The decline in domestic governance quality has not only had a negative impact on stability and security in Djibouti itself, but also on its relations with other countries in the region.
First, relations with Somaliland have been a lost opportunity. After successful and relatively free and fair elections, economic and political ties should have deepened much more than they have. The Djibouti regime has been concerned that Somaliland’s successful democratic transition may encourage democratic forces within Djibouti, and stoked prior fears that a free election in such a region risks chaos and instability – not least due to the assumption that government leaders in the region rarely ‘walk away’ when suffering an electoral setback.
Second, whilst relations with Ethiopia are broadly favourable, an atmosphere of mistrust prevails. This is largely due to economic problems – arguments over the railway, the air transport sector, road transport and border/customs administration. Whilst Djibouti and Ethiopia work together on Southern Somalia related security issues and the TFG, friction over economic issues retards development and growth.
Relations with Eritrea have stabilised for now, but security tensions persist. The mediated agreement between the two countries (and UN reprimands to Eritrea) could break down quickly. The oppression of Afars in Obock/Hayyou and a partial food blockage has created disquiet both in Obock and over the border in Eritrea. Cross-border sympathies could easily lead to further hostilities, or provide a justification for them. The risks are a two-way street since, with a one-party militarised state under a kind of siege, and economic stagnation, further instability could be triggered by a number of factors.
Above all, the scope exists for a partially manufactured conflict to provide support for stability and a ‘strong man’. Divide and rule may yet again prevail.
A potential major conflict exists in Yemen, and a refugee crisis could result. The US authorities have been focusing on Yemen as a terror network, Saudi Arabia on ‘Shia expansionism’ from a nearby country, and the government in Sana’a on Northern ‘Shia rebels’ as well as Southern Separatists and others. Such a mix of regional, governmental and global-power attrition creates an unpredictable path to potential further and wider conflict.
Links with the conflict in Southern Somalia are also always in the background.
Four key reforms are proposed. First economic ties with Ethiopia and Somaliland need deepening and major cooperation over the rail and air transport sectors with the Addis regime will bring together the countries’ mutual interests.
Second, specific diplomatic steps need to be taken to ease tensions and share security and economic concerns. There is a long list of issues to be raised with all countries in the region, including Sudan and Saudi Arabia. A process of quiet diplomacy to understand better the concerns of each country, and of the governments with bases in Djibouti, is likely to have beneficial effects – both for security and for economic development.
Part of this process should be a set of initiatives for ‘neutral’ Djibouti to improve cooperation over the Red Sea – Suez maritime route, in partnership with Eritrea, Sudan, Egypt, and Yemen.
Third, a comprehensive review of trade relations is needed with countries in the region as well as those countries where the Djibouti diaspora is present in large numbers.
This should encompass trade tariffs, non-tariff barriers, employment and investment, as well as double taxation, and export of services such as port management and construction. There is mutual benefit to this.
Employment is key. It should be easier for expats to work in Djibouti as part of projects underway, and for workers with key skills for the shorter term to be deployed. In addition, it should be easier for Djibouti-based firms to provide services internationally, for example when there are joint ventures with major firms in other countries.
Fourth, reforms are needed within the small foreign ministry in Djibouti. More specialist expertise is needed in economic, security and legal issues, and a more independent ministry which is less ‘micro-managed’ will enable the government of Djibouti to achieve much more.
Better economic relations with countries in the region not only help to reduce existing tensions, they help to prevent new conflicts arising.
Getting things done
In the short term, relations with Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the GCC, and with Somaliland will be prioritised. A better understanding of security issues needs to come first, followed by economic questions.