Opportunity, location and strategy: Djibouti’s geo-political rise What to expect in the May-June issue of the Horn of Africa Bulletin

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

Djibouti has always been defined by paradoxes and anomalies. It is the sole Francophone country in the Horn of Africa. It has also been in relative terms, an oasis of stability and peace in an otherwise volatile and conflict-prone region. In spite of Djibouti’s obvious geo-strategic significance, it has until recently been overlooked by the media and received negligible attention in academic literature.

For a long time Djibouti had been regarded as an insignificant backwater whose economic basis was believed to lie in the rents derived from the Port of Djibouti and whose political existence was guaranteed by France, its former colonial power.

From the late 1990s onwards, several developments have immeasurably added to Djibouti’s strategic importance and garnered greater attention for the country. The 9/11 attacks and the US-led ‘Global War on Terror’, the international naval campaign against piracy in the waters of the Somali coast and the 1998-2000 Ethio-Eritrean war coupled with the political skills of Djibouti’s leadership, are the central factors that have led to a shift in its geo-political significance.

This issue of the Horn of Africa Bulletin (HAB) is devoted to Djibouti and examines the multifaceted aspects of Djibouti’s internal dynamics and its geo-political significance. The contributors to the issue are drawn from diverse backgrounds and their articles touch on the internal political developments in Djibouti; Djibouti’s relations with the Arab world; its efforts to resolve the conflict in Somalia, Djibouti’s expanding economic and infrastructural collaboration with Ethiopia as well as the configurations and ramifications of the expanding military-strategic cooperation between Djibouti and major non-African powers. In what is a first for the HAB, this issue is also carrying two articles in French by two of our contributors.

Patrick Ferras’ contribution describes the patterns and dynamics that gave rise to the growing non-African military presence in Djibouti and finally examines its implications for Djibouti and the region.  Aden Omar Abdillahi analyses the legislative elections of 2013 and the profound political transformations it unleashed in Djibouti. These transformations were a key turning point in the Djiboutian political system and will have a bearing on the upcoming 2016 presidential elections. The contribution by Mohamed Omar is a comprehensive and analytic overview of Djibouti attempts to resolve the conflict in Somalia. The article also provides useful insights into the Djiboutian perspective on how inter-state competition and divergent interests in the Horn of Africa, have bedeviled peacemaking in Somalia. The article by Ambassador Djama Omar Idleh’s examines the unfolding of Djibouti’s political and economic links with the Arab world. The article by Zelalem Tesfaye studies the expanding economic and infrastructural collaboration between Ethiopia and Djibouti and the ramifications (political and economic) for the rest of the region.

The articles and their conclusions suggest a wide range of recommendations and issues of concern to policy makers. Ferras’ article underlines how Djibouti’s growing strategic significance has fundamentally shifted its traditional orientation to the outside world and is the outcome of not only developments external to Djibouti but also derived from the skillful maneuvering of its current leadership. At the same time, the obverse side of this state of affairs cannot also be overlooked in the potential for greater foreign influence in Djibouti and the possibility that it could be dragged into external conflicts. Aden’s article highlight’s the fragility of Djibouti’s current political situation and draws attention to the criticality of a smooth political transition in the context of widespread economic dissatisfaction and calls for political liberalization. The issues brought up in Aden’s article become even more critical in a context where it is widely believed that the current president of Djibouti will soon be exiting the political scene due to his advanced years. Mohamed Omar’s piece provides readers with useful insights into inter-state rivalries in the Horn and how these tensions have impacted regional initiatives to resolve the conflict in Somalia. This article underlines the need to take account of the competing needs and interests of regional states by the international community, when formulating policy and programmatic interventions in Somalia. Ambassador Djama’s article discussing Djibouti’s multifaceted relations with the Arab world should also draw attention to the possibility that developments in the Arabian Peninsula could also disproportionately affect Djibouti as is borne out by the influx of refugees fleeing the civil war in Yemen. Zelalem’s contribution highlights the growing importance of the economic and infrastructural collaboration between Ethiopia and Djibouti but in a context where collaboration has not been free of some tensions.