Op-Ed: Plagued by turmoil: How Djibouti’s efforts stabilize the region


By: Khadar Haibe

In the early 2000s, President Ismail Omar Guelleh of Djibouti made the strategic decision to host foreign naval and military bases within the country, a move that later proved immensely beneficial for both Djibouti’s development and its regional influence. Prior to the increased security interests of the United States following the September 11 attacks, France was the sole country with a military presence in Djibouti.

Guelleh’s adept diplomacy garnered unprecedented recognition from both Beijing and Washington, a rare feat in international relations. During visits to the capitals of China and the United States, President Guelleh consistently received high-level receptions, indicative of the importance both governments placed on Djibouti’s priorities and needs.

Djibouti’s strategic location, with a population of less than one million, led to the establishment of naval and military bases by rival nations, notably the United States and China. The United States operates Camp Lemonnier, the largest military base in Africa, adjacent to Djibouti Ambouli International Airport, and managed by U.S. Navy Region Europe, Africa, Southwest Asia and CJTF-HOA since 2002 and 2008. In 2016 China, as a major economic power, established its first official overseas naval base in Djibouti, a country that lies on the Bab el-Mandeb Strait, a crucial gateway to the Suez Canal which is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes. Indeed, China holds the position of being the country with the highest volume of trade with African nations, and such base is vital for their economic and military interests.

Furthermore, Djibouti hosts military bases from France, Japan, and Italy, further solidifying its status as a key strategic hub. The rental fees from these bases amount to millions of U.S dollars, contributing up to 5% of Djibouti’s GDP, underscoring the economic significance of these diplomatic arrangements.

The Cost Of These Efforts For The Region

Not just the rental fees, but Djibouti government has benefited from Chinese-led investments across Africa, particularly in the Horn of Africa, which have significantly bolstered the region’s prosperity and had a life-saving impact on millions of people in Horn of Africa.

For example, Beijing has injected billions of dollars into Djibouti, focusing on developing ports and transport corridors to facilitate trade with neighboring landlocked Ethiopia. Given Ethiopia’s population of over 100 million, the majority of its imports and exports rely on Djibouti’s ports, with over 90% of imports passing through them.

The Chinese government has played a pivotal role in constructing essential infrastructure, ranging from highways to railways, to enhance transportation efficiency. This extensive investment is a direct outcome of President Guelleh’s proactive approach to attracting foreign investment and contributing to the overall prosperity of the region.

Many experts have lauded President Guelleh’s diplomatic strategy, which has effectively balanced attracting Chinese investment while maintaining the interest of the United States, ensuring Djibouti remains a key player in regional development and international relations.

The Horn of Africa remains a fragile region plagued by recurring droughts and conflicts in countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, and more recently, Somaliland, resulting in millions of people facing humanitarian crises each year.

Frequently, the United Nations emerges as the primary source of assistance for these populations, whether they are displaced within their own country or seeking refuge outside its borders. Djibouti plays a vital role in this regard, hosting the largest humanitarian logistics base operated by the World Food Programme (WFP) in the region.

The Humanitarian Logistics Base serves as a crucial pre-positioning point for providing aid to Djibouti, Somalia, Yemen, South Sudan, Ethiopia, and other neighboring countries. Equipped with four silos, the base effectively manages port and fleet operations, warehouses, and bilateral service provision.

Remarkably, from 2020 to 2022, the Humanitarian Logistics Base facilitated the handling of 1.5 million metric tons of food, thereby making a significant contribution of approximately US$60 million to Djibouti’s economy during that period. And saved the lives of millions of people in the region and Yemen.

Turbulence In Horn Of Africa And Stability Role Of Djibouti

In 1991, the Djibouti government played an important role by hosting the initial reconciliation talks between opposing factions in Somalia following the collapse of the central government led by military commander Mohamed Siad Barre. Subsequently, after a decade marked by intense warfare and upheaval, Djibouti once again took center stage by hosting the renowned Arta Conference aimed at establishing a new government for Somalia. President Ismail Omar Guelleh spearheaded efforts to convene Somali elders and representatives from civil society in order to lay the groundwork for a transitional government in Somalia. This initiative proved to be successful, resulting in the formation of the first official Somali government following the collapse. Recognizing the grave risks posed by Somalia’s instability to the entire region, Djibouti played a commendable role in preventing further bloodshed and turmoil.

Later on, Djibouti has continued its commitment to stabilizing Somalia by contributing military forces to combat al-Shabaab and support efforts to restore peace. These forces are currently integrated into the African Union Mission in Somalia, demonstrating Djibouti’s ongoing dedication to regional security and stability.

Another significant source of tension in the region revolves around the status of Somaliland within Somalia. President Guelleh has been instrumental in facilitating crucial rounds of talks between the opposing sides since 2014. The most recent discussions took place in December 2023, where the presidents of Somaliland and Somalia engaged in closed-door negotiations mediated by President Guelleh.Somaliland has maintained its desire to separate from Somalia since declaring independence in 1991, while Somalia asserts its claim over Somaliland as part of its territory.

The prolonged deadlock between the two sides poses challenges for regional stability. Nonetheless, Djibouti has actively pursued avenues to address this

issue, seeking solutions that could lead to either the peaceful separation of Somaliland or its integration back into Somalia.

In early January of 2024, Somaliland and Ethiopia entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) allowing landlocked Ethiopia to access a port on the Red Sea and construct a naval base, in exchange for recognition of the Somaliland government. This agreement heightened tensions between Ethiopia and Somalia, prompting calls from IGAD, the African Union, and neighboring countries for Ethiopia to respect Somalia’s territorial integrity.

In an interview with the French-language weekly magazine Jeune Afrique, President Guelleh emphasized that the International Community does not support the MOU, urging Ethiopia to utilize existing ports rather than seeking ownership of a new port. Somalia has adamantly declared its red line against Ethiopia acquiring a port on the Red Sea, raising concerns about the potential for regional conflict, particularly as foreign countries have already intervened in the politics and security of the Horn of Africa region.

About the Author

Khadar Haibe is a freelance journalist and columnist, currently based in Hargeisa. You can reach @khadarhaibe via X or khadarhaibe5@gmail.com

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Horndiplomat editorial policy.
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