Country profile: Djibouti

En route to school in Djibouti

En route to school: girls’ primary net enrolment here is 55% as against boys’ 62%. © Giacomo Pirozzi/Panos Pictures

In some ways Djibouti is changing. There is no longer a cacophony outside the central mosque and market, where until recently local Somali, Afar and French accents merged with traders’ Arabic and Hindi. Nearby, the city’s first high-rise office block has sprung from a lagoon by the Route de Venice. Gazing to the west, new container cranes and cargo ports punctuate views across the Gulf of Tadjourah. Beneath, trucks ferry materials to the Chinese working on new road, rail and duty-free projects that will service Ethiopia’s fast-growing economy.

Yet in other ways Djibouti remains what it always was, a vibrant, cosmopolitan entrepôt, wedged between Arabia, the Indian Ocean and Ethiopia. Today, military money talks loudest and the country’s geo-strategic location is a lucrative affair. The private beaches and jetty of a vast new five-star hotel lunge into the Gulf of Aden, extending the promontory where France first built a port and railway in the 1880s.

In population terms this is the smallest state in continental Africa – and only Swaziland and Gambia are smaller in terms of land. France granted independence in 1977, but retained influence until 15 years ago. The current President, Ismael Omar Guelleh, came to power in 1999 the year after neighbouring Ethiopia and Eritrea went to war, since when almost all of landlocked Ethiopia’s foreign trade transits via Djibouti. As Ethiopia’s economy grew spectacularly, so Djibouti has opened a new container port and petroleum terminal, financed and managed by investors from the United Arab Emirates.

A journalist making notes while listening to taped interviews at a local radio station.

Giocomo Pirozzi/Panos Pictures

Trade ties with Ethiopia will accelerate further in 2016. Chinese funds and labour have resuscitated the railway, a century after the French engineers completed the original line to the Ethiopian highlands. Cargo will again move speedily and cheaply to Addis Ababa, spurring further Foreign Direct Investment. Port fees and Ethiopia’s transit trade is the mainstay of Djibouti’s economy. In addition to cash, Ethiopia supplies arid Djibouti with electricity and water.

Military facilities are the other main source of income. The French Foreign Legion decamped to the Gulf in 2011, yet Djibouti remains Paris’ largest African base. Since 2008 it has hosted the main US military facility in Africa, from which 3,500 personnel oversee surveillance, special ops and drone flights over neighbouring Somalia and Yemen. In 2011 Japan opened a military base there and in 2015 the President announced that China will soon follow. Djibouti is also the hub for the anti-piracy operations of the European Union and NATO.

Rents from this panoply of bases currently generate at least $120 million a year, but provide minimal jobs or trade for locals. The government is also adept at leveraging investment and aid from Arab, Asian and OECD allies. Yet almost all the country’s development indicators are abjectly low and the money flows fail to dent acute poverty or improve rudimentary public services.

Over 40 per cent of Djibouti’s population lives in extreme poverty and youth unemployment is well over 70 per cent. The World Food Programme reports widespread and rising rates of malnutrition nationwide. Most food is imported and the high cost of living, exacerbated by expensive and ubiquitous chewing of imported qat (a mild stimulant), further deepens poverty. Deprivation is particularly acute in the capital’s sprawling suburbs, home to most of the country’s people.

Much of the population remains politically and economically disenfranchised by state structures that are synonymous with presidential patronage. A modest attempt at pluralism was tarnished amidst poll rigging, violence and boycotts in 2013. The media is muzzled; the arrest of human rights activists and critics is commonplace – and this is unlikely to change during presidential elections scheduled for April 2016.