Security concerns attracted international interest in Africa during the Cold War, when the struggle between Western and Eastern powers, primarily the United States and the Soviet Union, resulted in “proxy wars,” or the use of unstable African nations to represent the conflicts of larger nations. Today, many African regions receive the label of “comprador regimes,” whereby African nation-state rulers ignore the needs of their citizens in favor of the economic and political interests of foreign nations.

Djibouti struggled with its internal security in the 1990s, when tensions between the ethnically Somalian Issa, the authoritarian political party that controlled the country, and the ethnically Ethiopian Afar erupted into a civil war. The resulting 4-year conflict created multiple parties and splinter groups that continued to resist the ruling government until a final peace agreement was made in 2000. Today, the tension between the different ethnic groups requires a continual balance by the government of Djibouti. The 2011 election of Ismail Omar Guelleh to an unprecedented third term as president was the result of a constitutional change in 2010 and a troubling electoral process marred by the boycott of the Afar opposition. The need for political legitimacy resulted in a system of limited proportional representation, first tested in the legislative elections of 2013. Since that election, political power has reverted to previous forms of patronage politics between various affiliations of Issa and Afar, with internal security continuing to be a challenge to harmony.

The Port of Djibouti is the basis of the dependent relationship between Djibouti and Ethiopia, and it is where the majority of Ethiopian imports and exports are sent. As Ethiopia recovered from the 1998–2000 war with Eritrea, Djibouti found itself in the middle of the unresolved tension between its neighbors. Djibouti has limited the ability of Ethiopia to make controlling investments in the port, ensuring some independence.

The Republic of Djibouti struggles with poverty and lacks natural resources such as water. Despite foreign governments providing more than 12% of the Djiboutian national budget and offering employment opportunities for locals, the unemployment rate is more than 60%, with 19% of the population living on less than US$1.25 a day. The capital, Djibouti City, is a garrison town with prices and services geared toward foreigners and not the indigenous population.

Djibouti hosts the United States’ only permanent base in Africa, with approximately 3,200 service members. Founded in 2007, AFRICOM (U.S. Africa Command) monitors regional terrorist activity and serves as a launch point for surveillance drones. The official website describes the command as focused on security: “A full-spectrum combatant command, U.S. AFRICOM is responsible for all U.S. Department of Defense operations, exercises, and security cooperation on the African continent, its island nations, and surrounding waters.” The United States coordinated its invasion of Somalia from Camp Lemonier/Lemonnier, the former French base now leased yearly to the American forces for US$38 million. No other African nation has allowed the United States to establish bases in Africa.

In 2008, the European Union created permanent naval operations, the European Union Naval Force Atalanta, to address piracy in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean from the Port of Djibouti. This operation works with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United States, sharing facilities with the latter and France.

France pays €30 million to keep about 2,000 troops in Djibouti, including at Camp Monclar. France also has a medical complex in the capital, Bouffard Military Hospital. France initially founded the Djiboutian armed forces, including giving the Djiboutians planes for their air force, and has historically trained Djiboutian military officers in accordance with agreements made in 1977, when France gave Djibouti its independence.

Eastern powers have also increased their presence on the Horn of Africa. In its search for natural resources such as oil, China has stepped up economic operations, conducting more than a dozen naval escorts in the region and facilitating an antipiracy partnership with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the United States, and the European Union Naval Force. Long-term strategy suggests that China will eventually consider creating a permanent naval base in the region. Japan completed a naval base in Djibouti in July 2011, the first such base outside Japan. The Japanese base for the Counter-Piracy Facility hosts 200 personnel. The Japanese pay US$30 million to lease this base.

Annette L. Varcoe and Angel R. Ackerman

See also China ; Ethiopia ; United States

Further Readings

Blanch, Ed. “AFRICOM’s Agenda Still Baffles Africa.” New African (February 2009).

Feuilherade, Peter. “China and Japan Take Military Rivalry to Djibouti.” New African (July 2010).

Gberie, Lansana. “Liberia Going Against the Grain.” New African (December 2007).

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Sabelo J. and Victor Ojakorotu. “Surveillance Over a Zone of Conflict: Africom and the Politics of Securitisation of Africa.” Journal of Pan African Studies, v.3/6 (2010).

Styan, David. “Djibouti: Changing Influence in the Horn’s Strategic Hub” (Africa Programme, Chatham House Briefing Paper) (April 1, 2013). (Accessed September 2014).

Wasara, Samson. “Conflict and State Security in the Horn of Africa: Militarization of Civilian Groups.” African Journal of Political Science, v.7/2 (2002).

Whitlock, Craig. “Remote U.S. Base at Core of Secret Operations.” The Washington Post (October 25, 2012). (Accessed September 2014).