Courtesy of STRATFOR (subscription required), an interesting look at Djibouti:


A member of the Presidential Guard for Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh opened fire in Djibouti’s international airport on Aug. 25, just minutes after the president’s departure. In the attack he wounded two other guards and the president’s physician in what may have been an assassination attempt against Guelleh. The attack follows a July 17 incident in which the government arrested several members of the military amid rumors of a coup and a heavy security presence in the streets of the capital. The airport assault highlights the continued potential for internal opposition to Guelleh’s rule, as he now serves his third term since 1999 and could be aiming for a fourth in 2016. These internal rumblings, however, have their limitations. The regime has proven itself able to weather opposition in the past and, more important, occupies a critical position in the international system, ensuring policy continuity in spite of instability.


Guelleh’s regime has already demonstrated resilience in the face of opposition. In January 2011, protests influenced by the Arab Spring broke out after Guelleh amended the constitution to allow himself to run for a third term. The government launched a broad crackdown, engaged in mass arrests and denied international observers access to the country, successfully ending the demonstrations by March.

Djibouti, however, occupies a position on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, a key choke point for goods and energy resources moving between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean through the Suez Canal and Red Sea. This makes it an important partner for powers in East Africa and outside the region. The Port of Djibouti’s critical trade and military role, as well as the bases directly leased to U.S. and French forces, mean that the interests of more powerful international players dominate the nation’s trajectory far more than internal power politics do. Despite opposition attempts to oust Guelleh’s ruling People’s Rally for Progress party — and regardless of any personalities or party affiliations — Djibouti’s leaders remain highly constrained by international allegiances.

Ethiopia is the main regional power with an interest in Djibouti’s politics. The Port of Djibouti functions as landlocked Ethiopia’s main outlet to the sea — a role Djibouti has occupied since Ethiopia’s 1991 loss of Eritrea and the Red Sea coast. Ethiopia’s infrastructure investments indicate that it intends to continue this focus on Djibouti. The 784-kilometer (487-mile) railway between Addis Ababa and Djibouti is now in disrepair (some sections were even removed illegally for their steel), and the China Civil Engineering Construction Corp. is now building a new line along the same route. Barring project overruns, this line is to be completed within two years. The new line will increase the railway’s capacity from its current 240,000 tons to as much as 1.5 million tons per year. The project is one part of a major railway infrastructure expansion initiative in Ethiopia and is supposed to extend into South Sudan, which has needed reliable import and export routes since its independence from Sudan.

In addition to its contracts to build railways from the interior, China is directly involved in the Port of Djibouti through the state-owned China Merchants Group, which has purchased part of the port terminal operator. China’s interest in Djibouti transcends the benefits of being involved in East African regional trade — roughly one-half of the port’s container traffic is in transshipment due to Djibouti’s position as the only reliable port with significant infrastructure along the main shipping lanes between Europe and the Gulf, Asia and the eastern coast of Africa.

Djibouti also serves a significant military function. It regularly hosts vessels from the United States, Europe, Russia, China, Japan, Iran and other nations, providing fresh supplies and maintenance. This activity has expanded dramatically since 2009, when anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden ramped up regional deployments of naval vessels from many countries, increasing military port calls in Djibouti from less than 200 to approximately 400 per year.

The United States and France stand out among the nations with military interests in Djibouti because both lease onshore military installations. The United States uses Camp Lemonnier as its main forward-basing facility to support operations on the African continent and in other nearby regions. These range from ongoing anti-terrorism operations in Somalia and Yemen to the recent evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in South Sudan. The United States also operates an unmanned aerial vehicle base outside of Camp Lemonnier that provides significant regional surveillance and strike capability. France, Djibouti’s former colonial ruler, still has about 1,900 troops stationed in the country — the largest concentration of forward deployed French forces in Africa.

Because of the country’s importance to a multitude of important international players, any potential ruler in Djibouti is automatically tied to making sure Djibouti continues to fulfill its role. Were the country to undergo radical changes in behavior as a result of internal instability or regime change, it is even possible that stronger players with a defined interest in Djibouti such as Ethiopia, the United States or France would intervene in the country’s internal politics to defend those critical interests.

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