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‘Abiy Ahmed had to punish those seeking to break up Ethiopia’ – Djibouti President

By François Soudan
Posted on Tuesday, 24 November 2020 09:17, updated on Wednesday, 25 November 2020 07:40

djibouti President
Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh on Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019 in Paris. (Ludovic Marin/Pool via AP)

The deadly conflict between Ethiopia’s federal government and Tigrayan rebels continues to intensify, especially after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed issued a warning on Sunday to surrender within 72 hours. But despite international calls for a cease in action, many regional neighbours, including the small state of Djibouti, are supporting the PM’s stance.

With less than five months to go before the presidential election, Djibouti’s head of state takes stock of his efforts to tackle economic and social issues, internal opposition, a war in Ethiopia and the country’s relations with China, France and the United States.

The virus quietly arrived in Djibouti one evening in mid-March 2020, aboard a Spanish military plane that had taken off from Seville. Eight months later, the silent killer continues to lurk in spite of the health authorities’ swift implementation of the “three Ts” (test, trace and treat), with 8% of the country’s population tested to date, i.e., the highest rate in the region.

Economic slowdown

Though the government of this city-state with 1 million residents has taken an optimistic view of the future – it forecasts a return to growth in 2021 – the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic is weighing heavily on its economy, which was in full swing before it ground to a halt. The Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway line, one of the country’s essential arteries, is running on a reduced schedule, while the stately hotel located in the continent’s largest free zone, just a few kilometres away from the capital, remains hopelessly empty.

But according to Aboubaker Omar Hadi, president of the Djibouti Ports & Free Zones Authority and one of Ismaïl Omar Guelleh’s closest associates, “It’s merely a setback, our fundamentals are strong.”

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“Fundamentals”? The former French colony is ideally located along the world’s second-busiest shipping route, a gateway to trade with a wide swath of Africa, backed by a market of 400 million people. Its strategic geographic location is also a coveted spot for foreign military bases. Lastly, it also has political stability going for it: contrary to what happens elsewhere, Djibouti’s elections aren’t highly tense affairs.

Unshakeable calm

These advantages – combined with a government that the opposition calls authoritarian and which, it’s true, prioritises development and the fight against endemic poverty and unemployment over the expansion of freedoms – explain the unshakeable calm of President Guelleh, 73, who has been running the country since 1999.

Although he still refuses to say as much, no one in Djibouti has any doubt that the leader, who welcomed one of our reporters at the presidential palace for a long interview, will stand for re-election next April. He is the clear favourite, as if the exercise were a one-horse race.

Among the numerous Djibouti hub development projects you have launched in recent months in spite of the pandemic, ranging from the new Damerjog oil terminal to the capital’s business district, not to mention the ship maintenance yard, one in particular has attracted a lot of attention: the road corridor connecting the Port of Tadjoura to northern Ethiopia. Are you looking to gain a competitive edge over Eritrea’s Port of Massawa, which underwent a major renovation after the thaw in relations between Addis Ababa and Asmara?

Ismaïl Omar Guelleh: In the long run, yes, we always need to be a few steps ahead. But competition between Djibouti and Eritrea isn’t imminent: connecting Massawa via a modern railway line requires extremely costly and complex rehabilitation, upgrading and construction works given the region’s hilly topography.

Another competitor, one that poses a greater short-term challenge, is the Port of Berbera in Somaliland, in which your former partner, the Emirati company DP World, plans to invest massively.

Massively? I haven’t heard anything of the sort so far, other than project proposals. DP World excels at creating buzz, but then, in the end, nothing happens. You don’t even see the slightest crane in the sky. We are paid to know.

On that note, how is the commercial dispute between Djibouti and DP World, which you sidelined from managing the Port of Doraleh two years back, going?

The court proceedings are still under way in London and will perhaps begin soon in the United States. These people who stubbornly refuse to sit down and have a discussion with us aren’t interested in money. They’re too rich for that. What they want is for their old monopoly status to be fully reinstated. Their attitude stems from a desire to wield geopolitical control over all the region’s ports. But Djibouti isn’t just another square on a chessboard: we will not go back to the way things were.

In mid-September, you launched the Djibouti Sovereign Fund, which will be funded to the tune of $1.5bn over the next decade and whose sole shareholder is the government. Usually, sovereign wealth funds are the prerogative of rich countries. What is the point of the fund?

“We don’t have oil, but we have ideas”: do you remember that French saying from the 1970s? Well, that’s us, too. I asked Lionel Zinsou and Donald Kaberuka to conduct a feasibility study, one that draws on successful sovereign wealth funds, such as those created by Senegal and Singapore.

What we want to do is free ourselves somewhat from conventional debt-driven growth models, pool our domestic resources to create a leverage effect, attract new financing, promote business and job creation, and, lastly, increase our overall wealth.

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The Djibouti Sovereign Fund is up and running now. The implementing decrees have been signed. The team is in place and headed by a former Senegalese official specialising in these matters, whom I poached from President Macky Sall with his authorisation. This fund, which I directly oversee, belongs to Djibouti and the Djiboutian people.

The debt Djibouti owes China has for a long time been seen as excessive. Is this still the case today?

Our “Chinese debt” is much lower than what some have said. It amounts to $450m, compared with Ethiopia’s $16bn and Kenya’s $20bn. We have worked really hard on debt restructuring and servicing. The company managing the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway line, which is the main source of this debt, will be privatised, with Ethiopia and Djibouti retaining ownership of the infrastructure.

Is the railway line profitable?

To make a profit, it needs to reach a frequency of 10 trains a day as soon as possible. That’s our aim. For the time being, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing a rate of two to three trains a day.

Youth employment and inclusive growth are the main challenges facing your country, which has a structural poverty rate that encompasses almost 40% of the population. How are you addressing these challenges?

We are constantly working to implement a wide range of measures in the areas of affordable housing, health, education and professional training. The share of the population suffering from what is called “multidimensional poverty” has decreased by more than 15% over the past eight years, especially in rural areas. GDP per capita, which indicates the purchasing power of Djiboutians, has risen by 10% over the same period.

These statistics are encouraging, but we’re not there yet. Our goal is to triple per capita income within 15 years. Social well-being needs to increase in line with our economic growth.

Are you starting to see the beginnings of a middle class?

“Beginnings” is the right word. The cost of living here is high, mostly due to the cost of energy, which is why there are a growing number of wind and solar energy projects.

Ethiopia is a key economic partner for Djibouti. Since Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took power in 2018, this country of 110 million people is caught between centrifugal forces that threaten its unity. Are you concerned about the situation?

Of course. From the days of the Ethiopian Empire through Meles Zenawi’s leadership, not to mention Mengistu Haile Mariam’s dictatorship, “togetherness” has always been the exception, not the rule, in the country. One group has always dominated another. Ahmed, whose intentions were good, tried to change that. He’s a born optimist, both a politician, military man and very devout evangelical Christian.

But he is coming up against heavy resistance, particularly in the Tigray region, where the population lives under the rule of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front [TPLF]. So, the situation is difficult. That said, our personal and bilateral relations are good.

On 4 November, Ahmed launched a military offensive against the Tigray forces. Was war the only solution?

Let’s try to put ourselves in Ahmed’s shoes. Ethiopia is faced with a major problem: a political organisation known as the TPLF is stripping its federal authority and has structured itself so as to bring the central government to its knees.

Ethiopia’s prime minister has two options to choose from: one, he can negotiate with Tigray’s government, with each party separate and on an equal footing. This can only lead to the partition of Ethiopia, as it will set a precedent under which other regional groups will be able to assert their own secessionist claims. Two, he can restore law and order at the federal level, and punish those seeking to break up the country.

I think Ahmed has taken the second route, which will allow the population to elect their own leaders. That’s why he moved to replace the regional administration and dissolved Tigray’s parliament. It’s clear that as a country that shares its borders with Ethiopia and could thus be impacted by the conflict, Djibouti has one single wish: that peace be restored.

Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group that holds sway in Somalia, is considered al-Qaida’s best organised and most active arm in the world. How is it that this militia continues to pose such a threat, despite the presence of a military mission of 22,000 men – including a contingent from Djibouti – and numerous US drone strikes?

We haven’t yet managed to eliminate the leaders of this terrorist group. But we must, because Al-Shabaab has expanded its influence to the criminal economy, to the extent that it has become a sort of mafia. In the Port of Mogadishu, few containers escape their control: they tax, racketeer, traffic and, more than anything else, corrupt many important figures. They use refugee camps as a recruitment channel, offering young unemployed people food while also indoctrinating, training and arming them.

Legislative elections are scheduled to be held in Somalia in 2021. I fear we will end up with a parliament indirectly controlled by Al-Shabaab because they’ll have bought the support of some of the MPs. The risk that this group poses for the entire region has never been greater.

And Djibouti, with its foreign military bases, is a choice target for these terrorists, who have previously attacked Kenya and Uganda . . .

Yes, that’s clear. They attacked us in 2014. But we’re extremely vigilant, and our intelligence and security agencies are always on high alert.

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What gives us the upper hand is that these extremists have virtually no ties to our population: when they try to infiltrate our communities, they are quickly spotted. Also, to get to Djibouti, they have to slip through the net of the Puntland and Somaliland police forces.

Why has the restoration of diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Eritrea still not had the slightest positive effect on your relationship with Eritrea’s president, Issayas Afeworki?

I met with Issayas in Jeddah in September 2018, but neither the Saudi’s mediation team nor Ahmed’s efforts produced a “peace of the braves”. This is despite the fact that I took the step of releasing 19 Eritrean prisoners of war, which Asmara didn’t want, it seems.

The only explanation I see for this stonewalling is a psychological one: Issayas is unyielding and resentful, and we won’t repeat the exercise. The former Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi, had warned me: “Once you’re mad at him, he never forgets.”

Several Arab Muslim countries – Bahrain, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates – have announced they are normalising relations with Israel. Will Djibouti follow suit?

No, because the conditions aren’t ripe. We neither have a problem with the Jews as a people nor the Israelis as a nation. Some of them even come to Djibouti on business with their passport, and Djibouti’s citizens have been able to travel to Israel for 25 years now.

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However, we take issue with the Israeli government because they’re denying Palestinians their inalienable rights. All we ask that the government do is make one gesture of peace, and we will make 10 in return. But I’m afraid they’ll never do that.

The US has raised concerns about your relations with China on several occasions. It has even been reported that an American general suggested that Beijing had “purchased” the Port of Djibouti. Have these suspicions been cleared up?

They were totally baseless, but I’m not sure they’ve gone away. For instance, we don’t understand why the $25m loan the World Bank promised us in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken so long to materialise. The president of the World Bank, David Malpass, is a US citizen. Is there a causal connection? I wonder.

And yet you agreed to let the US army occupy the largest foreign military base in Djibouti. Don’t these kinds of activities sometimes encroach on your sovereignty?

We see to it that that doesn’t happen, but it’s not always easy. In 2013, we allowed the United States to use the French military’s Chabelley Airfield, located some 10 kilometres from Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport, as a base for their unmanned aircraft. Since then, the base has become exclusively reserved for the US military.

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No one can get in, neither us nor the French. It’s a problem we need to sort out.

You’ve often complained that France doesn’t show much interest in Djibouti, including economically speaking. Has that changed since French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit in March 2019?

Not really, unfortunately. In East Africa, the French only seem interested in Kenya and Ethiopia, with mixed results. Of course, the French electric utility company Engie is investing in Djibouti’s solar and wind power sector, and a delegation from MEDEF [a French business confederation] plans to pay us a visit in January. That’s better than nothing.

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But I think that Paris should realise that Djibouti is more than just a strategic geographic location. Djibouti also has a position in the global economy. Others have come to this realisation, and an increasing number of young Djiboutians speak English, which is the language of business in our corner of the world.

Djibouti forcefully pushed to get a seat as a non-permanent member on the UN Security Council but was pipped at the post by Kenya last June. How did you feel about that?

We felt it was unfair and that the African Union had failed us, as they weren’t able to handle the problem. Kenya forced its way through, with the complicity of some Southern African countries, by casting aside every best practice. Nairobi spent a lot of money to get that seat. However, we did manage to prevent our rival from securing a majority and we’ve learned our lesson for next time. You can rest assured that we’ll try again.

Why are you so adamant about putting Djibouti on the world stage? You’ve opened close to 50 embassies, which is a substantial number for a small country of 1 million residents.

Because that’s the only way for us to avoid getting swallowed up in the melting pot of globalisation!

Thirty years ago, Djibouti was only on the map for the former colonial power. Today, we’re on the cusp of becoming a global hub. It’s a matter of political will.

Six months back, a Djiboutian air force pilot named Fouad Youssouf Ali was extradited from Ethiopia. He has been detained in Djibouti ever since, and his fate has troubled some members of the public as well as human rights activists, who consider him a political prisoner. When will he be tried?

He’ll be tried, but justice takes time here, just as in France. As for the rest, this person isn’t a prisoner of conscience. He’s a former air force lieutenant and deserter who tried to fly a plane to reach Eritrea, meaning hostile territory, but ultimately fled to Ethiopia. Can you name a single other country that wouldn’t have charged such a person under the same circumstances?

His prison conditions have sparked concern in Djibouti and Ali Sabieh, the city he’s from. Could the conflict between the Issa and Afar clans, which caused so much harm to the country at the beginning of the 1990s, rear its head again?

Over the past 20 or so years, we have made every effort to strengthen our sense of national unity and to instil a spirit of citizenship. There have never been more interclan marriages between the Issas and Afars than there are today. If there’s one point we are perfectly at ease with, it’s that one.

Why does Djibouti still not have any private, independent media outlets?

Because it’s expensive, quite simply, and the market is small. A few projects are under way in the digital sphere, but the financing capabilities in this area are nowhere near those of Somalia, where tribal solidarity is fully intact.

An online media outlet close to the opposition, “La voix de Djibouti” [The Voice of Djibouti], regularly complains that its journalists are harassed by the police. Isn’t such a practice counter to the principle of freedom of expression enshrined in Djibouti’s constitution?

That media outlet isn’t close to the opposition; it’s an opposition website based in Brussels, Belgium. The correspondents you are talking about aren’t registered journalists, but instead nobodies – some of whom are barely literate – presenting themselves as such. For that matter, we haven’t jailed anyone.

You’re confronted with a determined opposition, whose leaders are divided, including when it comes to their methods of action. Do you benefit from that?

I think it’s too bad. Every democracy needs an opposition that believes in discussion, comparing policies and the country’s future. Our opposition can be summed up by the slogan “Me or chaos”. Whether it’s Daher Ahmed Farah, Abdourahman Mohamed Guelleh or Adan Mohamed Abdou, none of them abide by the rules for forming a party. A party isn’t just some group you register with a founder and 10 or so members that never holds a convention. But we prefer to look the other way.

This state of things came about because the Islamist faction of this coalition, MoDeL [Movement for Democracy and Freedom] – the local chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood – used religion as a mobilising force. We have taken the necessary measures to reduce its impact. The coalition’s main leaders have left Djibouti for Turkey and Canada, where they have nothing other than Facebook to try to indoctrinate followers.

As for sermons, their content is strictly regulated and comes under the exclusive remit of the Ministry of Muslim Affairs. Sermons are sent to each mosque by email, and imams can’t add a single word to them during Friday prayers. I think the French authorities would do well to follow in our footsteps in this regard. It’s the only way to prevent extremism from thriving.

But there isn’t just the main weekly prayer. What about the other sermons?

In Djibouti, imams and muezzins are civil servants paid by the state. If they let a person use their platform to glorify violence and jihad and utter slogans and insults, they’ll be held accountable for it and immediately punished. In this sense, you could say that we have them by the strings. But there’s less and less of a need for us to do this because our religious leaders are increasingly better trained and educated. They realise that true Islam is about knowledge and tolerance.

The presidential election is scheduled to take place in April 2021. Will you stand for a fifth term?

I can’t state my position on that matter at this time. We have to let the country and administration do what they have to do. I’ll make an announcement very shortly, inshallah.

As you must know, no one in Djibouti has any doubt about your stance on that point . . . 

Really? Well, give me a bit of time to answer.