like Saudi Arabia or Pakistan because of the role they play in the ‘war on terror’,”Professor Gregory Stanton told MG. “In Africa, that honour goes to Djibouti and, even after police opened fire on a crowd before Christmas, we have barely heard a peep out of Washington, London or Paris.” The incident Professor Stanton referred to happened in the run up to the April presidential elections, when security forces brutally cracked down on a rally of opposition figures, killing at least 19 people. When polling day came around, Guelleh won handily a fourth consecutive term, securing 87% of the votes. The International Criminal Court has even put the President on its watchlist.

So Guelleh gets something of a free pass with his regime. This doesn’t look like ending anytime soon either with opposition forces banished from the country and scattered across the world. Which means Djibouti’s status as the smallest, most popular police state looks set to continue.


Featured image:

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About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.