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A harbour for peace and war

Guelleh’s dream of making Dijbouti a regional hub has at least some reasons. In an area that is crossed by tensions (the conflict in Somalia, the low-intensity crisis between Eritrea and Ethiopia, the war in Yemen on the other side of the Gulf of Aden), the former French colony has reached stability, even if paying a high price in terms of freedom and political rights.

Moreover, situated as it is on the Bab el Mandab strait, it holds a key position at the intersection of strategic maritime trade corridors for the transport of goods and oil. This becomes an even more important asset because the tiny republic is a member of Comesa, the free trade area spanning Eastern, Central and southern Africa: it includes, among others, ten out of the seventeen landlocked African countries, for which Djibouti becomes a natural gateway to the sea.

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It’s no wonder, therefore, that the economy is mainly concentrated, according to the most recent issue of the African Economic Outlook, on transport activities and the related services, mostly in the capital city. In this framework, foreign direct investments (FDI) play a great role: in 2013 they accounted for almost one fifth of the gross domestic product, reaching an unprecedented 18,5%. This trend is set to continue in the next few years, mostly due to Chinese involvement: the state-owned China State Construction Engineering Corporation has been recently awarded a $420-million contract for the expansion of the port facilities, in which another Chinese enterprise already owns a stake valued at $185 million. This is not the only infrastructure that will be developed with the help of Beijing, which is also involved in the construction of two airports and in the replacement of the old, French-built, Addis Abeba-Djibouti railway.

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The new, state-of-the-art electrified railway, will allow Ethiopia to export agricultural commodities and other goods through the Red Sea port. Although the first freight train, carrying cereals for the drought-hit areas of Ethiopia arrived at a temporary unloading facility last November, the construction will only be completed this year. A more direct boost to the Djiboutian economy will be given by the new free-trade zone to be built in the next few months, but this is just a small part of the planned Chinese investments. The Asian superpower, according to the local government, is already the biggest investor in Djibouti.

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Bejing’s interest in Djibouti isn’t only driven by economic reasons. Investing huge sums of money in the small republic’s urbanistic and commercial projects (worth $21.4 billion in total between 2015 and 2020) is also a way of making different types of structures more easily accepted: military ones. In May last year, it was Guelleh himself who confirmed that ‘discussions’ were ‘ongoing’ with a view to establishing a Chinese base (its first overseas outpost ever) in the small country, most probably in the area of Obock. In November, further details emerged: talks were held, according to official sources quoted by the international press, on the issue of ‘logistic facilities’. Their aim, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said, will be to “help China’s navy and army further participate in UN peacekeeping operations, carry out escort missions in the waters near Somalia and the Gulf of Aden, and provide humanitarian assistance”. The words seem to have been carefully chosen in order to dissipate the fear of a too open military escalation, which would be seen as a menace by some of the other actors who already have a similar presence in the small Horn nation.

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Particular concern for the building of the Obock facility has been expressed by the White House, for which Djibouti is an equally strategic military asset.
Camp Lemonnier, in the southern part of the country, currently hosts 4,000 American service members and civilians and it serves, at the same time, as a hub for counter-terrorism operations, including drone bombings in nearby Somalia and Yemen, but a further expansion seems very likely.
Construction projects worth $750 million are underway, and Colonel Kelly Passmore, a commander at Camp Lemonnier, recently told the Pentagon newspaper Stars and Stripes, that US presence in the country,  ‘is enduring and I think it is growing’. Many other countries (including Japan and Italy) have smaller facilities in Djibouti, but the nation which has all to lose from a possible competition between Washington and Bejing, is the one that for more than a century profited from the country’s strategic position: France.

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The former colonial power’s behaviour, in the last years, has been exactly the opposite of China’s: while Bejing has strengthened its military presence through economic ties (and even Washington has accepted to paying more than double the rent for the portion of Camp Lemonnier it uses, from $30 million to $70 million a year), ‘investors coming from Paris can be counted on the fingers of one hand’, according to a recent issue of the French weekly Jeune Afrique. ‘By constantly considering Djibouti nothing but a military base, the old colonial master has not seen its subject grow up and liberate itself’, the article went on, noting that no French minister had visited Djibouti from July 2004 to the same month of 2015. Only then did Jean-Yves Le Drian finally met Guelleh, more than ten years after Michèle Alliot Marie, who was in charge of the Defence under Jacques Chirac. (Y.L.)

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