Spying and stability: Djibouti ‘back to Cold War’

At the top of the lighthouse in the secluded Headland, Ali Hassan Ali points across the Bab-el-Mandeb seas to war-torn Yemen. Then, behind him, to war-torn Ethiopia. Then, on the right, to volatile Somalia. Finally, the dictatorship involved in the Tigris clash on its left, side by side in Eritrea.

“It’s a matter of peace, of trade,” said the Wari man in charge of keeping the lights on. Djibouti, a rare point of stability for a former French colony of just 1 million people, is in a highly strategic location, on the southern tip of the Red Sea, on the way to the Suez Canal, the launchpin for world trade.

About one-third of the world’s daily shipping goes to the northeastern tip of Africa, where the water reaches the chokepoint opposite Yemen.

With economic growth up to the per cent forecast this year, according to the finance ministry, helped by China’s investment in Africa’s average port, free trade zone and a railway to landlocked Ethiopia, Djibouti will be identified as one of the continent’s fastest growing economies.

China’s first foreign military base, home to five naval bases, including the 201st, has significant geographical as well as economic significance. Abubakar Omar Hadi, chairman of the Djibouti Port and Free Zone Authority and one of the country’s most influential figures, said it was all about “location, location, location.”

Whispers, spies and snoops

“It’s both, location And Stability, ”said Nima Dirih Warsama, chief executive of ATMD-GIE, a transport industry group. Such stability is aided by French tanks, U.S. helicopters, Chinese troops and Japanese ships, which is a common sight because the area around Djibouti is a “powder keg,” said a Western military official in the country.

Yet, the government is seen as a neutral host of global power, sometimes indulging in tensions between the Americans and the Chinese, with a senior government official calling for a “return to the Cold War” where “Djibouti is at the center.” The official added, “The fact that Djibouti has been given this intelligence means that it is safe because there is so much power here.”

The French trained 11,000 regional troops, mainly Djiboutians, and defended the country’s airspace with Meraj fighter jets. “We’re really guaranteed security here,” said General Stephen Dupont, commander of the 1,500-strong base. Other powers, such as the United States, agree. Djibouti is a worldwide threat against al-Shabab-linked Somali terrorist group al-Shabab, as well as a reduction in piracy.

But for some, the arrival of China, which has invested 85 853 billion and owns 30 percent of Djibouti’s total debt, is not a cause for concern. “It’s a tsunami, it’s really a tsunami,” said a senior Western official in Djibouti, referring to Chinese investment, ranging from military investment. “They are not enemies, but they are not friends. And we have to be together. ”

Djiboutian politicians, American contractors and French officials meet for Cafe de la Gare Soriz to whisper about what the Chinese military should do to their concrete fortress. It is China’s first foreign military base, guarding merchant ships. It holds a hill that could support Africa’s top U.S. commander, General Stephen Townsend, as China’s “future aircraft carrier”. Recently Dr..

Chinese military personnel inaugurate the country's naval base in Djibouti
Chinese military personnel attend the opening ceremony of Beijing Naval Base 2017 in Djibouti © AFP / Getty

“Djibouti is located in an important geological region where the interests of all members of the international community are at stake,” said Foreign Minister Mahmoud Ali Youssef. “We recognize that there is serious economic competition between the major powers,” he added, but stressed that his country was “not under any kind of influence.”

In fact, the country’s finance minister, Elias Musa Dawaleh, said: “The idea that China will occupy Djibouti completely is a lie.”

Many agree that the atmosphere in the port city is similar to that where most of the population lives. Casablanca, The film about the conspiracies and romance of World War II interrogates a veteran foreign diplomat, “everyone jumps at each other”.

“We know very well that the Chinese want to spy. That doesn’t mean we won’t do the same thing, “said a Western military official in Djibouti.” We are all friends here, but we all want to know what others are doing. ”

Democratic erosion or 99 percent support?

Another key factor in stability is the 733-year-old President Ismail Omar Guelleh. He has been running the country since 1999 and has been described by critics as a centralized dictatorship and widely described as a strong and conscientious leader.

“He’s the only game in town,” said one African diplomat. “The democratic front has disintegrated over time.”

Guelleh is credited with building a base for both Djibouti’s cargo ship and foreign military. The size of the economy increased from $ 536 million when he took office in 2012. His portraits are ubiquitous in every shop, office and building. Last month, He won a fifth term With 99 percent of the vote.

Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a meeting in Beijing
At a meeting in Beijing in 2014, Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guleh met with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping ©Madoka Ikegami / AFP / Getty

Newcomer Zakaria Ismail Farah, the main opposition rival, said, “Except for the country of extreme dictatorship, 99 percent of the world’s events have not happened so far.” Foreign powers in Djibouti, he said, have “abandoned Djibouti democracy for regional stability”.

Alexis Mohamed Farah, a top adviser to the president, has rejected criticism, saying “the political future of Djibouti” has already been discussed in the aftermath of Gwalior, as it is the president’s last term.

He said the president had been able to maintain peace and social cohesion in Djibouti, a region where tensions are high in Ethiopia and Somalia. Echoing Ali in the lighthouse, he added, “God didn’t give us oil,” but it did give us a strategic point. “

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