Just weeks after sending troops to its first overseas military base in the tiny East African nation of Djibouti, China has come forward with a curious offer: to dive headlong into a dispute that illustrates the complex rivalries of the Horn of Africa region.
China is constructing its first overseas military base just a few miles from one of the United States’ largest and most important foreign bases — Camp Lemonnier in the small East African nation of Djibouti. Five other nations have put up bases there, and Saudi Arabia will soon join them.
China, the United States, France, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia … A few months before the 40th anniversary of independence, the president returns to the geopolitical stakes of the region, of which his country has become a key player. On the domestic front, he did not disarm and defended his record against criticism.
Between a hostile Eritrea, an unstable Somalia, a friendly Ethiopia but a prey to cyclical crises and a Yemen at war, Djibouti appears as an oasis of peace (a single attack for 27 years), conducive to investment and ambitions ” Singapore ” of a head of state who does not hesitate to take risks. Even if it means maintaining democracy under tutelage.
Q: The comments that accompanied your official visit to Paris at the end of February all went in the same direction: the future of Djibouti is increasingly written with China and less and less with France. Is that your opinion as well?
Ismail Omar Guelleh: I know that this obsession with the Chinese presence exists. But it is both unfounded and unilateral. The Chinese have no problem cohabiting with the Westerners in Djibouti, provided they do not constantly spy on their facilities.
The Americans, on the other hand, are fixing it. They constantly tell us that this Chinese presence hinders their operations. In reality, the Chinese base under construction at Doraleh, which adjoins the new wharf and the new free zone, will not house more than four hundred men.
Q: The Japanese, who also have a base in Djibouti, are also concerned…
Yes, even more so than the Americans! They have asked for an extension of their hold, and we will give them satisfaction, in part.
Q: How do you manage these conflicting interests – and these apprehensions?
It is necessary to reassure, to palaver and to demonstrate to each other that their obsessions have no place to be. The French have been here since independence; The Americans came later because of the presence of Al Qaeda in Somalia and Yemen and because Djibouti was the only African country to accept one of their bases on its soil.
Even today, South Africa has not digested it, and President Jacob Zuma systematically votes against Djibouti candidates in pan-African bodies to punish us for being allegedly pro-American, as if he himself was still pro-Soviet.
The Japanese wanted to settle to protect their ships from maritime piracy in the Gulf of Aden. The Chinese want to secure their massive investments and their nationals throughout the region, from Uganda to Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, from this strategic hub of the “new Silk Road”.
The Chinese are the only ones to invest in us in all areas: railways, ports, banks, industrial parks, etc. The French and Europeans are largely absent subscribers. As for the Americans, who have expressed their interest in the Djibouti-Addis pipeline project, their goal is to earn a lot, fast and alone: that is understandable, but more complicated than expected. The reality is that no one but the Chinese offers a long-term partnership in Djibouti.
Q: But there is a risk, which the IMF and many observers point out: that of debt over-indebtedness – and thus dependence – with Beijing. Are you aware of that?
This is the usual process that our Western partners are doing. First, Djibouti is and will not be the colony of anyone. Then, no country developed without debt. Finally, what matters to us is not to add to our public debt, which must be repaid by the Treasury. The latter is only involved in the Arab debt – Fades, Saudi and Kuwaiti funds – which involves the construction of schools, roads and hospitals.
The Chinese debt has been contracted by Djiboutian parastatals, which reimburse it without going through the Treasury, while paying their taxes to the State. As for the Djibouti-Addis railway, it will be managed for six years by a Chinese company, which will repay the loan itself. I read somewhere that we would have to spend 12% of our revenue next year paying our debt. This is simply not true.
Q: Did your visit to Paris help wake up French investors?
I wish. French businessmen settled here came to tell the Medef international what they thought about the organization’s reluctance towards Djibouti. Sometimes in very sharp terms. I think a lot of French investors are short-sighted. Obnubiliated by West Africa, they do not see that behind Djibouti it is access to a whole part of East Africa that is played.
We want to remain in the French-speaking world and we demand from our partners that all commercial contracts be drafted in French – which, incidentally, makes the Americans lament. But our patience is not unlimited. Was I heard? A little, I think. Groups like CMA-CGM, Airbus and Bred have expressed their interest: they are welcome.
Q: You met François Hollande. Has there been any talk of Djiboutian domestic politics?
No. We talked about the above, China, the drought, the regional security situation. No interference of this kind.
Q: How do your defense agreements work with France?
Correctly. Even though some articles still need to be revisited.
Q: The French army wants to obtain permission to fly over the northern part of Djibouti, neighboring Eritrea. Why do you refuse it?
Helping us to monitor our airspace is one thing, ensuring the air police is another. In 1998, during the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, the fighter and bomber planes of these two countries flew over our country in the area of Mount Musa-Ali, at the junction of the three borders.
President Hassan Gouled then asked the French to insure the police of the air. For us it was a temporary agreement, but for the French it was a perennial treaty. It was therefore necessary to explain to them that this was a question of sovereignty. The same goes for maritime surveillance radars that France has given us. The French army cannot alone supervise our territorial waters. We have to do it jointly.
Q: Djibouti is the natural outlet of Ethiopia. Have you been worried about the internal tensions in this country for more than a year?
It is clear that the future of Djibouti cannot be based on a single customer, hence our diversification efforts. Having said that, I am not too worried about Ethiopia: political convulsions and drought occur every ten or fifteen years, it is a known cycle.
What is new in the crisis that this country has just experienced is the crucial role played by the Amharic programs of Deutsche Welle and Voice of America, as well as social networks and diaspora.
For a long time, an unknown 28-year-old Ethiopian opponent in the United States issued orders to the Oromos: “Strike, do not go to school, demonstrate in a certain place”, and so on. , All via internet, Skype, Facebook. And it was followed!
At the level of the port of Djibouti, we felt the shock: container traffic abruptly declined. Before straightening up. Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn has managed the situation with skill, and I do not believe the risk of implosion agitated by some.
Q: Since February 8, Somalia has a new president who is said to be the bearer of hope, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed. Is that your opinion as well?
Yes. His election has aroused real fervor among the Somalis. Farmajo, as he is called , is an open man, trained in the United States, former Prime Minister engaged in the fight against corruption and especially independent and nationalist, in the sense that he is not related to any of the regional powers – in particular Ethiopia.
“We are the only country in the Arab League to have accepted Yemeni refugees on our soil
Q: Yemen is at your doorstep, and two wars are taking place here: the Saudis and the Emirati against the Iranian-backed Houthists, and the United States against Al Qaeda. During the first week of March, some 40 US missile and drones strikes in the south were recorded. Were they from Djibouti?
In part yes, it is incontestable. But also of Yemen itself, where the American special forces are present in the center of the country.
Q: Do the Americans inform you of operations from your territory?
Q: They are not required to do so?
Q: How are you impacted by this conflict?
We are the only country in the Arab League that has agreed to accept Yemeni refugees on our soil . They are only 20,000, in Djibouti alone, and our police are very vigilant about the risks of infiltration of extremist elements among them.
Q: There is another commercial war, the one that the United Arab Emirates is delivering to the port of Djibouti. The Emirati are present in Assab in Eritrea, Berbera in Somaliland and they are eyeing Aden in Yemen. Objective: capture your traffic. Are you aware of the danger?
It did not escape us. But I remain serene. In order for the port of Berbera to capture the Ethiopian market, the 280 km of road connecting the port to the Ethiopian border must be rebuilt at the rate of one and a half million dollars per kilometer, or more than 400 million. Who will pay? In addition, the draft required for large vessels, including tankers, is 12 km off Berbera while it is immediate in Djibouti. The comparative advantage is clearly in our favor.
Q: Behind this “Operation Berbera”, some see the hand of the Franco-Djiboutian businessman Abdourahmane Boreh, who was your adviser before he quarreled with you and is known to be close to the Emirati authorities. Is right?
Boreh played a role, but I believe they have since dismissed it.
Q: On 21 February, the International Court of Arbitration in London dismissed the State of Djibouti’s complaints against the Emirates of DP World and Abdourahmane Boreh. Since then, he has asked you to stop what he calls a “vendetta” and adds that even though many people ask him to run for the next presidential election in 2021, he is not interested. Are you ready to make peace with him?
It is not a matter of peace, but of justice. I do not consider that the London Court delivered a fair verdict. As for Boreh, we maintain our incriminations against him.
Q: To hear it, the dispute between you is political. He would have advised you not to amend the Constitution to be able to represent you in the presidential election.
This is a matter of storytelling. This gentleman was interested only in one thing: his business and the markets he coveted. It was from the moment his financial positions were investigated that he switched. He repeated to anyone who wanted to hear him that he was only a businessman and he never asked me a single political question, let alone the slightest condition. He, president? Let him give us his birth certificate first! He and his father became Djibouti only in 1977, when they traded their Ethiopian passes for Djibouti identity cards.
Q: Forty years after independence, can we say that the divide between Afars and Issas is on the way to being surpassed?
It is incontestable. We have spent a great deal of time, effort and willingness to create a Djiboutian nation. Mixed marriages are now commonplace, and urbanization has favored mixing.
Obviously tribalism and nepotism have not disappeared as if by magic, but Afars and Issas know today that they cannot do without one another. In the appointments I make, I take into account the need for community representativeness so that no one feels excluded. Without ever losing sight of the criterion of competence.
Q: Yet there is still a residual movement of Afar rebellion, the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD Armé), which operates along the Eritrean border. Is not this a sign that reconciliation is incomplete?
The Frud is a movement raised and maintained by Eritrea which, failing recruiting here, is reduced to removing young Afars to take them across the border. It is an external nuisance, nothing more.
Q: One of its leaders, Mohamed Ahmed, said Jabha, has been detained in Djibouti for nearly seven years. In October 2016, the court ordered his release, which is still waiting. Why?
Because the prosecution appealed that decision. In fact, this Jabha, which some NGOs make great use of, is not a Djiboutian but an Eritrean on duty with the Frud. Knowing this, the late Ahmed Dini, who then headed the Front, refused to include him in his membership when he laid down his arms in 2001. Jabha then enlisted under the aegis of the pro-Syrian prodigies whom Mohamed Kadamy continues to agitate From Paris. When he was arrested in the bush in May 2010, he said: “I am a fighter, I do not know anything else. If you let me go, I’ll do it again.”
Q: Mohamed Kadamy accuses you of restricting food aid distributions to the Afars in the North. What do you say?
These distributions are carried out in full transparency, in conjunction with the World Food Program and international organizations. If so, do you seriously think that our Western partners would be silent? The most surprising thing is that there are still naive people to believe these lies.
Q: The next political deadline is the legislative elections of February 2018. Faced with an opposition which, for now, is struggling to regain unity, your supporters are optimistic. And you?
Me too, no problem.
Q: Is the Islamists always a danger to you?
They hurt us during the 2013 elections, but we have since fought them right. The government has put in place strict control of the Friday sermons, which are now written exclusively by a specialized commission of the Ministry of Muslim Affairs and sent over the Internet to all mosques in the country.
As for the imams, they are now listed and employees of the State. Suspect foreign preachers were deported.
We have obtained from Saudi Arabia to do the housework in its cultural institute of Djibouti and that it ceases to grant scholarships only to students of theology. Finally, we are fighting a relentless, multi-faceted, long-term struggle against poverty and ignorance, in order to deal with evil at its root. That is our jihad.
Q: The growth rate of the Djibouti economy is 7%, but half the million Djiboutians still live below the poverty line. How do you explain that?
I dispute the latter figure. If poverty were to reach such proportions, how do you explain that tens of thousands of Ethiopians, Somalis and Yemenis come to Djibouti in search of a better life? How do you explain that the drought and scarcity that afflict the region do not reach us?
We are the only country in the Horn of Africa whose population benefits from health insurance, housing assistance and financial assistance programs for the most precarious. I am quite dismayed by the assurance with which some Western commentators are mistaken about our realities. Forty years later, it would be time to remove the colonial glasses!