Africa

What Guelleh missed in trying to turn Djibouti into the “Singapore of Africa”

By JOHN HURSH /African Arguments/ – On 9 April, Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh won a fifth term in office with 97% of the vote. He effectively ran uncontested after the opposition decided to boycott the election, but the result had never been in doubt.

Guelleh has led Djibouti since 1999 when he was selected to succeed his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who had served as president since Djibouti gained independence from France in 1977. Guelleh’s governments have scarcely tolerated dissent. Most recently, authorities brutally suppressed protests in June 2020 over the alleged torture of Fouad Youssouf Ali, a former air force pilot who had been repatriated from Ethiopia where he was reportedly seeking asylum. Civil and political rights are dismal, as Djibouti ranks 176 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Border’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.

In office, Guelleh has championed a Singapore development model like that of President Paul Kagame in Rwanda. Kagame’s reverence for former Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew is well documented, but both leaders want to emulate Lee and turn their countries into the “Singapore of Africa”.

For Djibouti, certain parallels are obvious. Like Singapore, Djibouti’s greatest asset is its location. Both countries rely on global trade and busy deepwater ports for economic success. And both are small, have relatively low populations, and few natural resources. These attributes require more creative and service-driven development strategies.

One way Djibouti has leveraged its position is to rent out territory for other states to use for military bases. In his 2015 book, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa, Alex de Waal calls this “security rentierism” and refers to Djibouti as “a Franco-American garrison with a small hinterland”. Since then, Djibouti has gone even further. In 2017, it became home to China’s first permanent overseas base. It also now hosts Japanese and Italian military facilities as well as German and Spanish troops. While not a particularly elegant approach, this strategy provides the government with considerable rents and has helped it oversee consistent if modest annual GDP growth for the past two decades.

Djibouti’s economy has received a more significant boost from Chinese investment, especially in large infrastructure projects. From 2012 to 2020, Chinese companies have invested about $14.4 billion in projects such as the $590 million multipurpose Doraleh Port, the Ethiopia-Djibouti Railway, and a $4 billion gas pipeline that will transport natural gas from Ethiopia’s Ogaden Basin to a Djibouti export terminal on the Red Sea.

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