Djibouti: at the Heart of the Fight Against Islamic Extremism in The Horn of Africa
Djibouti, a small state bordering Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, is playing a major role in the Westâ€™s fight against jihadism. A haven for both foreign military bases and refugees â€”Â especially from YemenÂ â€”Â the strategic importance of the country situated in the Horn of Africa continues to grow.
Djibouti is a land of paradoxes. Bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, the economically depressedÂ stateÂ is one of Africa’s smallest,Â yet it is also one of the most coveted by larger powers. The country has been ruled by President Ismael Omar Guelleh since 1999 and, while its governmentâ€™s official line has been largely pro-American, the broader populace has increasingly distanced itself from this stance.
In fact, Djiboutians are growing more and more skeptical of the fight against jihadism in the form ofÂ US-ledÂ assaultsÂ on both the Al-Qaeda terror groupÂ once controlled by Osama bin Laden, and ISIS,Â a growing radical fighting forceÂ that has conquered large swathes of Iraq and Syria.
As these conflicts dragÂ on with no end in sight,Â Djiboutians fear that terrorist attacks might flourish on their soil as they haveÂ in neighbouring Yemen. But it is from the fight against terrorism that a country with very few natural resources draws its lifeblood.
Djibouti, a Hub in the Fight against Jihadism
As a bridge between Africa and the Middle East, great powers are jostling to get their troops and equipment into Djibouti.
While Franceâ€™s presence in the country is by far the most longstandingÂ â€”Â Djibouti gained independence from France in 1977 but has remained close to Paris ever since â€”Â theÂ September 11 attacksÂ putÂ Djibouti firmly on the United Statesâ€™ military radar.
In 2014, the US, which has maintained a military presence in Djibouti since 2002, renewed the lease on its military installation in the country for another ten years at a cost of $40 million per year.
The Pentagon now plans to spend more thanÂ $1 billionÂ over the next twenty-five years to enlarge the US base there. As President Obama explainedÂ when President Gulleh visited the White House last year:
Thereâ€™s a significant presence of soldiers from Djibouti who are participating in the multinational force that has been able to push back [Al-Quaeda-affiliated] Al-Shababâ€™s control over large portions of Somalia.
Japan and Germany followed the lead ofÂ France and the USA by building military facilitiesÂ in DjiboutiÂ andÂ now it is Chinaâ€™s turn to stake aÂ claim. While Beijing might be motivated primarily by economic concerns â€”Â its economic influence in the region has been growing exponentially in recentÂ years â€”Â it is also alarmed byÂ the growingÂ jihadist threat in the Middle East. With IS jihadists controlling important petroleum resources in Syria and Iraq, Xi Jinpingâ€™s government willÂ be hoping to secure its oil supply in the broader region.
Djibouti, a Refugee Safe Haven
While the foreign military presence in Djibouti brings Omar Guellehâ€™s government significant revenue (about $200 million annually), this money rarely filters through to the countryâ€™s people.
But corruption in the country ranked 107th out of 175 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index only partially explainsÂ the deep resentment felt by ordinary Djiboutians towards the international military forces in their country.
PublicÂ bitterness isÂ also drivenÂ byÂ the countryâ€™s growing role as a safe haven for refugees fleeing the many conflicts raging in the region. As jihadists â€” whether from the ranks of Al-Quaeda, IS, Ansar Allah (the Shiite movement fighting in Yemen) or Somaliaâ€™s Al-Shebab â€”Â commit more and more barbaric acts, more and more refugees pourÂ into Djibouti. The country is one of the few to accept the thousands of refugees fleeing Yemen and many peopleÂ feel over-burdened.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the coming sixÂ months there will be over 15,000 Yemenis crossing the Gulf of Aden to take refuge in Djibouti.
Frederic Van Hamme, a UNHCR spokesman warns of the risks for the region:
This will certainly put pressure on the government. It is a small country that already faces drought, a high unemployment rate and widespread poverty.
Economic conditions such as these throughout the region have given rise to a worrying trade over the years: people smuggling from the Horn of Africa into the Arabian Peninsula. The Yemeni conflict, however, has caused the smugglers to suspend their operations.
As a result, masses of people thatÂ wanted to useÂ Dijibouti as a stepping stone to the Middle East are now piling upÂ in the country with nowhere to go. Faced with excessive crowding and a poor economy, Djibouti, a key node in theÂ fight against jihadism, mightÂ collapse if the foreign forces stationed there fail to act.