The Republic of Djibouti rarely makes the headlines. Overshadowed by much larger countries in the Horn of Africa – Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and with trouble spots Eritrea and Yemen a respective camel and dhow ride away – not to mention the neighbouring web of chaos that is Somalia – Djibouti appears serene in an otherwise chaotic region. Being sparsely populated, infernally hot and difficult to reach doesn’t give much reason for external observers to probe much further, either. Since independence in 1977, Djibouti has effectively been the personal fiefdom of first president Hassan Gouled Aptidon and his nephew and successor Ismail Omar Guelleh, who abolished presidential term limits in 2010 and was handily re-elected as president in April 2011, against an almost complete opposition boycott of the polls.
Away from the turmoil of the region, Djibouti is Africa’s leading host for Western military operations. Geopolitics rules. Djibouti sits at the mouth of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, atop some of the world’s most important shipping lanes. The Persian Gulf is not too distant – Djibouti provides a useful remove for a military presence a step away from the more high Gulf itself. The country is a useful backstop to military operations in Afghanistan and Yemen – American predator drones are regularly launched from Ambouli airport – as well as for the AMISOM operation in Somalia. AMISOM’s Burundian and Uganda troop casualties have been evacuated here, a safe distance from the constant dangers of Mogadishu.
Adjoining Somali waters, Djibouti is ideally positioned for the battle against piracy in the waters of the Horn of Africa – the closest feasible alternative bases in Kenya hundreds of nautical miles away.
Since 1977, France has upheld a mutual defense treaty with Djibouti, the historical vestige of a colonial relationship. France pays Djibouti â‚¬30 million annually for the right to host a force of 2,900 troops, an agreement due to continue until 2013. The French government estimates that its military expenditure in Djibouti accounts for about 20% of the country’s annual GDP. Two units comprise the Forces Franí§aises de Djibouti, including the famed 13th Démi-Brigade de la Légion í‰trangí¨re. Numbering 800 men, the Foreign Legion has five companies: command and logistics, maintenance, infantry, engineering and an armoured squadron, in addition to a training centre down the coast at Arta. France also has army, marine and air force units stationed in the country, including 10 Mirage fighter jets.
Since September 11th, the American presence has grown rapidly, even inheriting the former French base at Camp Lemonnier. From 2007 to 2012, the US committed nearly $400m for upgrades at Lemonnier and its linked forward operating base at Manda Bay, Kenya. An estimated 2,000 American troops are based in Djibouti, as part of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA). The Americans conduct training exercises, for their own troops as well as the Djiboutian army, and are keen to speak of civilian-military cooperation. In the shadows, ongoing anti-terror operations are conducted, but few details are ever released. Combined Task Force 151, under the overall leadership of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, is engaged in counter-piracy operations throughout the Gulf of Aden and Somali territorial waters.
Rightly, the French and Americans get most of the attention. But others are here, too, including the Germans, Dutch, Russians and Chinese, principally engaged in anti-piracy operations. NATO’s anti-piracy effort, Operation Ocean Shield, has been extended until the end of 2012. The European Union’s NAVFOR Somalia Operation Atalanta has personnel here, as part of its multi-pronged mission to protect UN food aid deliveries, support AMISOM operations, and conduct anti-piracy patrols.
There are some surprises, too. In its most ambitious overseas endeavour since the end of the Second World War, Japan has established a military base in Djibouti, further to an agreement with the Djiboutian government signed in April 2009. The base, close to Ambouli airport, Djiboutiville’s golf course and cheetah reserve, opened in early June 2011 at an estimated construction cost of 4.7 billion yen ($59m). 200 Japanese personnel and two aircraft will be based here, in addition to two navy destroyers at the port of Djibouti.
Djibouti serves a purpose greater than firsts appear, far beyond the significance its mere 800,000 citizens command. It has made an important contribution to regional security efforts, including AMISOM and as host of military exercises for the 13 member Eastern African Standby Brigade, the nascent rapid reaction force for cross-border security in the East and Horn of Africa. As an ally of the West and a valued anti-piracy partner, Djibouti has won plaudits. But this comes at the expense of Djiboutians themselves, languishing under a repressive regime and enduring the lowest development indicators in the world, massive unemployment, and severe, unaddressed environmental problems that have disrupted the way of life of thousands. Externally valuable, but internally regressive, Djibouti’s strategic military importance still trumps all other considerations, domestically and abroad.
Aly Verjee is a political analyst, writer and senior researcher at the Rift Valley Institute.