Djibouti has made its stability into a brand it can sell and boasts great diplomatic clout for a small state. But as the regional situation shifts, what does the future hold for its international relations? Academic and author Sonia Le Gouriellec shares her insights with New African.
Sonia Le Gouriellec is a lecturer in political science at the law faculty of the Université Catholique de Lille and is in charge of lessons at Sciences Po (Reims Campus). She is also the author of Djibouti, la diplomatie de géant d’un petit État (‘Djibouti, the gigantic diplomacy of a small state’), in which she discusses how the country has been expertly balancing a host of international forces. In the following interview she shares some of her insights on the country’s place in the world with New African.
Q: For a small nation, Djibouti has great diplomatic clout. How do you explain this?
An initial observation that guided my writing was that the average number of diplomatic missions of small states is less than 10 and many have even less. In 2017, Djibouti had about 45 such missions abroad. This is quite an exceptional figure for a small state.
This leads me to conclude that with the decline of the American superpower, bargaining and negotiation have become the rule and can allow any country to succeed. This gives small states room for manoeuvre.
How do you explain the unique success of Djibouti in hosting six foreign bases?
Djibouti has made the most of the opportunities offered by changes in the international system: with the launch of the ‘global war on terrorism’, the small country first welcomed an American base in the early 2000s, then, with the fight against piracy, Japan came along, followed by Italy (Germany and Spain also maintain a presence). And finally, the New Silk Road has made Djibouti a gateway into East Africa and China has set up a military base while ramping up investment in the country.
The government in Djibouti has made its stability into a brand it can sell. Long presented as a ‘peaceful haven’ or the ‘eye of the storm’, it has tried to mediate in regional crises, especially in Somalia.
This message of order and stability in a conflicted region also allows it to reduce the pressure from Western governments and international institutions to more fully embrace democracy.
Nevertheless, the regional situation does seem less favourable to this positioning. In fact, we can see a reduction in Djibouti’s regional influence since relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea became peaceful in summer 2018.
The role played by the Gulf States in the peace process resulted in the marginalisation of Djibouti: peaceful relations between Addis Ababa and Asmara open up other ports for Ethiopia. The President of Djibouti, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, is the significant absentee in the reshuffle.
The reconfiguration of the alliances seems to be going ahead without Djibouti really being involved. Numerous clashes between the President of Djibouti and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi – the biggest of which was over the nationalisation of the port of Djibouti in 2018 – might explain this marginalisation.
Q: In the meanwhile, Djibouti is aiming for a seat on the United Nations Security Council…
As early as 2006, President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh announced his objectives: to strengthen the appeal of his country and “affirm the presence of Djibouti on the global stage”. The country has thus doubled the number of its diplomatic missions all over the world.
It is also a member of more than 50 non-African international institutions. And, too, it is active in international negotiations and was one of the first to sign the COP21 agreement on climate change.
However, despite its efforts, the country has so far had to make do with intermediate roles at leading international organisations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the African Development Bank (AfDB), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNESCO and the Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).
Q: Almost 80% of Djibouti’s trade is with Ethiopia and most of the major projects are funded by China. Is there a danger of dependency?
The relationship with Ethiopia as the regional power is both a source of Djibouti’s dynamism and a risk factor for the future.
The dilemma faced by Djibouti is a reflection of a contradiction inherent in its strategy. By seeking, quite rightly, to diversify its partners and by doing so, to stimulate its economy, Djibouti has become closer to China, which is in turn in favour of regional economic integration.
This integration creates an even greater interdependence with Ethiopia, which may have more ambitious aims. Djibouti is at risk of finding itself in an uncomfortable position of servitude, with a resulting loss of sovereignty.