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‘Abiy Ahmed had to punish those seeking to break up Ethiopia’ – Djibouti President

The deadly conflict between Ethiopia’s federal government and Tigrayan rebels continues to intensify, especially after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed issued a warning on Sunday to surrender within 72 hours. But despite international calls for a cease in action, many regional neighbours, including the small state of Djibouti, are supporting the PM’s stance.

With less than five months to go before the presidential election, Djibouti’s head of state takes stock of his efforts to tackle economic and social issues, internal opposition, a war in Ethiopia and the country’s relations with China, France and the United States.

The virus quietly arrived in Djibouti one evening in mid-March 2020, aboard a Spanish military plane that had taken off from Seville. Eight months later, the silent killer continues to lurk in spite of the health authorities’ swift implementation of the “three Ts” (test, trace and treat), with 8% of the country’s population tested to date, i.e., the highest rate in the region.

Economic slowdown

Though the government of this city-state with 1 million residents has taken an optimistic view of the future – it forecasts a return to growth in 2021 – the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic is weighing heavily on its economy, which was in full swing before it ground to a halt. The Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway line, one of the country’s essential arteries, is running on a reduced schedule, while the stately hotel located in the continent’s largest free zone, just a few kilometres away from the capital, remains hopelessly empty.

But according to Aboubaker Omar Hadi, president of the Djibouti Ports & Free Zones Authority and one of Ismaïl Omar Guelleh’s closest associates, “It’s merely a setback, our fundamentals are strong.”

“Fundamentals”? The former French colony is ideally located along the world’s second-busiest shipping route, a gateway to trade with a wide swath of Africa, backed by a market of 400 million people. Its strategic geographic location is also a coveted spot for foreign military bases. Lastly, it also has political stability going for it: contrary to what happens elsewhere, Djibouti’s elections aren’t highly tense affairs.

Unshakeable calm

These advantages – combined with a government that the opposition calls authoritarian and which, it’s true, prioritises development and the fight against endemic poverty and unemployment over the expansion of freedoms – explain the unshakeable calm of President Guelleh, 73, who has been running the country since 1999.

Although he still refuses to say as much, no one in Djibouti has any doubt that the leader, who welcomed one of our reporters at the presidential palace for a long interview, will stand for re-election next April. He is the clear favourite, as if the exercise were a one-horse race.

Among the numerous Djibouti hub development projects you have launched in recent months in spite of the pandemic, ranging from the new Damerjog oil terminal to the capital’s business district, not to mention the ship maintenance yard, one in particular has attracted a lot of attention: the road corridor connecting the Port of Tadjoura to northern Ethiopia. Are you looking to gain a competitive edge over Eritrea’s Port of Massawa, which underwent a major renovation after the thaw in relations between Addis Ababa and Asmara?

Ismaïl Omar Guelleh: In the long run, yes, we always need to be a few steps ahead. But competition between Djibouti and Eritrea isn’t imminent: connecting Massawa via a modern railway line requires extremely costly and complex rehabilitation, upgrading and construction works given the region’s hilly topography.

Another competitor, one that poses a greater short-term challenge, is the Port of Berbera in Somaliland, in which your former partner, the Emirati company DP World, plans to invest massively.

Massively? I haven’t heard anything of the sort so far, other than project proposals. DP World excels at creating buzz, but then, in the end, nothing happens. You don’t even see the slightest crane in the sky. We are paid to know.

On that note, how is the commercial dispute between Djibouti and DP World, which you sidelined from managing the Port of Doraleh two years back, going?

The court proceedings are still under way in London and will perhaps begin soon in the United States. These people who stubbornly refuse to sit down and have a discussion with us aren’t interested in money. They’re too rich for that. What they want is for their old monopoly status to be fully reinstated. Their attitude stems from a desire to wield geopolitical control over all the region’s ports. But Djibouti isn’t just another square on a chessboard: we will not go back to the way things were.

In mid-September, you launched the Djibouti Sovereign Fund, which will be funded to the tune of $1.5bn over the next decade and whose sole shareholder is the government. Usually, sovereign wealth funds are the prerogative of rich countries. What is the point of the fund?

“We don’t have oil, but we have ideas”: do you remember that French saying from the 1970s? Well, that’s us, too. I asked Lionel Zinsou and Donald Kaberuka to conduct a feasibility study, one that draws on successful sovereign wealth funds, such as those created by Senegal and Singapore.

What we want to do is free ourselves somewhat from conventional debt-driven growth models, pool our domestic resources to create a leverage effect, attract new financing, promote business and job creation, and, lastly, increase our overall wealth. Read more here.

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