Since independence from France in 1977 this tiny republic at the confluence of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden has turned itself into a regional player with strategic and commercial clout.
Not long ago Djibouti was known for little more than French legionnaires, desert and a small ramshackle port. But nowadays this tiny republic on the northern tip of the Horn of Africa has big plans, including turning its capital into the Dubai of Africa.
Since gaining independence from France in 1977, Djibouti has steadily carved out a regional role through its strategic and commercial relevance at the junction of Africa, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean.
New Chinese investment totalling €10.8 billion will fund the building of six new ports, two new airports, and what is being touted as the biggest and most dynamic free trade zone in Africa, potentially giving the capital, Djibouti City, an edge over its rivals.
“About 2 million African customers travel to Dubai each year,” said Dawit Gebre-Ab, with the Djibouti Ports and Free Zones Authority overseeing the city’s commercial infrastructure development. “We know what is on their shopping lists, and they could be coming here instead.”
Behind the construction cranes and flashy hotels, however, there still exists in Djibouti a palpable French-colonial legacy fused with a heady mix of traditional Somali, Arab and Ethiopian influences among its 900,000 population.
Some local Djiboutians express mixed feelings about the bid for modernity and its transformative effects, fearing what could be lost, and may already be fading.
Recent fighting in Yemen thrust Djibouti into the limelight as it has played host to hundreds of refugees fleeing the city of Aden. Only 30 km separate the two countries’ coasts at the narrowest point of the Bab-el-Mandeb strait—translating as gateway of tears—joining the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden.
“Djibouti has an important security role in the region,” said Mohammed Ali, the Djibouti Foreign Ministry’s secretary-general. “Events in Somalia, Eritrea, South Sudan and Yemen illustrate how this is evolving.”
One foreign diplomat referred to Djibouti as “an oasis in a bad neighbourhood”. And recently the US military agreed a 25-year extension to its presence, including Camp Lemonnier, its African headquarters. Total foreign military—also including personnel from France, Netherlands, Spain and Japan—based in Djibouti could number around 25,000, according to some estimates.
Perched at the southern approach to the Suez Canal, Djibouti’s ports serve one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, as well as acting as a lifeline to neighbouring landlocked Ethiopia, a growing regional economic power and Africa’s second most populous country.
But not everyone is happy with Djibouti’s current strategic and economic upswing.
“The government only cares about how to collect the country’s wealth,” said a Djiboutian journalist previously arrested for reporting on domestic issues. “They do not care about freedom of expression, human rights, justice and equal opportunities of people.”
Other locals speak of a country run by a business-savvy dictatorship, while China’s increasing involvement has Western observers paying close and sceptical attention.
Every morning in the small town of Tadjoura, a two-hour ferry ride from Djibouti City, local Djiboutians queue to collect their daily quota of baguettes—a scene repeated across the country. Djibouti’s former existence as French Somaliland has left an indelible Gallic stamp.
Along with Somali, Afar and Arabic, French remains one of the main languages used. A constant stream of “bonsoirs” greet the visitor during an evening stroll around Djibouti City’s so-called European quarter and its focal point: Place du 27 Juin 1977, a large square of whitewashed buildings and Moorish arcades named for the date of independence.
At the same time, cafés brewing coffee in the traditional Ethiopian style, Yemeni restaurants servingpoisson yemenite, and haggling at open-air markets in rapid-fire Somali all add to the surprising melting pot within this small capital city.
But whether that cultural mix can withstand the brash new modernising development is a concern for some locals, proud of the country’s past and heterogeneous mix of traditions.
“My fear is not about cultural change, because we need that as this is an ultra-conservative society,” said a 30-year-old female governmental employee, who wished to remain anonymous, “but rather the effects on our customs, such as traditional clothing, food and decorations that symbolise our identity.”
Dreams of a Dubai-type future have questionable relevance for most local Djiboutians, 42 percent of whom live in extreme poverty, while 48 percent of the labour force are unemployed, according to 2014 figures.
In addition to criticism of the ruling regime for not doing enough to relieve widespread poverty, some question what, if anything, of tangible benefit was bequeathed by France’s colonial rule. Concerns about the present situation extend to those who came from outside Djibouti seeking better prospects.
“Now I can’t stay here,” said Mohammed, a marine engineer, who left Iraq after the 1991 war for Djibouti, where he married locally. “My three children won’t be able to get good enough jobs. I’m hoping my brother in the US will be able to get us a green card.”
Twenty-nine-year-old Tesfaye entered Djibouti from Ethiopia without documentation six years ago to search for work. Now he sleeps on the beach and does casual work like washing cars and clearing rubbish.
“It’s a dog’s life, living like that, having to run from the police,” Tesfaye said.
Meanwhile, Djibouti’s maritime commerce continues apace: ships endlessly glide across the Gulf of Tadjoura to and from the ports; cranes offload containers to waiting trucks late into the night under arc lights.
Soon a Chinese-built railway will link Djibouti to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, and could eventually connect to other Chinese-built railways emerging across the African continent.
It’s all a far cry from 1930, when the visiting English novelist Evelyn Waugh described French Somaliland as “a country of dust and boulders” and “intolerable desolation”.