Meeting on the sidelines of the China-Africa Cooperation Summit (FOCAC) held last week in Johannesburg, South Africa, Djibouti’s President, Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, and China’s Xi Jinping underlined their continued cooperation, stressing that the two states would strengthen mutual political trust and economic partnerships. This recently developed bond was all the more emphasized with the December 4 announcement by Djibouti’s foreign minister that China would be building its first overseas military outpost in the small East African nation.
While portrayed as “a resupplying position for its ships participating in United Nations anti-piracy missions” the implications of this base go far beyond the simple language used. For starters, Djibouti is also home to the US’ Camp Lemonnier, a key military used to launch counter terrorism operations and drone strikes throughout the region. Beijing, which has previously reserved the use of its military to protect its own borders and territory, may now be seen as flexing its muscle on a continent some 7,700 km away.
It is perhaps for this reason that until now China has refused to confirm reports pertaining to the creation of a base in Djibouti, even in May when President Guelleh announced that the two nations were in the midst of talks concerning the creation of a Chinese military base in the country. To this point the small East African state had been purely exploring a commercial and development aid relationship with China. However, now that this has become a reality, what can we expect from Djibouti and the general Africa-China relationship?
Background on Djibouti
While some US officials in Congress have become more vocal in their criticism of Guelleh’s heavy-handed regime, blasting the President for human rights abuses, cracking down on opposition members and undermining democratic processes, Beijing attaches little importance to such political nuances and is unlikely to steer Djibouti down the path of democracy.
President Guelleh has already announced his candidacy for the 2016 elections, informing reporters on December 3 that “considering the requests by my supporters, I hereby declare that I have decided to run for the upcoming 2016 Djibouti’s president elections.” After holding onto power for 16 years (already changing the Constitution once to allow for a third term), a fourth term for Guelleh would prove a significant blow to human rights, civil and press freedoms, and the opposition in the strategic nation. And if Djibouti’s 2011 presidential elections are anything to go by, we are unlikely to witness a fair fight between the opposition and the strongman.
In 2011, the opposition purposefully missed the deadline to register their candidates choosing instead to boycott the election, accusing Guelleh of failing to abide by conditions for a free and fair vote. Subsequently, President Guelleh went up against the only other candidate, former President of the Constitutional Court, Mohammed Warsama. However, Warsama had previously declared his support for Guelleh, a close ally, and at the time it was suspected that his candidacy was a ruse that presented the country with a shred of democratic legitimacy. Securing over 80% of the vote amid political and civil unrest to his rule, Guelleh crushed post election protests attended by thousands, arresting, teargasing and detaining peaceful protestors and opposition members.
Five years on, there have been little improvements in the political landscape as Guelleh’s repression continues. As noted by a 2015 State Department report, abuses include arbitrary arrests, use of excessive force, denial of free trial, restrictions on demonstration, corruption and human trafficking. However, “the most serious human rights problem was the government’s abridgement of the right of citizens to change of significantly influence their government”, by denying their right to free press and harassing government critics. Furthermore, while Guelleh’s government and close circle rakes in millions from military base leases and foreign aid, much of Djibouti’s approximately 900,000 inhabitants continue to live in poverty, only fueling further resentment against the government.
Beyond the pure geopolitical and security implications, the new Xi Jinping- Guelleh partnership could mean more bad news for Djibouti’s already frustrated population. Without the pressure from aid donors to adopt democratic standards of governance and respect human rights, Guelleh has little incentives to change the status quo, even at a time when more and more African nations are choosing the road to democracy.