Djibouti a nation in demand despite democratic deficit


Egypt sent a high-ranking delegation to Djibouti in March, inaugurating a new era of bilateral relations between the two countries. Unsurprisingly, the visit has raised suspicions that Cairo had its own interests at heart, especially with regard to its aim to pull Djibouti away from Ethiopia’s sphere of influence amidst the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. There has also been speculation that Egypt may hope to install its own military base on Djiboutian soil.

If true, it would hardly make Egypt the first country to set up shop on the tiny but strategically important nation in the Horn of Africa. Indeed, the incumbent President Ismail Omar Guelleh has previously been accused of “offer[ing] himself to the highest bidder” by one expert on regional politics, with China notching up a particularly impressive footprint in Djibouti. It doesn’t take a genius to see through Guelleh’s strategy, either; with a controversial election on the horizon and a swarm of human rights abuses and freedom of press allegations hanging over his head, the strongman is hopeful that his so-called “allies” will turn a blind eye to Djibouti’s domestic chaos in exchange for a stake in this most conveniently positioned of African countries.

Up for sale

For Egypt’s part, the recent envoy mission was an unqualified success. Not only did the assistant foreign minister manage to secure approval for an Egyptian airline to ferry passengers between the two nations and an Egyptian bank to begin operations in Djibouti, but there are also rumours that it plans to drive a wedge between the country and neighbouring Ethiopia by opening a military base. That might be a bridge too far for Guelleh, who will be wary of upsetting Addis Ababa, but it’s certainly true that he’s entertained similarly polemic notions in the past.

In fact, this diminutive African nation that’s just 23,200km2 in size and home to less than a million citizens holds the rather bizarre accolade of hosting more foreign military bases than anywhere else worldwide. In addition to the 1,500 soldiers, jets and naval forces belonging to former colonial ruler France, Djibouti is also home to troops from the USA, China, Japan, Germany, Spain and Italy. While the bases were initially put in place to guard against piracy in the nearby Bab-el-Mandeb strait, the fact that around 10% of global oil exports and up to 20% of global trade passes through the waters every day is a major pull for deployment of forces in terms of political power.

Djibouti, naturally, receives significant compensation for hosting foreign troops; the bases generate more than $300 million in annual income for Djibouti. China has also been particularly forthcoming in providing Djibouti with financial investment, pouring an estimated $14 billion into the country between 2012 and 2018. While the funds have advanced the economy and the national infrastructure significantly, it does now mean that Djiboutian debt is equivalent to 86.6% of its GDP – and China holds over 70% of the $1.2 billion sum.

Ready receptiveness a façade for political corruption

It’s no coincidence that Beijing has been the main benefactor of Djibouti’s development in recent years. Quite apart from the fact that state-owned banks in China are much more adventurous when it comes to overseas investment than the risk-aversion that’s common practice in the Western world, President Xi Jinping does not place any conditions on his financial aid pertaining to Djibouti’s domestic processes. Given that the incumbent government is a dictatorship in everything but name, that’s a huge point in the plus column from Guelleh’s perspective. The strongman amended the constitution in 2010 to allow a president to serve more terms; he’s now currently coming to the end of his fourth. Fresh elections are scheduled for April 9th, but the entire opposition (bar a single independent candidate) have declared their intention to boycott the event, a situation that’s been the same for the past three polls. Guelleh has “officially” won 94%, 81% and 87% in those contests.

Aside from rampant political corruption, Guelleh has also overseen a brutal regime which quashes all dissension and makes a mockery of the idea of a free press. An air force pilot was recently detained and tortured for apparently inciting an insurrection against the government, while two journalists covering the story have since been arrested. Indeed, Guelleh personally attacked the only independent news outlet in the country, calling them “barely literate fellows” who fabricated lies about his administration. With international correspondents regularly beaten and incarcerated for attempting to publicize his atrocities, it’s no surprise that Djibouti is ranked 176 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index from Reporters Without Borders.

A tough line to tread

Indeed, that dismal ranking is compounded by similar verdicts from Freedom House and the Human Development Indicator, with the former awarding Djibouti an overall score of 24/100 (incorporating a paltry 5/20 on political rights and 19/60 for civil liberties) and the latter placing the country 166 out of 228 globally. Therefore, it’s clear that in addition to the financial investment that Guelleh courts from overseas investors, he also wants these partners to turn a blind eye to the tyrannical state of play under his rule.

While that blind eye from Western leaders might not be as ringing an endorsement as the whole-hearted support which China bestows upon Guelleh’s regime, it certainly lends a sense of legitimacy to a despotic ruler. Western powers cannot fail to demand the same standards for Djibouti as they routinely make preconditions of other investment deals around the world, no matter how strategically located the small country is.



Image: AMISOM Public Information, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons