Babylon on the Horn of Africa

There is hardly a place as many foreign military bases as in Djibouti.

China has also discovered Djibouti. Among other things, it built this railway line to Ethiopia: 750 kilometers long. (Photo: Carl de Souza / AFP)

Babylon on the Horn of Africa

There is hardly a place where there are as many foreign military bases as in Djibouti – rival Americans, Chinese and Europeans bustle here. The small country earns well from politics.

March 04, 2020 (Süddeutsche Zeitung) – Alexei looks like he’s disguised as a Russian intelligence officer. He wears a neatly ironed short-sleeved shirt, a neat moustache and holds a leather men’s handbag slung around his forearm. He is a not too tall man, whose surname nobody knows, standing in the desert of Djibouti. From the left, a man leans down to him, who looks as if he has dressed up as the cliché of a US soldier, green overalls, master-proper bald head and bull’s neck. A French Mirage flies over them, which Alexei uses to start a conversation: “What are you flying? F-16”, he asks the American. “No, F-15”, the American replies.

Both smile at each other and watch the jet plane disappearing on the horizon. An unequal couple with men’s handbags and bull’s necks, Alexei is the secret service representative of the Russian embassy, the American is a senior soldier in the US Army’s Africa Command. Spanish soldiers swarm around them, a delegation of Chinese in camouflage uniform who take pictures of everything, plus French, Germans, Koreans and Kenyans.

They have all come to the desert in the Horn of Africa to watch a military manoeuvre by the French forces, who fly their fighter jets past at low altitude for half an hour and let paratroopers rain down from the sky. Hundreds of soldiers and diplomats are on the ground, covering their ears when the Mirage flies very low again. At the end there is applause. Elsewhere in the world, the diplomatic corps tends to meet for cocktail receptions, while in Djibouti the local nations invite each other to manoeuvre, otherwise there’s not much to do.

Diplomats call Djibouti the new Casablanca: it is swarming with spies and interests

The small state in the Horn of Africa has developed an interesting business model. It leases its land to the armed forces of foreign countries, who build military bases here. It is doing well: French, British, Americans, Italians, Spaniards, Germans have settled here, the Japanese have a base, sometimes ships from South Korea dock here. China is the latest newcomer; India and Saudi Arabia have also expressed interest in coming to Djibouti. It is a mixture of countries, not all of which are friendly to each other. The new Casablanca is already being called Djibouti by diplomats, because here, as in Morocco in the 1940s, it is teeming with spies, interests, betrayal and intrigue. Can this go well in such a confined space?

The Chinese complain that American planes fly too close to their base and spy. The Americans accuse the Chinese of secretly taking photos of their facilities. In 2019, then National Security Advisor John Bolton was outraged that US pilots were blinded and injured by Chinese laser pointers.

So far there have only been minor skirmishes between the rival major powers. But there is more to it than that, it is about supremacy in the Horn of Africa, the gateway to the continent. Djibouti is situated on the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, only 25 kilometres between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, on one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. A strategically contested place.

“When the Americans came, everyone said, oh-oh, that’ll be trouble with the French. But there was no such thing. And it stayed that way when other countries came,” says Dileita Mohamed Dileita. He sits in a deep armchair in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel. For twelve years, until 2013, he was Prime Minister of Djibouti, at a time when the country was intensively marketing its strategic position. Like a real estate agent who praises the location of his property.

“When we were granted independence in 1977, many in Europe did not believe that we would exist as a state for long,” says Dileita. The AP news agency sneered at the time that the country had no resources whatsoever, “except sand, salt and 20,000 camels. The New York Times suspected that Djibouti would soon be swallowed up by its neighbours, so small and poor it was unable to survive on its own. The opposite was true. Djibouti became a stable island in a neighbourhood full of civil war, terror and hunger. “We made it,” says Dileita. A few Spanish soldiers walk through the lobby, who have set up quarters in the hotel because their presence is too small for their own base.

We depend 80 percent on our access to the sea

“You have to dig more than 300 metres to find water here,” says Dileita and shakes his head as if he is still surprised. The only lake in the country has ten times as much salt as the sea. Yet water was the solution. “We depend 80 percent on services, that is, on our access to the sea, to the ports.” Whoever controls Djibouti controls the region.

After independence, the French remained in the country with a troop presence, as a kind of protective power. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the USA built its largest base in Africa here, with 4000 soldiers and an arsenal of drones, which travel halfway across the continent. Next came the Europeans, Germans, Spaniards and Italians to keep the pirates from Somalia in check with the EU mission “Atalanta”. And then came the Chinese, who not only brought soldiers but also built a railway, 750 kilometers to Ethiopia, a water pipeline, roads and a harbour. Much of it is financed on credit, the opposition in the country sees the danger of a debt trap. “We have everything under control,” says ex-Prime Minister Dileita.

Only once did it slip away from the country. In 2014, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the restaurant “La Chaumière”, killing a Turkish citizen and wounding several Germans. The “Islamic State” claimed responsibility for the attack against the foreign troop presence. The Restaurant is located in the central square of the city, there is a shaded terrace and a menu where there is something for everyone: wok dishes from China, burgers from America, Baguettes for the French. Nevertheless, there is not much going on.

The Americans are not allowed to leave their base; the withdrawal of the French foreign legionnaires was a hard blow for the gastronomy in Djibouti. Now the restaurants are often empty in the old town, a quarter with French colonial architecture, which is dignified and decaying. The heat is paralyzing, only in the early afternoon does it come alive when the fresh khat from Ethiopia arrives, the intoxicating leaves bought all over East Africa, which make people twilight. Not much is left of the Casablanca comparison, at least as far as the atmosphere is concerned.

The 20 to 80 soldiers of the Bundeswehr spend their free time at the hotel pool

You don’t get out of the house that often, says Corvette Captain Oliver Wellinger. He is sitting on the terrace of the Kempinski Hotel, in front of him are some comrades by the pool, behind him is the sea. A room here costs around 400 euros. Wellinger says, “If you compare it to other missions, we’re doing very well here.”

The Bundeswehr has between 20 and 80 men on duty here, each with a single room. Like the Spaniards, the Germans have too few people on site for it to make sense to set up their own base. It would be better to rent a room from the French, but the government of Djibouti didn’t see it that way. “Guests don’t invite guests”, they say. They earn good money from the Germans when they’re in the hotel, but not afterwards.

That’s how long the Bundeswehr will continue to be stationed at the pool, at least after work, and during the day it plans to deploy a sea reconnaissance plane that will fly off the coast of Somalia for pirates during the six months when the weather permits. “It’s a small but successful operation,” says Wellinger. When the EU mission “Atalanta” began in 2008, the coast off Somalia was a shark tank, Somali pirates hijacked cargo ships and demanded ransom. The German Shipowners’ Association estimated the damage at five billion euros a year. In the meantime, it has become so quiet that the operation has been scaled down and may soon have to seek new targets. Illegal fishing off the coasts of East Africa perhaps, which would be a possible point of conflict with China, whose fishing fleets are plundering the continent’s seas.

Ex-Prime Minister Dileita is now of the opinion that there are already enough friction points, even more military bases might not be a good idea, despite millions of rental income. The interested parties from Russia and Iran have already been canceled.

Even ex-premier Dileita is now of the opinion that there are already enough points of friction, that more military bases might not be a good idea, despite many millions in rental income. The interested parties from Russia and Iran have already been turned down.

By Bernd Dörries

Description of source: Munich-based daily national German newspaper with a focus on Bavaria and southern Germany. Süddeutsche Zeitung reports daily on politics, economics, science and culture. Country of origin: Germany
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