The Horn of African Republic of Djibouti has celebrated its 30th independence anniversary bearing the hallmarks of becoming the Dubai of East Africa. But this former French colony, perched on the Gulf of Aden at the southern entrance to the Red Sea, did not show any potential for future development when it gained its independence from France on June 27, 1977.
Not only did it sit on a harsh terrain of stony desert, with scattered plateaus and languished under torrid and dry climate, but it was also the bone of contention between two neighbouring, socialist, and belligerent regimes. On the southeast border Somalia under General Mohammed Siyad Barre was poised to bring Djibouti back to the Somali fold to fulfill its historical dream of uniting all Somali ethnic people in the Horn of Africa under one national flag, while Ethiopia on the west and south under Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam was ready to go to war over Djibouti to prevent its historical rival from grabbing its marine gateway.
Coming under France’s suzerainty in 1884 when European colonial powers divided the Somali peninsula among British, Italian and French domination areas, the people of Djitouti had shared the dream of unity with their fellow Somalis in the Horn of Africa. Djibouti’s economy, however, heavily relied on its populous neighbour Ethiopia since the Ethio-Djibouti railway became operational in 1901.
Faced with the dilemma of either ditching his people’s nationalistic sentiment of uniting with Somalia or risking his country becoming a battleground, Djibouti’s Independence leader and first President Hassan Gouled Aptidon wisely steered his tiny new republic away from danger by declaring it as a sovereign state and allowing the French garrison to continue its presence in the territory for protection.
The new nation, however, didn’t have any respite as the old demons came haunting her when Somalia and Ethiopia clashed over their old territorial dispute on the Somali region of Ethiopia, popularly known as the Ogaden. The railway was blown up and thousands of refugees sought refuge in Djibouti putting the country’s meagre resources under intolerable strain. With the port, Djibouti’s sole revenue provider, suffering heavily from the war, the country had to survive by French and international aid. And with the Eritrean liberation struggle against Ethiopia at its height, Djibouti’s borders were all in flames at one time. It needed more than a miracle to survive.
But instead of slipping into the regional conflict, Djibouti had emerged as a neutral venue for reconciliation and peacemaking. Acting as an elderly statesman, Aptidon made great efforts to mediate between Somalia and Ethiopia on one side and between Ethiopia and Eritrea on the other.
However, soon after peace was signed between Barre and Mengistu, the two feuding states collapsed due to internal strife in 1991. Djibouti had also to fight a rebellion on its own territory when the Afar-supported front, “The Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD)” dominated by majority Issas of Somali stock, took arms against the Aptidon’s government. The rebellion that started in 1991 came to an end in 1994 when Aptidon accepted change to the constitution to meet some of the Afar’s political grievances.
Meanwhile, the Horn of African region’s changing political landscape brought an economic windfall to Djibouti when Eritrea wrenched its independence from Ethiopia. This left Ethiopia, with its 60 million people, as a landlocked country making it rely more than ever on Djibouti as its economic lifeline.
If Aptidon had succeeded in shielding Djibouti from the political shocks over the years, the task fell on his successor and current President, Ismail Omar Guelleh, to translate the peace dividend into tangible economic gains. With Somalia, a country with Africa’s longest coast and a serious competitor for Ethiopia’s landlocked market, in shambles, Guelleh did not waste time in selling his port city as a regional hub. He opened the doors for foreign investment and embarked on the modernisation of the port, transport and infrastructure.
He did not have to go far to find money and trust: Dubai, a place with similar commercial and climate conditions, stepped in to invest millions of dollars to turn Djibouti into a Dubai model. DP World and its subsidiaries have earmarked $800 million for investment in Djibouti. DP World committed $400 million to build a natural deep-water port at Doraleh, with $130 million to take over the management of the country's seaport and airport.
Plans have also been floated for linking Djibouti to Yemen through the 28km Bab Al Mandab straits with a Saudi investor pledging US$40 to 70 billion to create an archaeological wonder which will also spur the building of tourist towns and create tens of thousands of jobs.
The EU for its part has approved funding for the renovation of the ageing Ethio-Djibouti railway with a South African contractor picked to manage the project. The country’s sedimentary formations and volcanic rocky structure also promise abundant mineral resources, which once tapped can bring further economic boom for the country’s small 710,000 population. Djibouti will also be the end point of the proposed East African Submarine Cable System (EASS) that will run from Durban in South Africa to Djibouti, thus providing 30 countries with low-cost high speed Internet Access.
Although ranked 148 among 177 countries on 2004 UNDP Human Development Index, the investment of DP World is a sure indication that Djibouti is at the watershed of a significant economic change. It is not therefore with empty pomposity that President Guelleh declares 2007 as “the year of harvesting fruits of projects”.
Despite his success in putting Djibouti in the world investment and tourism agenda, Guelleh has his own share of frustrations, particularly in the perpetual crisis of neighbouring Somalia, which not only poses an unending security threat but also hampers Djibouti’s commercial prosperity. But as a man schooled in the cool-headed diplomacy of his predecessor, Guelleh has stayed neutral although his numerous mediation efforts among the feuding Somali parties has failed to bear fruit.
Critics both at home and abroad also accuse Guelleh of stifling media freedom and ruling the country like a monarchy. In a statement coinciding with the country’s 30th independence anniversary, the Reporters Without Borders condemned the Djibouti government for what it called “a campaign of harassment” on all independent media organisations.