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Djibouti between opportunism and realism: Strategic pivot in the Horn

Image: 26th MEU Djibouti LCAC Landings, by Sgt Chris Stone, identified by DVIDS under Creative Commons

In light of recent events (the attack against the restaurant La Chaumière in May 2014 and the massive influx of refugees from Yemen for several weeks), the Republic of Djibouti regularly appears in articles and comments from journalists. Djibouti’s president since 1999, Ismaël Omar Guelleh has played an important role in the recognition of his country abroad and the strategic nature of its geographical position. In this article, I will first focus on the emergence and evolution of the Republic of Djibouti by analysing its major assets and the reasons for a strong foreign presence which have given Djibouti the status of the most important city- military garrison in Africa. 

Djibouti: a partner that has become essential

The Republic of Djibouti covers 23,000 km2 and has a population estimated at 800,000. Independent since 1977, it has maintained its strategic value for France with which it is bound by a defense agreement. The year 2001 was a pivotal year for Djibouti. The attacks of 11 September and the subsequent Global War on Terror by the United States (US) made Djibouti a location sought by all the powers involved in this new model of conflict. A US base quickly took shape alongside the long-standing French presence.

The conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which was only temporarily ended by the Algiers Agreements in December 2000, has led to a situation of “neither peace nor war” between the two countries. Aware that the situation will continue, Ethiopia turned to Djibouti for its imports and exports. To date, 85% of Ethiopian trade goes through the port of Djibouti. The decision to open the new port of Doraleh to foreign operators (Dubai) unveils the most modern platform in the region. It has allowed trade between the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa via the Indian Ocean[1]. The international role of Djibouti is linked to the responsiveness and opportunism of Ismaël Omar Guelleh who has integrated his country in the fight against terrorism by providing a secure rear base. The port is also significant to the country’s economic development. Since the summit of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), hosted in 2006, Djibouti displayed its desire to become the entry point of trade for member states of COMESA[2].

France-Djibouti: an older couple that shows signs of weakness

The 1977 defense agreement and the Defense Cooperation Treaty signed in 2011 confirmed the strategic role of Djibouti to France. The 2011 agreement specified in its preamble that “the French presence on Djibouti territory meets the common will of the French Republic and the Republic of Djibouti.” Its main objective is defense cooperation to ensure sustainable peace and security in Djibouti (Art. 2). Article 4 underlined that the parties will regularly exchange views, analyses and information about the risks and potential threats to the Republic of Djibouti. In case of threats, the parties will evaluate the situation and the measures to be taken for the defense of Djibouti. In this context, France supports the strengthening of the Djibouti Armed Forces and the French Forces stationed in Djibouti (FFDJ) benefit from operational facilities[3]. The financial commitment of France for the presence of FFDJ is a fixed annual contribution of 30 million euros. The strategic interest for France and Djibouti is clear. Approximately 2,000 soldiers are deployed to Djibouti. They serve a large number of air, ground and naval assets[4]. Due to budget restrictions and the priority of the “Barkhane” operation[5], the format of FFDJ could rapidly decrease to little more 1,300 personnel. Nevertheless, Djibouti remains the largest French military installation abroad.

Americans in Djibouti: an advanced system of observation and intervention in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula

Since 2002, US forces have established a base near the French forces proximate to the airport but are also present on the Chabelley airport (south of Djibouti) which has become the base for the drones that conduct missions against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In a few years, the US contingent has more than doubled, exceeding the French contingent and the means deployed are considerable. In less than ten years, the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF HOA) has evolved from a light structure of headquarters to a military base equipped with modern and offensive assets[6].

The CJTF-HOA depends on the US Command for Africa, whose main headquarters is located in Stuttgart (Federal Republic of Germany). The mission of this US Command for Africa is “to protect and defend the national security interests of the United States by strengthening the defense capabilities of African states and regional organisms and, when directed, conducts military operations, in order to deter and defeat transnational threats and to provide a security environment conducive to good governance and development“. The CJTF-HOA is the only permanent US military presence in Africa. This military base costs $38 million. It was re-valued since the visit of Ismaël Omar Guelleh in the US in 2014. The US plans to stay in Djibouti for an indefinite period of time. The doubling of the rent points to both the commitment and US needs on Djiboutian territory. Africa is not a strategic priority for the US[7] and is generally understood as a peripheral space for American power [8]. But, its importance has been revised upward and if the Light Footprint[9]must remain minimal, it requires some support points. Djibouti is one of these main points[10].

Djibouti: an international garrison

Along with the US and France, other smaller foreign contingents from Japan, Germany and Spain based in Djibouti have contributed to the fight against terrorism and piracy. The facilities of the port of Djibouti and the French presence have allowed significant logistical support to various naval operations (International, European and NATO). Djibouti has become in a few years an international garrison due to its close proximity to regions in crisis (Yemen, Somalia) and through international shipping routes vital for European and Asian economies.

The stability of Djibouti offers foreign partners in international or regional coalitions in a very turbulent Horn of Africa, transit facilities and major support points. Djibouti with its infrastructure capacities to deliver humanitarian aid in the region and recently in Yemen plays a major geopolitical role that all international actors have understood. China’s plan to have military facilities in Djibouti has confirmed the strategic military status of the small country[11]. Rents paid by the various countries which maintain their military assets in Djibouti underlines the opportunism of the current head of state faced with present strategic realities.


The Republic of Djibouti is a sentinel keeping watch over the Red Sea, the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa. Capitalizing on an exceptional location, the current head of state has managed to attract investments to develop Djibouti’s economy and to focus his central strategy on the port of Djibouti. The stability of this small country offers its partners support points to deploy military assets involved in international missions. Three countries provide Djibouti insurance against current risks and threats. France and the US deter external aggression. Finally, Ethiopia would not accept a situation of chaos in such a friendly country ensuring the transit of its vital imports and exports.

After two decades of French protection, Djibouti has diversified its relations and has established itself as an active member of the international community. The opportunism of its president who exploits the competition between major powers and continually seeks new partners has led to a rise in Djibouti’s strategic significance. The recent visits of the Turkish president and the US Secretary of State provide sufficient evidence. US, France and China have invested in Djibouti. Djibouti can no longer be simply dismissed as another example of an African state in the French backyard. France and US are allied but their missions are completely different (Defense agreement / GWOT). China has played an economic role and its foreign policy is not to establish large military bases in Africa. Despite the attack in May 2014, Djibouti has managed in the last decade to “rent” its strategic position and attract new investors. It remains one of the few African countries to have been able to manage and master this comparative advantage.

Patrick Ferras previously served as an intelligence officer in the French Air Force and has served in numerous foreign operations. He has a PhD in in Geopolitics and currently is the director of the Observatory of the Horn of Africa and a lecturer  at University of Bordeaux. He can be reached at


[1] 90 % of global trade is conducted by sea. Ports are key nodes in this huge network.

[2] COMESA has 19 members including Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya.

[3]Air base, barracks, communications, troop’s movement, security of the military establishments.

[4] Mainly, an infantry regiment, seven fighters (Mirage 2000), a detachment of Army helicopters (Gazelle and Puma), helicopter and cargo aircrafts from the Air Force (Puma, C160 Transall), two light transport boats.

[5] A counter-terrorism force intended to fight against Terrorism in Sahel countries.

[6] Including drones.  The troops are more than 2 000.

[7] Papers from the Strategic Research Institute of the Military School, La Stratégie américaine en Afrique, Maya Kandel, December 2014.

[8] Paper from the Thomas More Institute, May 31, 2015, Antonin Tisseron.

[9] Concept describing US strategy in Africa.

[10]According to Maya Kandel, Africa is the laboratory of the new approach called Light Footprint (p. 13).

[11] China plans to open a military base in Djibouti to benefit from the exceptional strategic position of this country in the Gulf of Aden and to find a place among the international maritime powers present in this area. (Africa Agency, May 15, 2015).


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