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Developing Djibouti: An American Imperative



Friday, November 16, 2012
by Saleem Ali


A street scene in the near the central mosque in the capital of Djibouti: Missed potential for developing a Muslim country in the Horn of Africa


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The geographic extremities of any continent tend to have strategic value and it is thus no surprise that the so-called “Horn of Africa” was contested and divided between the colonial powers. Italy, the United Kingdom and France vied for control here. While the highlands of Abyssinia  remained a formidable challenge for colonizers (the Italians captured Addis Ababa only for a brief period from 1890 to 1896), the coastal regions got divided up between the colonial powers. Although the French had much of their clout on the Western end of the continent, they wanted an outpost on the Red Sea, given its strategic value in connecting Africa to Asia, leading to the establishment of a small colony of “French Somaliland.”

This small colony is now the sovereign state of Djibouti, which gained independence in 1977 but retains strong ties to France. With a population of less than a million and hot dry climate with few mineral resources, the country has been off the beaten track of most travellers. However, during the last decade, due to the continuing instability in neighbouring Somalia as well as the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, Djibouti has gained prominence. It is now the only source of maritime access for landlocked Ethiopia with its population and development needs of over 85 million people. It is also now also the residence for over 20,000 Somali refugees who have escaped through the “green zone” of Somaliland from the conflict in the south of fractured Somalia.

A nominal democracy, the country has been relatively peaceful yet still desperately poor. I had an opportunity to visit Djibouti recently after a visit to Ethiopia for the United Nations African Development Forum. My curiosity to visit this country was sparked by an article I had read in The Washington Post regarding the expansion of US military presence in the region. Landing at Djibouti International airport, one is alarmed to find one side of the air strip almost completely populated by US Airforce presence. The country is also among the few places in the world where drone aircraft can be seen on a civilian air strip, often overwhelming civilian traffic. The presence of these prized new airforce stealth weapons in Djibouti comes from its proximity to the Arabian state of Yemen which has become an increasingly significant hotbed for Al-Qaeda.

Talking to locals, there was little resentment towards American presence but also not much to show for their positive impact on the country. Occasionally one would hear stories of US soldiers volunteering for community service or building some unusual desert residence for local villagers, but the overall development impact of US presence here of over 3000 personnel has been minimal. Unemployment is still over 40% and much of the money that comes in from foreign investment is funnelled back to the foreign-owned businesses in the city. The US government pays only $38 million per year to lease the airfield for the drone operations and the African command base here which is under further expansion.

The lack of US investment in Djibouti is a tremendous missed opportunity to develop a country which could be a low-hanging fruit for citizen diplomacy with the Muslim world. With only 900,000 people and a relatively small land-base and a highly urbanized population, developing Djibouti with aid investment would be very easy to do. Imagine the positive impact of showcasing how US military presence was a force for positive investment in a Muslim country (the population is 95% Muslim), and genuinely changed the human development indicators of the country. Yet the USAID program in Djibouti is paltry and embarrassing, given the strategic value of the country to the US as a military base.


Aerial view of Lake Abbe, on the border of Ethiopia and Djibouti. Photo by Saleem H. Ali


The unrealized potential for various kinds of investment is also phenomenal. The climate is similar to the sunny Gulf states – hot and dry, but with far greater tourism potential. Djibouti has spectacular desert mountains, which rise up to 2000 meters and where the climate is cooler but accessible within a few hours drive from the capital city. There are two large spectacular lakes which could be a bastion for developing eco-tourism. Lake Assal is a massive crater lake surrounded by salt pans and spectacular mountain scenery. Lake Abbe, on the border with Ethiopia is next to a dormant volcano with its own unique set of geological features such as large limestone chimneys and is one of the key geographic features of the Afar depression which is a rare example of a tectonic triple junction where three geologic plates meet. In addition, Djibouti’s Obock region is the closest point across the terminus of the Red Sea and Arabia. Indeed, this unique location already attracted interest from Saudi investor Tarek Bin Laden (brother of infamous deceased Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden) to build a “bridge of the horns” across the divide and develop a tourist resort and business development. However, instead of encouraging such development plans the United States has discouraged investment in such a project for ostensible security reasons.

It is high time the United States Departments of State and Defense pay attention to Djibouti’s development. It should be used as a prototype for positive US investment in the Muslim world and the chances of getting fast and palpable development progress here are far greater than in Afghanistan or Iraq. Providing incentives for American business to invest in Djibouti, coupled with massive development assistance to build infrastructure should be a top priority for the Obama administration’s next Africa policy. In his next trip to the continent, President Obama needs to visit Djibouti and see for himself what the US is missing in terms of development potential.


Minor American development investment: A Coca Cola Sign at a decrepit commercial plaza on road to Lake Assal, Djibouti. Photograph by Saleem H. Al


As a starting point, the US should totally rebuild the civilian airport terminal in Djibouti with USAID funds since that is the most proximate connection to their own military base and is desperately in need of renovation. As the development of Dubai shows, airports can be essential catalysts in promoting international investment. The public diplomacy impact of this could also be enormous at a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars being invested in the military base next to the airport. Port-oriented development and tourism could be the next areas to attract international investment. USAID should also invest in a massive environmental cleanup and education program. The urban waste management system in Djibouti is deplorable and the pollution from waste dumping in the capital’s streets is among the worst I have seen in this region. Educational investment in schools and a regional university (similar to the American University of Cairo) could be another important move to attract students from the region. All this development can be done much faster than in most African countries. The country’s connections to France as well as to the Arab league provide it with a multilingual demographic labor force that could easily spur development.

The colonial scramble for Africa produced many anomalous national identities that have often impeded development by creating trade barriers or accentuating underlying ethnic tensions and conflict. The old “conquer powers” that divided and synthesized current manifestations of national identities as well as the new “order powers” who aspire for free flow of resources and commerce have an obligation to develop Africa. The task is daunting and trust among Africans is fleeting without some clear marks of resounding success. Djibouti has the potential to be such a success story for development in a relatively short time-frame. Such a prototype for development, in which an impoverished Muslim majority country that literally lies at the gateway between Africa and Arabia, could be a game-change for transcendent international cooperation.



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