There are only two sea routes linking Europe with East Africa and much of Asia. Either you sail around the Cape of Good Hope or through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea.
A spat over the control of a port in tiny Djibouti illustrates just how geopolitically significant these trade routes can be.
Djibouti is one side of a narrow strait linking the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea and on to the Suez Canal and Mediterranean. On the opposite bank is Yemen, dysfunctional and at war with itself since 2014. If you want your ships to go through the Red Sea, you need Djibouti’s President Ismaïl Guelleh on your side.
Last week, Guelleh issued a decree (he does that a lot) canceling a contract with Dubai firm DP World to run the Doraleh Container Terminal, in effect nationalizing it. DP World was granted a 30-year concession to run the port in 2006 but the Djiboutian government says this contract was obtained fraudulently, an accusation DP World denies.
The decree was published on February 23, while Djibouti was voting for a national assembly. Opposition leaders are in exile or staging a boycott over what they saw as electoral fraud, and the ruling party took 89% of the seats. In the presidential poll two years ago, Guelleh got 87%, despite running a country where two-thirds are jobless and United Nations figures suggest half the population lacks basic sanitation.
But that’s just the start. Djibouti is home to the only permanent United States military base in Africa, as well as military bases belonging to China, France, Italy, and Japan.
China’s military presence in Djibouti has been accompanied by an aggressive investment drive and increasingly close relations between Guelleh’s administration and Beijing. It has been widely reported that the Djiboutian government intends to hand over the running of Doraleh Container Port to a Chinese company.
The port just happens to be right next to the newly built Chinese military base.
If Djibouti is anything to go by, in the battle for naval, trade and military supremacy on the Horn of Africa, the US and Europe are falling ever further behind.
DP World has protested against the nationalization and threatened to take the matter to arbitration, probably the United Kingdom. The company runs more than 70 ports on all six continents. You’ll find them in Maputo, London and at the new terminals planned for South Africa. But their current fight will not raise much noise in Djibouti because the media, like so much else, is under state control. In fact, the office of the country’s only newspaper is located within the ministry of communication.
Since independence from France in 1977, there have been only two presidents: Guelleh, and his uncle, who died in 1999. Groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch rank it among the most oppressive countries in Africa, with torture, killings and little space for debate, charges the government firmly denies.
But where Zimbabwe or Venezuela might be shouted down, the major powers are silent because Guelleh is an opponent of groups such as al-Qaeda and al-Shabab.
But, for years, Guelleh has been drifting away from Paris and Washington and building closer bonds with China and, to a lesser degree, Russia.
If this was Lesotho or Madagascar, no one would care. But, in the world of trade, politics, counterterrorism, national ego and geostrategic power plays, Djibouti is a far more significant partner.
A key to resolving the crisis may lie further south, in neighboring Somaliland, the autonomous region of Somalia that operates as its own country — even if no one else will recognize it as such. Somaliland is peaceful, democratic and stable, and boasts its own port, Berbera, which is also operated by DP World. Berbera is cheaper than Doraleh, a fact that lies at the heart of Djibouti’s spat with DP World.
By threatening to move their business, and their military might, down south to Somaliland, Western powers could regain some of their lost influence in Djibouti and perhaps even persuade Guelleh to implement some much-needed economic and political reforms — starting, perhaps, with him stepping down after four terms as president.