Djibouti: caught between the devil and the deep Red Sea

*** Note from the editor: this is a syndicated article originally posted by Benjamin Hibbert for The Best of Africa ***

To many people outside Africa, Djibouti may prove difficult to locate on a map. This task is compounded by the relatively small size of the country, which is roughly the size of Wales.

Djibouti itself is largely barren, with fewer than 4 per cent arable land, few natural resources, and its high seasonal temperatures make it a largely inhospitable country for those who reside within its borders.

Over 80 per cent of its 900,000 inhabitants reside in or around its capital city, Djibouti City, and poverty and unemployment are key factors that have curtailed progress in recent years.

40 per cent of the population live in poverty, with 22 per cent living in extreme poverty, illiteracy and childhood malnutrition being notable concerns, and may be a reflection of the high unemployment rate of 48 per cent, and a youth unemployment rate of nearly 80 per cent.


President Ismail Omar Guelleh and his People’s Rally for Progress party have ruled Djibouti for four consecutive parliamentary terms since 1999, with President Guelleh’s uncle ruling before him since Independence from France in 1977. The legitimacy of these tenures is an issue of strong contention.

No opposition members occupy the National Assembly – compounded by Djibouti’s ‘winner-takes-all’ approach to parliamentary elections.

President Guelleh promised his people that, if his party won re-election in 2010, it would be his last term in office. An Act of Parliament that year paved the way for President Guelleh to serve beyond the previous two-term limit; however, he has continued to rule as President of Djibouti, contrary to his promise to the people, and in defiance of the previous restrictions on presidential terms.

Opponents of the President, and those disenchanted with the lack of change, may well retort: “are you still here!?”.


Human rights violations, government corruption, and restrictions to political freedoms have further marred the country and hindered its political process. In the Executive Summary of its Djibouti 2016 Human Rights Report, the US Department of State outlined the methods employed by the current regime, which have denied the people of Djibouti the ability to play a meaningful role in influencing the political process and the government.

The methods have included ‘suppressing the opposition and refusing to allow several opposition groups to form legally recognized political parties’; furthermore, the report noted the harassment, abuse, and detention of government critics, restrictions on access to independent sources, and restrictions to free speech and assembly.


Freedom House echo these findings in a 2017 report.

In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, reporters from the BBC were arrested and then expelled from the country, in a move heavily criticised by Reporters Without Borders, who contend: “a democratic election cannot be held amid such a level of censorship”.

The President was re-elected with 87 per cent of the vote, but as noted by Freedom House, this mandate is contentious given that the majority of opponents boycotted the election.

Paradoxically, international observers from both the African Union and the League of Arab States monitoring the 2016 Presidential election described the election as “peaceful”, “calm”, and “sufficiently free and transparent”, despite noting ‘irregularities’. Djibouti is a member state of both organisations.

In RSF’s 2015 World Press Freedom Index, Djibouti ranked 170th out of 180 countries measured, and has since slipped to occupy the unenviable 172nd position in both the 2016 and 2017 Index (marginally ahead of China and ‘wooden-spooners’, North Korea).

The theme for the subsequent 2017 World Press Freedom Day was ‘Critical Minds for Critical Times: Media’s role in advancing peaceful, just and inclusive societies’. UNESCO’s Regional Officer for Eastern Africa, Mrs. Ann Therese Ndong-Jatta, was in Djibouti to mark the occasion, with her underlying message: ‘freedom of expression and freedom of information foster more inclusive societies’.

The literature suggests that Djibouti is bereft of these freedoms, and it remains to be seen whether President Guelleh – former head of the secret police – will take  active steps to achieve these fundamental human rights.


Despite the country’s many shortcomings, its key discernible asset is, undeniably, its location – at the intersection of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, near the appropriately named ‘Bab el Mandeb’ Strait (or ‘Gate of Tears’). This location lies at the heart of high-volume international merchant shipping activity, leading towards the Suez Canal, whose goods are destined for Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and other African states.

Almost a third of the world’s trade passes through this US-controlled shipping corridor, and with approximately 20,000 ships laden with essential resources such as oil passing through, the threat of piracy has been a recurring cause for concern.

In addition to its strategically important location, Djibouti is aided by its deep ports which have received significant investment in recent years. This investment has contributed to high economic growth, but as noted by the International Monetary Fund, ‘many of the jobs created have been taken by expatriates because of a weak domestic skills base’, and there has been ‘limited trickle-down’ effect.

In a country blighted by poverty and unemployment, the lack of access to these opportunities perpetuates the downward spiral of some of the world’s poorest people.


Djibouti has been instrumental in the so-called global War on Terror since 2001, and has aided in the fight against piracy in the region. Capitalising on the country’s location, France, Italy, the US, Japan, and China have all established military bases within Djibouti – the US in particular deploys its drones from there.

Saudi Arabia are currently in talks to establish their base. Each country justifies their military presence in Djibouti in various ways – reasons that may either be supported or contested by scholars and political commentators. The opening of China’s military base in August 2017 received widespread media attention, not least for its ability to accommodate up to 10,000 troops, its landmark first military base outside of China, and China’s widespread expansion into Africa (I investigated this phenomenon further in a recent article for Best of Africa).

Japan’s base marks the country’s first garrison outside of Japan since the Second World War, and the Japanese government justifies its presence to ‘counter acts of piracy off the Somali coast’.

France, the US and Italy similarly justify their presence to combat piracy and also to fight terrorism in the region. Each country leases land from the Djibouti government, with revenue equating to US$150 million a year prior to the opening of China’s base.


Despite the small size of Djibouti, its future direction and stability is of great importance not only to its people, but also to the overall stability of the region. In 2014, President Guelleh and his government set a very ambitious strategic planning direction termed Djibouti 2035At the heart of this vision are five core pillars:

  1. Peace and national unity
  2. Good governance
  3. A diversified economy
  4. Investing in human capital
  5. Regional integration

The vision aims to triple per capita income by 2035 (at time of writing, the GDP per capita is merely US$1,945) and to create more than 200,000 jobs.

To achieve this growth, Djibouti 2035 seeks to diversify the economy. The evidence suggests that Djibouti has a long way to go in order to remain on track to achieve its goals.

President Guelleh has made promises in the past, and his own track record in achieving them is poor. ‘Peace and national unity’ is improbable – and perhaps impossible – without empowering the people with the right to question existing government malpractices and to participate in free and fair elections.

Corruption within government does little to advance good governance, whilst restrictions on foreign and domestic media impede the truth from prevailing.


A diversified economy relies on people with a range of skill-sets, and education is key to equipping the workforce of tomorrow with the skills to fulfill these roles. At present, illiteracy is an issue in Djibouti, and high unemployment levels are likely to play a factor in these abnormally high levels.

By devoting more resources to education and health, the human capital of Djiboutians may be enhanced. As a member of both the African Union and League of Arab States equipped with significant Chinese investment in local and regional infrastructure, regional integration appears to be the most likely pillar capable of succeeding. Whether this pillar can succeed without major advancements in the other four pillars remains to be seen.

The international community – and, in particular, those states with military bases within Djibouti – has been largely silent in acting upon the malpractices of the Guelleh regime. Countries such as the United States have evidence of human rights abuses, and have condemned such actions, but there appear to be no existing sanctions of active steps taken to reverse these abuses of power. It could be argued that they themselves are caught between the ‘devil and the deep Red Sea’, and should they take active steps to reverse these abuses of power, they may be given their ‘marching orders’ out of Djibouti. If, for example, President Guelleh were to cancel the lease of the US military base in Camp Lemonnier, what would that mean for the balance of power in the region – given the rise of China?

Furthermore, what would this mean in the global war on terror in the region, and the fight against piracy in the most lucrative shipping channel in the world?

Conversely, if no action is taken, and President Guelleh makes no real steps to bring his people out of abject poverty and to bring about the changes so badly needed in “his nation”, what does this mean for the people of Djibouti? If President Guelleh continues to preserve his stranglehold on power, regardless of the promises he has made, who will stop him?

Despite Djibouti’s small size, achieving quality outcomes to these questions is likely to be at the heart of achieving domestic, regional, and international peace and prosperity.

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