Better than sentences, the figures say what Djibouti represents today on the geopolitical map of the world: 23,200 km², a little more than Israel and a little less than Rwanda; 1 million inhabitants – between Fiji and Cyprus – but an eminently strategic location: in its waters of the straits of Bab El-Mandeb pass every day nearly 5 million barrels of oil, or 35% of global flows of black gold.
On this arid lookout were established the bases or the facilities of seven foreign armies, durable installations (French, Americans, Chinese, Japanese) or temporary, within the framework of the operation Atlanta anti-piracy (Italians, Spaniards, Germans): a global record!
In power for 70 years
Within a radius of 500 km around this epicenter, less and less French and each day a little more English-speaking, Turks, Emirates, Saudis, Iranians have set their own military milestones. Not to mention, in the south, the black flag of the Somali Shabaab, in the north an openly hostile Eritrean dictatorship and, in front, on the other side of the line, Yemen, in civil war for three and a half years.
This means that President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh (IOG), 70, in power since 1999, is both courted and aware of the fragility of a state that his neighbors have long considered an anomaly.
A strictly framed democracy
An outpost in the fight against terrorism, Djibouti is also a strictly controlled democracy, like Paul Kagame’s Rwanda – the two men, who appreciate each other, share the same opinions in terms of development strategy, even if There is still some way to go in Djibouti to eradicate corruption, clientelism and tribalism.
At the head of a country whose GDP per capita is greater than the sum of those of its three neighbors – Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia – and which, driven by a growth rate of 7%, is dreaming of a commercial and logistic platform Regional, it is a thin IOG, rid of his knee problems and always eager to read that received JA at the palace (made by China) Haramous April 5.
We lost a lot of time and money in the DP World case. It had to be stopped
Jeune Afrique: A few weeks ago, on February 22, your government announced the termination of the Doraleh container terminal concession contract, awarded in 2006 to Emirati company DP World.Since then, Dubai is not fading. Why did we get there?
Ismaïl Omar Guelleh: It has been six years since we tried in vain to renegotiate thirteen articles of this leonine contract, concluded – and badly concluded at the time, by our own fault – with DP World. We lost a lot of time and money in this matter. It had to be stopped. So we passed a law in November 2017 that allows the state to renegotiate all strategic contracts, and this is part of it, since this is the first employer in Djibouti.
My Minister of Transport then went to Dubai, to DP World, to discuss. Dry response of the operator: “You want to break? Do it. We will sell our shares and all our assets in Djibouti: hotels, villas, oil quays, etc. The minister of course replied that the state of Djibouti was acquiring the shares – one of the aberrations of this contract being that, although a majority of 66%, the state is a minority on the board of directors of Doraleh Container Terminal (DCT).
Refusal of Emiratis: “We will sell them to whom we will choose. Invisible to me because it is our sovereignty. So we played our right of preemption and nationalized DCT . Normal compensation procedures will be implemented.
This contract was detrimental to our sovereignty. It’s blackmail. We will not give in
What do you think is the explanation of the uncompromising attitude of DP World?
DP World has never really sought to develop Doraleh – which operated at 40% of its capacity – to promote the emergence of the port of Dubai, Jebel Ali. It was about restricting competition by controlling it and limiting ourselves to the local market and to Ethiopia, even if it meant discouraging large foreign ship-owners from coming to visit our port. They do the same thing in Aden, Berbera and elsewhere. It is economic Malthusianism for their sole benefit. We do not accept it.
DP World has initiated a new procedure before the International Court of Arbitration in London, which has already ruled in its favor in the past … They take advantage of the fact that the contract that binds us was placed under the law of the United Kingdom, which does not recognize the leonine aspect. This was one of our mistakes. But they can go where they want, we will not be intimidated.
We did everything to find an amicable solution: in 2016 and 2017, I wrote to the Prime Minister and the Emirati Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Mohamed Ibn Rached and Abdallah Ibn Zayed, as well as to the Crown Prince Mohamed Ibn Zayed, to draw their attention to this situation. None answered me!
Today, DP World threatens to sue all the port companies wishing to invest in the territory of the Republic, whether in Doraleh or elsewhere. This demonstrates to what extent this contract was detrimental to our sovereignty. It’s blackmail. We will not give in to it.
We did not take Doraleh back to the Chinese. We do not need anyone to manage it
When your decision was made public, the first reaction of DP World and the Emirati leaders was to say: beware, Djibouti will offer the port to the Chinese. Is it correct?
It’s wrong. DCT is now owned 100% by the state, and its management has been entrusted to a new public corporation, the Doraleh Terminal Management Company. But this intoxication nearly worked: former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, General Waldhauser, boss of Africom, and even Republican senators were moved by this prospect. We reassured them that we did not take Doraleh back to sell it and we do not need anyone to manage it. The port of Djibouti exists since 1926. At the time, Dubai did not exist …
Shaking the red cloth of the Chinese hold is all the more “bearer” that Westerners are very worried about the alleged over-indebtedness of Djibouti with regard to Beijing. What is it exactly?
We have three major investment projects with the Chinese: the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railroad, the Ethiopia-Djibouti water pipeline and the construction of the multipurpose port. All three are designed to generate money to repay their own debt. All our debts are in the commercial sector.
The US base is fifty times larger than China’s and no one talks about it
Yet, he says that China is worried about his investments in Djibouti. She would have even expressed some dissatisfaction via her ambassador …
First news ! Neither President Xi Jinping, during my official visit at the end of 2017, nor a fortiori his ambassador said anything to me in this sense. On the contrary: Xi Jinping has asked his Prime Minister Li Keqiang to ensure that everything is going well between our two countries. The Chinese are serious people, you know!
Their new military base is a lot of talk. We are talking about undergrounds, large ammunition bunkers, secret bunkers …
Decidedly … This base is spread over a 40-hectare area. The American base is fifty times bigger and nobody talks about it. No, there is none of this. It’s amazing, how Westerners can fantasize about when it comes to China!
Ditto for the amount of rent you pay the military powers present in Djibouti. What are the real numbers?
I give them to you: 58 million dollars a year for the Americans, 30 million euros for the French, 20 millions for the Chinese, 3.5 millions for the Japanese. In total, this does not even represent 10% of our budget, which does not prevent some from writing that our economic survival depends on it. In fact, if we taxed all the goods they import duty-free, we could earn ten times more than the rents.
We are with President Mansour Hadi, but also with the Yemeni people in the sense that we welcome all refugees
Will you do it?
Everything in its time.
The Russians and the Indians have asked you to set up their own bases too. What do you answer them?
Do not you think Djibouti already has enough foreign bases? It’s no. It’s enough.
A tragedy has been playing in Yemen for three and a half years 15 km from your shores. In this devastating civil war, who do you support?
Djibouti has always opted for international legality. We are therefore side by side with President Mansour Hadi, but also with the Yemeni people in the sense that we welcome all refugees, from whatever side they come. They are in Obock, Djibouti: traders, bankers, rich, poor, we allow them to settle and work. There are 40,000 to 50,000 who have taken refuge here, which, in proportion to our population, is a considerable number.
The problem is the logistical support provided by the Iranians to the Houthi rebels, in particular ballistic ground-to-ground missiles. If Iran stops playing this game, the talks will resume. There is also the problem of the South and the return of its secessionist tendencies, the involvement of the Emirates, al-Qaeda and Daesh. Yemen has become a cauldron for sorcerer apprentices. To say that it worries me is a euphemism.
A precipitous departure from Somalia would be counterproductive. Their army is far from being reconstituted
You had excellent personal relations with former Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. Will it be the same with his successor, Abiy Ahmed?
I believe so, yes. We spoke on the phone. He told me that his first visit abroad will be for Djibouti. He is young, friendly, well received by the population. This is a very good choice for Ethiopia.
In which language do you interact with him?
I speak Amharic.
Do you think that the Amisom peacekeepers will leave Somalia in two years, as the African Union wants?
No. It’s premature. A precipitous departure would be counterproductive. The Somali army is far from being reconstituted.
Your contingent will stay on the spot?
It’s likely. We have 2,000 men there, in a very exposed area, far from Mogadishu, which must be refueled by helicopter. Unlike the other contingents of Amisom, who tend to stay in their barracks, the Djiboutian soldiers are in direct contact with the population and operate in symbiosis with the Somali brigade that we are forming. They do a very good job.
Our relations with Eritrea will remain tense as long as Mr. Afeworki is in power in Asmara and as long as Djibouti has good relations with Ethiopia.
In Somalia, a serious personal dispute pits the Prime Minister against the Speaker of Parliament. Why do not you play mediators? Everyone respects you in Mogadishu …
Listen, last week I telephoned President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed to urge him to take responsibility for this affair and reconcile both sides. It is up to him to do it. He replied positively, but two days later I learn that he has asked the Speaker of Parliament to resign! I have a little trouble following him.
And with Eritrea, are your reports still tense?
Yes. And they will remain so as long as this Mr. Afeworki is in power in Asmara and as long as Djibouti has good relations with Ethiopia. Because this is the essence of the problem. A few days ago, the new Ethiopian Prime Minister proposed the opening of a dialogue with Eritrea. Afeworki’s answer was not long in coming: it’s out of the question. What do you want to do with this kind of character?
Between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, you have chosen your camp …
That of Saudi Arabia, clearly.
French investors are gradually emerging from their Djiboutian reluctance
However, Qatar Airways continues to serve Ambouli Airport.
Let’s say we close our eyes. We have recalled our ambassador to Doha but our embassy remains open, just like that of Qatar in Djibouti. We are not diehards.
You met French President Emmanuel Macron twice: in Paris in December and in New Delhi in March. Your impression?
Excellent. He is an open man, of good will, eager to understand, intelligent, not at all intrusive, with whom one can advance. I also note that, following Vinci, Eiffage and a few others, French investors are gradually emerging from their Djiboutian reluctance. With innovative proposals in the fields of sanitation, solar energy coupled with agriculture, etc. It was time!
Do the French still talk to you about the Borrel affair?
No. The page has been turned for a while now. Definitely, as far as I’m concerned.
There is an opposition in Djibouti that uses and sometimes abuses its freedom of expression
How is Djiboutian democracy doing?
We are in tune with our population and our development imperatives. What matters are the social indicators: employment, training, education, infant mortality, and so on. That’s what interests me, much more than parlor gossip.
For the rest, there is an opposition in Djibouti that uses and sometimes abuses its freedom of expression. So alas a handful of extremists operated from Paris and Brussels by self-exiled claiming a certain Frud [Front for the restoration of unity and democracy] armed.
These residual groups have their bases in Eritrea and often transit through the Ethiopian territory to facilitate their incursions. Two weeks ago, they attacked a civilian bus and injured two passengers before burning it. They also attack geothermal exploration drills, trucks, etc. It is a pollution that we are trying to manage, in collaboration with the Ethiopian authorities.
Our responsibility is to listen to civil society
The democratic opposition is weakened and divided, which is the business of the coalition that supports you. But is not that also a problem? You no longer have an interlocutor, if not the social networks …
The opposition exists and will always exist in Djibouti. For the rest, it does not have the monopoly of the popular expression: the civil society is also a vector of the collective preoccupations and it does not hesitate to call us as soon as a problem arises. Our responsibility is to listen to him and to know how to react in time so that violence does not override the democratic debate. If you stop your ears, the risk is the explosion. The voice of the people must be heard continuously.
The 2014 Framework Agreement provided a status for the Leader of the Opposition. Why has not he started yet?
We are ready. But the coalition we signed with, the USN [Union for National Salvation], imploded. We are waiting for it to recover.
Abdourahmane Mohamed Guelleh is isolated and seems a little lost
Meanwhile, the opposition still has a few strong personalities decided to do battle, as the former mayor of Djibouti Abdourahmane Mohamed Guelleh said TX, or Farah says DAF …
The first is isolated and seems a little lost. I am told that his followers slaughter sheep to hasten my departure and walk with a coffin on which is pinned my name. You know what I mean.
As for the second, he has two problems among others: the name of his party, which he is not entitled to use by court order at the request of the widow of the founder, and, in case he would like to stand for election, his dual Belgian-Djiboutian nationality, to which he will have to give up.
You undertook to regularly receive each minister with his colleagues to tell you what is wrong with the departments. Is it really the job of a president?
Absolutely. That’s part of my responsibilities.
This government is only two years old and we cannot afford a reshuffle
It seems that the tone sometimes rises on your side. Is not it problematic to scold a minister in front of his collaborators?
It is not about offending or humiliating anyone. I simply noticed that when I summoned a minister, he did not bring down the reproaches I had to make to him. With this method that I intend to perpetuate, at least, things are clear. Evaluation, Accountability, Results-Based Management: That’s what I’m interested in in this exercise.
After the legislative elections in February, all Djibouti speculates on a possible change of government. Is it the order of the day?
No. This government is only two years old and a reshuffle entails costs for the budget: company villas, new vehicles … We do not have the means.
How much does a minister make?
He receives 400,000 Djiboutian francs a month [about 1,830 euros], including allowances.
I earn 359,000 francs, less than my ministers
And the president of the Republic?
You’ll smile … I earn 359,000 francs – less than my ministers.
The National Council of Communication has just taken office. What will it serve, when we see that the Djiboutian audiovisual landscape includes only state media?
This council, which is chaired by a woman whose punch and independence of spirit are recognized, will take its place. It has been noted during the legislative elections. As for the audiovisual landscape, it is free, there has never been a monopoly. The problem is the economic model. Newspapers disappear after three months for lack of money and no private investor has so far been interested in radio and television. Except to be financed by a foreign embassy, which the law forbids, I do not see anything coming.
Yet the opposition makes it a subject of almost permanent debate.
Do you think that is what worries Djiboutians rather than their standard of living, the social, the development? I do not think so. For the rest, do not worry: the institutional machine is well oiled.