It’s really nothing impressive at first glance. On paper, the tiny African nation boasts a population less than 900,000 people. The name it carries, “Djibouti,” is derived from the nation’s capital and only major population center. However, the small country’s strength lies in its position on the Bab el-Mandeb strait, through which at least 4.8 million barrels of oil and refined petroleum travels daily.
Situated at a strategic point between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, this tiny African nation has become an alluring destination for military powers throughout the world. Motivated by a variety of considerations, regional and global powers are now establishing a military presence in Djibouti, but the motives underpinning each nation remain largely divergent. Through their various levels of military involvement in Djibouti, each power invested in the country is revealing their hopes for the future of the region–and their place in that future.
The Horn of Africa: An Unlikely Oasis in the Midst of Chaos
Now independent for 40 years, the small republic of Djibouti continues to operate as a one-party state. Since gaining independence from France in 1977, the country has had only two presidents and continues to welcome assistance from its former colonial administrator.
When compared to its neighbors, however, Djibouti seems a pragmatic model of efficiency and security in the Horn of Africa. To Djibouti’s north, Eritrea competes with North Korea in its disregard for political and civil rights, with an estimated 5,000 people fleeing the country every month. As Habtom Yohannes, a researcher with the African Studies Centre at Leiden University, told the HPR, “Eritrea lacks a parliament, rule of law, an independent judicial system, a free press, limits on the practice of religion, and enforces terms of forced military conscription which span decades.”
Beyond its record of governance, Eritrea’s history of conflict with neighboring Ethiopia means that any nation looking to establish a base there will have to deal with these tense relations. “The state of conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea has come as a sort of blessing for Djibouti,” Yohannes explained. “The tension between these two countries—and the need among some nations for a connection to Ethiopia—has left Djibouti as the only other alternative for most powers looking for a road into the continent.”
Djibouti’s southern neighbor finds a way to fare worse; the internationally recognized Democratic Republic of Somalia in the south struggles against terrorist organizations like Al Shabaab to extend its sovereignty beyond the capital of Mogadishu, while the comparatively stable but unrecognized Republic of Somaliland remains ignored by the international community. Moreover, famine throughout Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya has forced thousands to flee to the country, with one estimate placing the amount of refugees from both Ethiopia and Somalia at over 25,000.
For foreign powers seeking to establish bases in the region, the lack of a better alternative has made Djibouti the destination of choice.
A Colonial Legacy and America’s War on Terror
After September 11, 2001, U.S. interest in the Horn of Africa grew as the need for a base from which to conduct surveillance throughout Africa emerged. An earlier American base had existed during the Cold War in neighboring Ethiopian-occupied Eritrea, but the base was shut down in 1977 as the country descended into anarchy following the overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie. Consequently, when France turned its military base in Djibouti, Camp Lemonnier, over to the local government in 2001, the United States was quick to move in.
The American mission in Djibouti, known officially as the “Joint Action Task Force–Horn of Africa,” has focused on conducting counterterrorism and intelligence-gathering operations throughout the continent. As a counter to Islamic extremism, American forces often train with African militaries.
“America’s presence in the region has aided governments such as Somalia and Kenya in dealing with Al Shabaab,” Alex Awiti, the Director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University, told the HPR. “With Al Shabaab continuing to control parts of Somalia and harass neighboring Kenya, America shows no signs of ending their cooperation in dealing with these terrorist organizations.”
Beyond counterterrorism efforts in the Horn of Africa, the United States’ efforts in the Middle East also rely on Djibouti as a base from which to launch drone missions. From Afghanistan to Iraq to Yemen, drone strikes continue to be directed from the confines of America’s base in Djibouti. As of now, America’s policy shows no signs of changing. Defense Secretary John Mattis’ recent visit to Djibouti demonstrates how important the base is to U.S. counterterrorism efforts.
The Rising Giant
While the United States has conducted military operations from Djibouti for more than a decade, China’s recent decision to open its first military base on foreign soil arose from a desire to increase economic engagement with emerging markets throughout the Horn of Africa. Professor Peter Dutton, Director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College, told the HPR that “while the base’s establishment rose out of opportunistic circumstances, China’s increasing economic interests in the region made it natural for a military presence to follow in response.”
China’s decision to fund the construction of an unparalleled $4 Billion, 470 mile rail line from Abbis Ababa (the capital of Ethiopia) to Djibouti City is emblematic of its efforts to develop stronger political and economic ties in the region. “With more than 250 million people located throughout the Horn of Africa––over 350 million when Egypt is included—there is a substantial market for Chinese businesses to expand internationally,” Dutton explained. “In countries like Ethiopia, abundantly cheap energy sources, economic incentives, and an ample labor force all provide major reasons for certain manufacturers to set up centers in the region.”
The development of ‘Special Economic Zones’ in Ethiopia is another facet of China’s efforts in the region. These attempts, however, do not parallel the policies of economic exploitation overseen by European colonists a century earlier. As Dutton observed, “China is always looking for ways to make African governments and businesses true partners in their efforts. The Horn of Africa is a staging ground for China’s aspirations for economic development throughout the continent.”
Japan’s move into Djibouti came as a “response” to China’s mushrooming interest in the continent. After carving out a place on America’s base in the country, the Japanese military— formally the Self-Defence Force—opened its first military base abroad in Djibouti in 2011. Since then, Japan has continued to look for opportunities to exert strength in the region. Last year, Defense Minister Tomomi Inada visited the “Japan Self-Defense Force Base Djibouti” in a move to emphasize the importance of the base in regional efforts such as the fight against piracy—and Japan’s global effort to assert military strength.
While the United States welcomes Japan’s involvement in Djibouti, China’s new naval base has worried U.S. officials. China’s new naval base is located only a few miles away from the U.S. base at Lemonnier, which has made U.S. officials nervous about the power’s future in the region. President Xi Jinping’s displays of military might demonstrate how determined the Chinese government is to display its new international clout. A Chinese base in East Africa may signal China’s desire to insert global influence beyond the confines of East Asia. “For now,” Professor said, “it’s something to keep an eye on.”
Famines and Proxy Wars: The Present Chaos
Besides its role in Great Power politics, Djibouti’s strategic significance has expanded due to the Yemeni civil war being waged less than a hundred miles from its coast. In addition, regional tensions have forced Djibouti to ally with powerful neighbors for their own political needs. The civil war has directly affected Djibouti’s security; at least 35,000 Yemenis have fled across the Bab el-Mandeb strait as of July 2016. In April 2017, Saudi Arabia concluded a deal with Djibouti over increased defense ties with Djibouti. Amidst this refugee crisis, the decision to house Saudi forces raises the stakes for how Djibouti chooses to position itself on the chessboard of Middle Eastern politics.
Qatar’s recent tensions with a Saudi Arabian bloc of Middle Eastern countries led Qatar to remove their peacekeeping troops from the border between Eritrea and Djibouti, where clashes have kept the two countries on edge with one another since 2008. Djibouti’s decision to increase diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia played a role in damaging relations with long-time ally Qatar. Long recognized for their ‘regional ambitions,’ Qatar’s departure from the region produced a geopolitical power vacuum. With Qatar’s exit, China has now offered to mediate the conflict by sending military peacekeepers.
Navigating Regional and Global Interests
International interest in Djibouti is unlikely to remain confined to the nations highlighted in this article. If anything, perhaps Djibouti’s increased importance is emblematic of the Horn of Africa’s growing role on the world stage. “It would not be a surprise to me if India eventually opens a base in Djibouti,” Awiti told the HPR. “Their economic rise parallels that of China, and their status as China’s counterpart in Asia may expand to a competition for markets in Africa.”
As a staging ground for international militaries, Djibouti poses a challenge for governments looking to both keep the peace and pursue their national interests. As Awiti told the HPR, “If you want a way into the continent, you need a way to protect your interests. Relations are always very delicate among major powers when put in such a small space. However, each power will hold what they own as long as they can cooperate with one another.”
Image source: CJTF-HOA/Senior Airman Nesha Humes
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Habtom Yohannes as Dr. Abraham Yohannes. It has been updated to correct this mistake and further describe his relationship with the African Studies Centre at Leiden University.