Djibouti, perhaps lying in the shadow of Africa’s second most populous nation, Ethiopia. The country has for long been passed off as a military outpost for foreign countries to stand guard over the Gulf of Aden. Now, it has dawned on the country that it is strategically positioned with regards to cargo trafficking to and from the East African region and the European and Asian region.
The country lies on one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and is a gateway to the Suez Canal. The country strategically forms an African base lying across the Arabian Peninsula at the same time lying on the crossroads of cargo traffic from Europe and Asia.
It may be a subtle country with a population of around 850,000 people. But it has a valid and very bold ambition of becoming the commercial hub of the eastern Africa region. The country currently serves as the principal port for the landlocked Ethiopia. The country has embarked on installing key port infrastructure at the cost of $14 billion.
Chinese workers (of course China) are already on the ground installing giant new terminals that will server container shipments from Asia. Most of the work is currently concentrated on the first of six new specialized docking terminals, with each terminal said to be focusing on different commodities. Such as oil and gas, livestock, and minerals among other; this is in addition to the two other terminals that are already in operation.
A senior executive at Doraleh container terminal, Suleiman Ahmed was quoted saying, “More and more shipping lines are interested in Djibouti, we are now making the way to be a Dubai, even Singapore.”
The cargo traffic to Africa is increasing, thus making a lucrative business opportunity for stakeholders. Djibouti alone has seen freight traffic increased by between six to 10 percent every year, but it could be better if the country had better port and docking infrastructure.
East Africa’s main port Mombasa in Kenya is already overstretched. While the Red Sea remains highly secretive and looks forbidding with the main country on that route, Eritrea seeing very little if any traffic.
Ahmed further continues, “Mombasa is congested, Eritrea is not a welcoming country, but Djibouti is a strategic and safe location – we rely on it.”
Though Djibouti lies in a volatile region, the country hopes to build a good reputation for security and stability. It currently holds several foreign military bases, including the Camp Lemonnier used by the U.S.A to conduct covert military operations, anti-terror assaults and operation running into Somalia, Yemen and other regions in Africa.
Japan and France also have their military installation in the country. Some of which proved very useful during the European and other international navies operations to curb the Somalia waters piracy that had reached unprecedented levels in the recent past. It also seems likely that China too will have a military base in the country if President Ismail Omar Guelleh statement to AFP is anything to go by.
While talking to AFP, President Guelleh said, “discussions are ongoing” with China regarding setting up a military base in Djibouti. The President said that Beijing’s presence will be highly “welcome”.
There is no denying that the country is well placed to facilitate easy cargo traffic from Asia to Africa. Taking a look at the map of the African continent, a cargo sailing on the eastern coast of the continent from Egypt to South Africa, passes just nine coastal countries and ten landlocked countries. This can be equated to about 400 million people without access to the sea. Djibouti is well placed to serve these people. Though it currently only serves the 94 million people residing in Ethiopia.
Currently, the country has a small airport that serves both the French Mirage fighter jets alongside the civilian commercial aircraft. The Djibouti government wants to replace this airport with an international standard airport that can serve 1.5 million passengers per year. The country is embarking on constructing 14 ambitious projects, with Chinese banks being the primary financiers of these projects. But already, skepticism and criticism have emerged.
Doualeh Egueh Ofleh, an opposition lawmaker, said, “There was no market research and parliament was never consulted. When we take the loans from the World Bank and Western institutions, there was some control…now with the Chinese; we take all possible loans for all projects without any control.”
The lawmaker is alluding to a scenario where Beijing would control each and every infrastructure in the country should Djibouti fail to meet its obligations to China.
But the government is hoping that the predicted African economic growth will raise the money needed to pay off Beijing.
Djibouti port authority chief, Abubaker Omar Hadi said, “Even before Dubai, Singapore, and Hong Kong, the economic and maritime hubs in the region were Aden and Djibouti. We know what to do to regain our place.”
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