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Djibouti - Introduction

Djibouti is indeed a small place. Djibouti is home to military bases that France and the US use for their anti-terrorism missions. European navies use the Djibouti port for their Somali anti-piracy program. By 2015 the government was said to be conducting negotiations with China, its main economic partner, and Russia to allow them to maintain a military presence in the country.

Allan Swenson wrote: "Catha edulis plays an important role in Djibouti culture and politics. Known colloquially as khat, the plant contains cathinone, which is a monoamine alkaloid similar to amphetamine. It’s a stimulant that causes euphoria, loss of appetite, and excitement. It causes mild-to-moderate psychological dependence – not as much as nicotine, but enough to be used to manipulate users, which is exactly what the current governing regime does. “The regime uses khat as a main weapon to make people calm. If the population is angry, or stressed—they make sure there’s khat,” explains independent journalist Maydane Okiye. “For eight hours they are high, and another eight they are sleeping—making the population busy for 16 hours.”"

At independence Djibouti, a country about the size of New Jersey, had one paved road and less than a square mile of arable land. The Associated Press deemed it perfectly devoid of resources, “except for sand, salt, and 20,000 camels.” In the beginning, Djibouti was a railroad town. A century ago, a narrow-gauge line linked the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to a small, shallow-water port established by the French on the Red Sea. The trains rattled over a hot and treeless moonscape to carry the food, water, and labor needed to transform the port into a modest colonial outpost.

On May 24, 2014, two suicide bombers attacked a restaurant popular with foreigners in Djibouti’s city center. One person was killed and several others were severely injured. Al-Shabaab claimed initial responsibility and stated that it intended to conduct similar attacks in Djibouti against both native and foreign targets in the future. Such threats have recurred repeatedly since 2011 following Djibouti’s commitment to contribute military forces to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

In August 2015, reports emerged that President Guelleh had ordered American forces out of their naval facilities in the town of Obock so that the site could be taken over by the Chinese. On 25 February 2016, China announced it had begun construction on its first-ever military installation abroad, about four miles from the American and Japanese bases. A week later, Saudi Arabia said it also planned to station soldiers in Djibouti to establish the country’s first military station in Africa.

Located on the far side of the Bab El-Mandeb, a base gives Saudi air and naval forces room to maneuver and greater control over sea traffic in the waters around Yemen - the same waters Iran used to supply the Houthis and smuggle oil shipments through its Yemeni Shia proxies. Control over the narrow strait affects not only Saudi Arabia and Yemen but also the entire global oil supply; nearly 4 million barrels of oil pass through it every day.

Beijing confirmed on 27 November 2015 its construction of "military supporting facilities" in Djibouti, the first of its kind for China in Africa. "China is negotiating closely with Djibouti in the construction of military supporting facilities," Wu Qian, spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense, said during a monthly news conference in Beijing. He explained the aim is to "provide better logistics and safeguard Chinese peacekeeping forces in the Gulf of Aden, offshore Somalia and other humanitarian assistance tasks of the UN".

"China has sent a total of 21 escort fleets, more than 60 ships, to carry out escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and off Somalia since 2008 in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions," Wu said. "The fleets are facing practical difficulties, such as places for soldiers to rest and supplies of food and fuel, so it is really necessary to find a nearby place to provide efficient logistics," he added.

An un-signed editorial [that is, reflecting the policy of the Government] in The Global Times on 28 November 2015 stated that "China has no intention of building a military base from which to launch a military strike at a certain Middle Eastern foe. It will not seek to become an empire by building military bases and project its military clout around the globe. Logistical facilities may not appear absolutely different from military bases on the surface. But the motives behind sets them apart. The Chinese fleet needs a supply spot near the Gulf of Aden. The logistical facilities at Djibouti are a natural solution, instead of a prelude for China's military strategy."

Djibouti serves as the headquarters for the European Union’s “Atalanta” naval task force and for a Japanese contingent, combating piracy off the coast of Somalia. In early 2009 Japan was preparing to deploy two P-3C maritime patrol aircraft and possibly two JMSDF frigates to Djibouti, in order to support international counter-piracy efforts. As constitutional limits restricted the JMSDF to protecting only "Japanese interests", new legislation would be required to allow protection of foreign shipping. In July 2011, Japan also opened a military base in Djibouti to host its Maritime Self-Defense Force, the first Japanese military base to be located overseas since World War II.

In May 2009 an Iranian military delegation in Djibouti had asked to conduct naval maneuvers in Djiboutian waters and to establish a naval facility in Djibouti, perhaps on one of the Djiboutian islands in the Gulf of Aden. Djibouti refused this request and agreed only to allow Iranian vessels to use the port of Djibouti for refueling and re-supply, as did other nations' ships participating in counter-piracy operations in the region.

By 2010 Djibouti had played a strategic role in overseas contingency operations and had forces from multiple countries (Germany, United Kingdom, France, Romania, Kenya, Pakistan, South Korea, and the United States) participating in the coalition effort to fight terrorism and promote democratic stability. In addition, Djibouti hosts anti-piracy forces, such as German, Spanish and Japanese Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA).

On a per capita basis, perhaps no country contributed more to regional security in east and central Africa as Djibouti. Host of Camp Lemonier -- long the only US military base in Africa, and headquarters to AFRICOM's Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA), as well as to US and coalition forces serving with nearly two dozen other tenant commands -- Djibouti is an important regional ally hosting critical platforms for counter-terrorism and other priority activities. Djibouti has played an instrumental role in providing political and military support to the struggling Transitional Federal Government of neighboring Somalia.

Djibouti is a developing country located at the juncture of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden that gained independence from France in 1977. It is a republic with a multi-party political system dominated by the ruling Union for Presidential Majority (UMP) party and a legal system based on French civil law, though modified by traditional practices and Islamic (Sharia) law.

Although exact numbers are unavailable, unemployment is estimated to be in excess of 60 percent of the working-age population. Over two-thirds of the country’s estimated 850,000 residents live in the capital, also called Djibouti. Modern tourist facilities and communications infrastructure exist in the city of Djibouti but are limited outside the capital.

The only means of public inter-city travel is by bus. Buses are poorly maintained and their operators often drive erratically with little regard for passenger safety. Taxis should be avoided at all costs.

There are two main international highways to the capital city, via Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, and Obock, Djibouti, and both demand that drivers remain vigilant. The route toward Dire Dawa is in very poor condition. Both have a high volume of Ethiopian trucks transporting large cargo. Railroad crossings are not clearly marked. Drivers who do not have a four-wheel drive vehicle will encounter problems driving on rural roads. While the quality of roads is improving, drivers should make sure their vehicle is in good mechanical condition before leaving major population centers. Once a driver has left Djibouti city there are limited services to aid broken-down vehicles.

Driving on Djiboutian roads can be hazardous. Since most roads do not have shoulders or sidewalks, pedestrians and livestock use the roadways both day and night. Driving at night is extremely dangerous and strongly discouraged on all roads outside Djibouti City. While some main roads in Djibouti are well maintained, roads are often narrow, poorly lit, or rutted. Many secondary roads are in poor repair.

Drivers and pedestrians should exercise extreme caution. Minibuses and cars often break down; when breakdowns occur, local drivers usually place branches or rocks behind the vehicle to indicate trouble, but these warning signals are barely visible and hazardous in and of themselves. Excessive speed, unpredictable local driving habits, pedestrians and livestock in the roadway, and the lack of basic safety equipment on many vehicles are daily hazards. Speed limits are posted occasionally but are not enforced.

The leafy narcotic – khat – is widely used, particularly in the afternoons, creating other traffic hazards. Djiboutians are consumers of a mild intoxicant, khat, which is imported from Ethiopia. Khat is the most significant commodity consumed in Djibouti, with some estimates suggesting it accounts for 40 percent of household expenditure.

Khat leaves are from a shrub that is cultivated primarily in East Africa and the Arabian peninsula. Although they may be used as a form of currency, khat leaves are most commonly chewed. Chewed in moderation, khat alleviates fatigue and reduces appetite. Compulsive use may result in manic behavior with delusions or paranoia, sometimes accompanied by hallucinations. Khat-related violence is often prompted by late khat deliveries and disagreements among dealers attempting to gain control of the khat trade.

Water quantities are limited. The water available is reportedly high in mineral and salt content. Water sources include ground water; oases; several small, intermittent, sandy-bottomed streams in the northern mountains; and a subterranean river, the Ambouli, in south-central Djibouti. Drinking water distribution systems are subject to structural and equipment breakdowns and power disruptions, resulting in microbial contamination.

Muslims consider dogs to be dirty animals; Djiboutians do not touch dogs. Few dogs are seen in country, and rabies does not exist in Djibouti.

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Page last modified: 28-03-2016 20:52:21 ZULU