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Surveillance and stability: Djibouti does well to ‘return to the cold war’


On top of a lighthouse in an uninhabited house, Ali Hassan Ali crosses the other side of Bab-el-Mandeb, heading for the war-torn Yemen. Then, in the background, to Ethiopia, there was a war. Then, to his right, in troubled Somalia. Finally, to his left in Eritrea, dictators who had joined the Tigray army nearby.

“This is peace, businessman,” said the wise man who oversees the lighting. Djibouti, a former French mansion with a population of 1m, is a secluded spot on the southern shore of the Red Sea, along the Suez Canal, an international trade route.

About a third of all daily ships around the world cross the northeastern border of Africa, where the water reaches as far as chokepoint towards Yemen.

With economic growth of up to 7% this year, an increase in the size of Africa, according to the Ministry of Finance, backed by China’s ports, ports and free access to Ethiopia, Djibouti will be one of the fastest growing economies in the country here.

Home to five naval bases, including since 2017’s first China foreign war, its importance is political and economic. It’s all “a place, a place, a place”, says Aboubaker Omar Hadi, chairman of the Djibouti Ports & Free Zones Authority and one of the strongest in the country.

She whispers, spies and envy

“All in all, a place and stability, ”confirmed Nima Dirieh Warsama, executive director of ATD-GIE, a business group. Such stability is aided by French tanks, U.S. helicopters, Chinese troops and Japanese ships, which are common because the area around Djibouti is “powdery mildew”, said a Western military official.

However, the government is doing well in its neutral role in international politics, sometimes a consolation between the Americans and China, in what one official called the “return to the Cold War” of which “Djibouti is the center”. “What makes Djibouti so successful is that so much power is here, which means it is safe,” he added.

The French trained 11,000 military personnel, mostly Djiboutian warriors, and defended the country’s airfield and Mirage warplanes. “We are truly a guarantee of security here,” said Gen Stéphane Dupont, commander of the 1,500-strong French Armed Forces. Some jurisdictions, such as the US, agree. Djibouti is the backbone of an international alliance against al-Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, and the growing threat of kidnapping.

But for others, the arrival of China, which generated $ 853bn of economy between 2005 and 2019 and with 30% of total debt in Djibouti, is not dangerous. “It’s a tsunami, it’s a real tsunami,” said a senior official in Djibouti, referring to China’s presence from investment to military. “They are not enemies, but neither are they friends. And we must be together. ”

Djiboutian political leaders, American contractors and French officials meet to sit in the Café de la Gare to discuss what Chinese troops can do in their concrete house. It is China’s first foreign military base, to protect commercial vessels. It has a pier that can help “future Chinese pilots”, US General for Africa, General Stephen Townsend, recently said.

Chinese military inaugurates a naval base in Djibouti
Chinese troops present at the launch of the 2017 Beijing warship in Djibouti © AFP / Getty

“Djibouti is one of the most important geostrategic regions in the world, with all the people in the world interested,” said Foreign Minister Mahmoud Ali Youssouf. “We recognize that there is strong economic competition between the superpowers,” he added, adding that his country “does not submit to any major power”.

Indeed, the country’s finance minister Ilyas Moussa Dawaleh said: “It is a lie that China will take over Djibouti completely, it is just a myth.”

Many agree that the shape of the city, inhabited by many people, is similar to Casablanca, PA, a video about hypocrisy and love in World War II. “Everyone has sex with each other,” one foreign ambassador laughed.

“We know very well that the Chinese want spies. It does not mean that we do not do that, ”said a Western military official based in Djibouti. “We’re all friends here, but we all like to know what each other is doing.”

Erosion of democracy or 99% support?

One of the key figures in the settlement, many say, is 73-year-old President Ismail Omar Guelleh, who has run the country since 1999 and is known for being a shrewd and prudent leader of what the critics call a central autocracy.

“It’s the only sport in town,” said a non-African delegate. “There has been a temporary decline in the side of democracy.”

Guelleh is known to have made Djibouti a reception area as well as foreign troops. Economic growth rose from $ 536m when he started working to $ 3.3bn in 2019. His image is found everywhere in stores, offices and entire homes. Last month, won the fifth round with 99% of the vote.

Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a conference in Beijing
Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at a conference in Beijing in 2019 © Madoka Ikegami / AFP / Getty

The main critic, newcomer Zakaria Ismail Farah, said “99% has never happened in the world, except in a very oppressive country”. Foreign leaders in Djibouti, he said, “gave democracy to Djibouti for stability in the region”.

Alexis Mohamed, the president’s top adviser, criticized Farah’s criticism, saying there were already talks about the “political future in Djibouti” after Guelleh as, legally, this is the last time the president is in office.

The president has “succeeded in maintaining peace and unity in Djibouti, an area prone to conflict in Ethiopia and Somalia,” he said. He also said, “God has not given us oil,” he said. “He has given us a light in the house, but it has given us a wise idea.”


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