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Country profile: Djibouti

January 2016
En route to school in Djibouti [Related Image]
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.

Giocomo Pirozzi/Panos Pictures
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.

Davi Styan
Country profile: Djibouti Fact File
Leader President Ismael Omar Guelleh; Prime Minister Abdoulkader Kamil Mohamed.
Economy GDP per capita $1,805 (Ethiopia $565, France $42,730). The formal economy is largely dependent on the port, which acts as a refuelling and trade transit hub for the whole region, and on fees for foreign military bases. The unemployment rate is estimated at 60% and youth unemployment higher still.
Monetary unit Djiboutian franc (tied to the US dollar).
Main exports largely re-exports of products from Ethiopia and Somaliland, including livestock, hides and skins, scrap metal and coffee.
People 876,000, three-quarters of whom live in the capital city. Annual population growth rate 1990-2013 1.7%. People per square kilometre 38 (UK 260). There are currently around 5,000 refugees from the conflict in Yemen.
Health Infant mortality 57 per 1,000 live births (Ethiopia 44, France 4). Lifetime risk of maternal death 1 in 130 (France 1 in 4,300). HIV prevalence rate 0.9%.
Environment Djibouti is almost entirely desert, with the only green area found in the basalt ranges of the north. Only a thousandth of the country’s area counts as arable land and, given the water shortage in one of the world’s hottest countries, only 10 square kilometres is irrigated.
Culture Somali 60%, Afar 35%, other 5%.
Religion Muslim 94% (mainly Sunni), Christian 6%.
Language French and Arabic (official), Somali, Afar.
Human development index 0.465,170th of 187 countries (Ethiopia 0.435, France 0.884).
Country profile: Djibouti ratings in detail
Income distribution
Narrow business and bureaucratic elites coexisting with abject rural and peri-urban poverty make Djibouti the Horn of Africa’s most unequal society.
Life expectancy
62 years (Ethiopia 64, France 82). Up from 50 when last profiled.
Position of women
Since 2008, at least 20% of high-level public-service positions must be filled by women. Women have the same legal rights as men except under sharia inheritance. But there is no law against sexual harassment. FGM has technically been outlawed since 1995 but many women still suffer some form of cutting.
Literacy
No UN figures. Literacy is low but has improved since the estimated 10% when last profiled. Primary enrolment is also extremely low at 58% and the state is resistant to teaching in local languages.
Freedom
The government tightly controls political expression in state media and civil society. It is less able to influence social media, which has links to neighbouring societies as well as the diaspora.
Sexual minorities
There have never been any laws against same-sex activity but there are no anti-discrimination laws and in practice sexual minorities have to operate in secrecy.
NI Assessment (Politics)
A controversial constitutional change in 2011 scrapped presidential term limits. President Guelleh is likely to win a fourth mandate in April 2016; his ruling party is primarily a vehicle for patronage. An opposition coalition contested the 2013 legislatives but initially refused to accept their seats amidst allegations of fraud. A pact signed in late 2014, to safeguard opponents’ rights and ensure a neutral electoral commission, has not been implemented. Djibouti’s geo-strategic importance means such electoral irregularities and widespread human rights abuses are routinely ignored by the US and the EU.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 489 This column was published in the January 2016 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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Country ratings (details)
Income distribution1
Life expectancy2
Position of women2
Literacy2
Freedom2
Sexual minorities2
NI Assessment (Politics)2

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This article was originally published in issue 489

New Internationalist Magazine issue 489
Issue 489

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