Magazine article New African

President Guelleh Leads the Modernisation Charge

Magazine article New African

President Guelleh Leads the Modernisation Charge

Article excerpt

While the French influence still plays a major role in Djibouti today, the arrival of the Japanese, other Europeans, the US and even Chinese, who all have or aspire to military bases, now means that Djibouti has the international community in its midst. This profile by Darren Moore summarises the vision of President Ismail Omar Guelleh (left). Additional reporting by Stephen Williams.

WITH THE CONVERGENCE of the global powers in the country, the Djibouti presidency is poised to leverage the presence of its international partners to foster development, and seize the opportunity to expand modern infrastructure.

Djibouti plays a vital role as a lifeline to its neighbours in the region. But Djibouti's dynamic is changing; and the signals of this change are evident on flying into this east African country as the infrastructure of the seaports towers above the coast of Tadjourah, and beyond, stretching over a larger and larger expanse each time you arrive in the country.

Juxtaposed against this backdrop is the downtown of Djibouti Ville, with its narrow streets, traditional shops, and souks. It's easy to forget that you are beside, just minutes away, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.

Djibouti has long utilised its strategic position as a crossroads between Africa, Middle East and Asia. For decades, the French capitalised on this advantage by having Djibouti as a French colony, French Somaliland, the only French colony in East Africa.

The French were reluctant to relinquish full independence to Djibouti until 1977, making it one of the last African countries to achieve independence.

France took advantage of Djibouti's strategic location, establishing Camp Lemonnier to house a regiment of the French Foreign Legion more than 50 years ago.

There is still a French presence there, but the base has been largely taken over and expanded by the US military, for whom it has become a major cog in their global war on terror.

Djibouti's location on one of the world's busiest shipping lanes as well as being the closest seaport to Africa's fastest growing economy, Ethiopia, make it a strategic ally economically, politically and militarily. It has nurtured strong bi-lateral relations with a view to becoming the region's logistical hub.

With world-class port facilities, container and storage terminals, Djibouti is now setting its sights even higher, with dynamic projects in telecommunications, a new Smart City under construction, and an infrastructure plan that includes the new multi-million-dollar rail network linking Djibouti with Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The new line is a major renovation of an old one (built in 1917 by the Franco-Ethiopian Railway Company) that had fallen into disrepair and only worked erratically. Trains would regularly derail and it could take as long as five days to make the journey between the two capital cities.

The new Chinese-funded and constructed rail link was inaugurated by Djibouti's President Guelleh and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on 11 June.

In addition, new roads and air links are under construction that are opening up fresh horizons and opportunities for Djibouti.

The Chinese, ubiquitous in their investment drive in Africa, are now also looking to fortify their military and business presence in the country, and have already embarked on an ambitious $7bn project, with the likes of China Merchant Holdings, to expand the current free trade zone over the next 10 years.

Writing in the US-based Foreign Affairs, John Lee reported; "China Merchant Holdings, a sizeable state-owned enterprise, purchased a large stake in the country's vital Port of Djibouti, spending $185m. To further drum up enthusiasm, Beijing threw in an offer to develop the port's facilities as well as improve the infrastructure that supports the port's functioning, including a railway to Ethiopia and two international airports. …

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