The man who transformed Djibouti

Aboubaker Omar Hadi has allowed Djibouti to become a hub of regional trade.

Aboubaker Omar Hadi (AOH) is the president of the Authority of ports and free zones of Djibouti and also is the head of a dozen companies which represent more than a third of Djibouti’s national GDP.


Infrastructures; Aboubaker Omar Hadi, the man who transformed Djibouti

This native of Dikhil has managed to make the old national port an ultra-modern hub and allowed the small Republic to become a hub of regional trade.

September 15, 2019 (Jeune Afrique) – This is not to shame Ismail Omar Guelleh (IOG), to say that another Djibouti is now at least as famous and sought-after as he is in the economic and financial centres of the world.

The Head of State (IOG) should not even have any difficulty in admitting this, as he seems to have contributed to the professional success of Aboubaker Omar Hadi (AOH), the inevitable president of the Authority of ports and free zones of Djibouti (DPFZA) since 2011.

Of all the official trips that count, he accompanied the Djibouti delegation sent to the Third China-Africa Cooperation Forum (Focac) held in Beijing a year ago, such as the one participating in the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (Ticad), 7th of its name, in Yokohama, at the end of August.

Most often as the sole representative of the small Djiboutian business world. “He is always between two planes,” confirms Ibrahim Ahmed Djama, the DPFZA’s communications manager.

As if, when it comes to promoting its maritime services throughout the world, Djibouti could not find a better ambassador. “He is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful people in the country,” confirms one of his very close advisors. At almost 62 years of age – he will have them by the end of this year – he does not seem to attach much importance to this kind of consideration, even if he is at the head of a dozen companies which, together, account for more than a third of the national GDP. The facts plead for him. When it came to convincing the IMF in April that Djibouti’s public debt was well below the 104 per cent calculated by the Fund’s experts at the time, the small Republic sent its most senior ministers… and the port manager to Washington.

“This is the first time since independence that the Port Authority has a real professional at its head,” acknowledges a representative of the local private sector. And one of the best.

Yet, there is a long way from Dikhil, the small town where he grew up, located at the gates of the Great Bara Desert in the Gulf of Aden. But in 1978, when the time came for the first professional choices, it was towards the port that he naturally headed. “I didn’t see myself as a customs officer,” smiles AOH today, behind his large desk that nothing at the time predestined him to occupy. Except perhaps his workforce, unanimously recognized by hiss employees. For twenty years, he rose one by one through the ranks of the administration of the International Autonomous Port of Djibouti (PAID), from the statistics department to the trade department, of which he took over as director in the 1990s.

From these past experiences, “this figure-seeker has retained a real culture of results as well as an ability to highlight the commercial advantages of the port”, notes the former director of PAID, Aden Ahmed Douale, now advisor to the presidency in transport and logistics.

In the meantime, thanks to a Canadian scholarship and the blessing of his administration, the young civil servant will perfect his maritime training in Europe, from where he returned “transformed”, according to his predecessor. Between 1987 and 1992, he attended the best training courses, first in Le Havre, before joining the prestigious World Maritime University of Malmö for two years. From Sweden, he returned home with a network of professional contacts that is unparalleled in the sector and a vision of what needs to be done to transform the old Djiboutian port into a transhipment hub on a continental scale. This is the vision he defended in the early 2000s, when DP World was looking for its anchor in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait and was still swinging between Djibouti and Aden. An opportunity that AOH does not want to miss, which, for years, has been working with its teams on financing and marketing studies intended to convince the Emirates port operator. He does not hesitate to contradict the Dubaiotes when it comes to defining certain technical aspects of the future container terminal. To the point of attracting the attention of IOG, who would remember him a few years later.

In 2008, while his dream of modernizing Djibouti’s wharves began to take shape in Doraleh Bay thanks to Emirate investments, AOH chose to go into exile in Nigeria. “The port was changing. I had to acquire new expertise,” explains the former sales manager. He goes to Lagos to do what he had never been able to do in his country: take charge of a modern container terminal. For at least six years, he believes, before the endangered little Republic comes looking for him halfway through his term. “In early 2011, IOG asked him to return to Djibouti,” says a Djibouti operator. He was appointed head of the port by presidential decree on July 2. This is an emergency. The Doraleh Container Terminal (DCT) has been operational since 2009, but the Port Authority has lost its president, Abdourahman Boreh. Accused of corruption, the man by whom DP World entered Djibouti went to Dubai a few months earlier. “After such an episode, IOG was looking for a trustworthy person,” explains a foreign diplomat. And AOH seems to have a lot of credit with the Head of State. “To the point of hurting the ministers if the issues do not progress quickly enough to his liking,” says an official of the Port Authority. He has thus taken over the management of roads, which have been integrated into the Djibouti Ports Corridor Road (DPCR) since one year and placed under its direct control, as already the ports, free zones and the airport.

Alone at the helm, AOH seems to justify the trust placed in him. His image of probity has never been tainted yet, to a position that arouses as much temptation as jealousy. He also confirmed his reputation as a fine negotiator who never abandoned his rigour in the management of his files – probably inherited from the eighteen months spent at the 8th RPIMa in Castres, where he served when his country was still a colony. These two qualities have enabled him to bring Djibouti into the very closed club of the major African container ports. To achieve this result, AOH did not count its hours. “Her hair has whitened a lot in recent years,” confirms a relative. “He also benefited from China’s interest in Africa as he took up his responsibilities,” confirms Aden Ahmed Douale. Without being the man from Beijing so disparaged by his rivals, he was able to develop excellent relations with his new partners, which he brought into the port square, ousting the Emirates in the process. “As if to definitively turn the page on the Boreh years,” says our diplomat. And bring Djibouti’s ports into a new era for good.

By: O. Caslin

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Aboubaker Omar Hadi is the president of the Authority of ports and free zones of Djibouti and also is the head of a dozen companies which represent more than a third of Djibouti’s national GDP. Eric Larrayadieu / ACF / JA

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