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Strategic point, a crossroads of diplomacy, an oasis of peace

Djibouti, halfway through the future

It was a French wedge inserted in the Horn of Africa. In practice, the third Somalia, in addition to the English and Italian ones. After independence from Paris, it became the military basis of everyone: France, USA, Germany, Japan, and now even China. Djibouti would become the "African Dubai", but its peculiarities seem to be other, for better or for worse. Travel in a small Islamic Miracle.

Never trust the advertising, and never trust appearances. You get to Djibouti preceded by pages in international journals such as "Jeune Afrique" and by easy definitions of trend, which speak of a new "African Dubai", open to trade and to tourists. Just off the plane you find yourself in a world that has a lot of African, but nothing of Dubai: modest terminal, long waits for passport control, cold and hostile approach of the frontier police, they, on the other hand, happily accept the qat, chewing exciting herb, by one of the many women wrapped in headscarves, absolutely easy-going, if they want to leap over the row. The approach is one of the worst: cameras seized (we have not an accreditation for journalists yet), negotiations of taxi fares in spite of the well exposed sign ("The exchange is old," they say), little scam in hotel disguised like respect for Islamic tradition ("two men can not sleep in the same room," so two single rooms instead a double room), and finally inflated bill (and almost European prices) at the first random restaurant, that seemed a good place. So, it starts uphill, with a sweltering heat (but this was known) and no running water, due to work in progress to the water pipes of the district. With the muezzin and crows that wake you up at five in the morning, waiting for the buckets and the bin full of water to wash and get fresh. There is not an "African Dubai": if this is the way to welcome the foreigners, if this is the organization and these are the infrastructure, in other words, if this is the custom, it seems to be only in the umpteenth corner of Africa, the Islamic version, even the Somali version, and that says it all. But appearances, in fact, can be deceptive. You could almost say, as the "Little Prince" by Saint - Exupéry (French is a must, here) that "what is essential is invisible to the eye". "Djibouti, land of exchanges and meetings," the slogan that appears on posters to arrival: in this case the advertising does not lie. It is a geographical vocation, but also economical, cultural, and political vocation. Like an advertising slogan, you might say,"Djibouti, a safe haven between sea and desert." Or, with a more political aspect:"Djibouti, peace is (also) a great deal." The Frenches who landed in these places in the second half of the nineteenth century wanted to create a basis as opposed to the British one in Aden, in close proximity of Yemen (in the tightest spots, there are only 10 km of the Red Sea to separate African coast from '"Arabia Felix"). If Aden was the crucial intersection of London to India, Djibouti became a required stop for the French ships bound for Indochina colonies (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia). Even the legendary Foreign Legion settled here, and the seaside town became a mixture of ethnic groups (Frenches, Italians, Greeks, Armenians, Arabs, Jews) and a sort of "refugium peccatorum" for traffickers, spies, commercial agents, and adventurers .. Among them, there was also the "poète maudit " Arthur Rimbaud in search of a new life: "The sea air will burn my lungs, the lost climates will tan me" writes in "Mauvais sang". Its ivory, arms trafficking, someone said (never tried it) also of slaves, were directed towards the heart of Ethiopia, which was the other soul of Djibouti, the inner one, territory of the legendary Afar mentioned in the sagas of Corto Maltese. Their compatriots, the Issa, have Somali origins. The two Djibouti ethnic groups share the Sunni Muslim belief, and have always lived together in peace, except when France wanted to prolong its colonial rule. Not by chance after the Second World War, Djibouti, that was still French Somalia, was renamed "Territory of Afar and Issa peoples." The long wave of anti-colonial struggles and the influence of the Egyptian leader Nasser you were felt here too, especially on the Somali side (the one of Issa), who wanted to expel all foreign powers from the three (French, British and Italian) Somalias , while Afar were more oriented to maintain the link with Paris. "After Fraance lost Algeria, repression here in Djibouti became very fierce," recalls Khaled Haidar, 58, editor of the newspaper "The Nation", and the government manager of communication sector. But Djibouti politicians have always cultivated the art of compromise. Thus, the skilled leader Issa, Hassan Gouled, managed to obtain the independence of his country (1977) without giving up the military protection of France. Because at that time, at the end of Seventies, Djibouti was between the two giants of the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia and Somalia, which entered into open conflict. Two dictators, two soldiers as the Ethiopian Mengistu and the Somali Siad Barre, although very close in the official ideology, Marxism-Leninism, they could not live a long time without going into war (and to wage war on all domestic opponents). "There were many people predicted that Djibouti, gained independence, would have been swallowed by one of the two neighbors, "said Haidar. But, as often happens, while two dispute, the third enjoys. In 1991 the two great dictators fall miserably overwhelmed by internal opposition: Ethiopia finds soon its new strong man, Meles Zenawi, leader of the guerrilla front of Tigray allied with Eritrea; Somalia implode in a permanent civil war. To Djibouti fleeing men, swerving militaries, even arms and even aircraft "saved" a moment before the fall of the regimes pass. Hard is be not involved in any way. In fact, Djibouti also lives its internal conflict: Afar, who until that moment had accepted authoritarianism of President Gouled and the one-party regime of its RPP (Rassemblement populaire pour le progrès), give life to an armed insurrection. They feel marginalized compared to Issa, and, above all, they have the weapons of the deposed Ethiopian dictator Mengistu, "with the complicity of Mitterrand, "says Haidar). The internal conflict lasts a few years, and is solved by a political agreement at the end of 1994: Gouled accept a multiparty system, to the Afar representation in parliament is guaranteed, the guerrillas are incorporated in the army, and the leaders of the FRUD resistance movement are co-opted to the government, and even today they form, together with the old one-party RPP, the presidential majority. Despite some turbulence that last until the final agreement of 2000, the conflict of the Afar and Issa has been successfully solved, without external interference. In practice, the regime has made more formal than substantive concessions to democracy. The only change since then has been the handover in 1999, from the independence President Gouled, now old and sick, to the new strong man, Ismael Omar Gelleh, who was his counselor, in addition to being his nephew, which still governs virtually unchallenged. "Yes, Djibouti is a sort of muscular democracy - admits Gianni Rizzo, Italian Honorary Consul - a kind of regime provided, however, by a strongly presidential constitution; but it must be remembered that this is a small Country in an explosive area, and here Safety is guaranteed to everyone”. " The wave of "Arab spring," says Rizzo,” it is felt even here, but not blatantly, perhaps because it occurred close to the elections, which are however, a natural outlet of tensions”. The fact is that there are no real opposition parties, but only electoral signs behind a leader, ready to melt again. In short, it is certainly not on the face of domestic political Djibouti offers something interesting.
But it is in foreign politics that this small nation of about one million inhabitants gives the best, and it is a terrific litmus test for read what happens in the world, to perceive the movements of global geopolitics. Djibouti is able to combine its openness to the West with its membership in the Arab League and its status as a member of the African Union. And it is very able to hold together Islam and secular state and society. Let's start with the close but difficult relationship with France, the former colonial power. In the perception of the media, Djibouti is still a French outpost, it seems that its existence should orbit around the military base, the largest on the African continent. But things are not like that. The days when France ruled here, even after independence are gone. Anyone could come and go from France without a visa. French politicians went to visit their bases before meet Djibouti authorities. The attitude was similar to who goes on vacation to an exotic place: we have seen politicians enter the presidential palace in shorts and polo shirts. French banks, the only in the area up to a bit years ago, lent the money with a monopoly regime, at usurious rates (up to 16 percent, now they are to 7). And do not talk about the cooperation: every Paris funding was linked to the presence of French aid, in practice the eighty percent fell into French funds, and there were also favorable economic agreements (this is unfortunately a classic international cooperation). And the military bases were on the territory for free. But the world is changing, and Djibouti is a witness. Meanwhile, Djibouti has exploited the rivalry between France and the United States, which in Africa has been fierce, exasperated, though never declared. The government of Djibouti has backed Washington after the September attacks. And the U.S. has decided to bring here their base of operations for Africa, paying well for the occupation of the soil, and with no fuss. Secondly, France is losing political weight in the world for years, despite of Sarkozy's attempts of "grandeur". His France heavily gives its military "protection" of some countries of Central and West Africa (Chad and Côte d'Ivoire in particular) and participated in bombings against Gaddafi in Libya. But this is not enough: France alone is surely doomed to decline, both for the lowest weight loss (exacerbated by the crisis), and for the changing international balance of power. For the world, all in all, this is good news: France and the UK have already done so much damages in the south of the World, during the twentieth century, they should learn the lesson once and for all, and decide to become Europe only, an Europe dedicated to building a more harmonious and democratic world, as it is able to do on the inside. France has already done a first step in that direction, sending home Sarkozy, who had even imposed the study of "good sides of colonialism" in schools, and who was xenophobic just a little less than Le Pen. French residents here apparently do not like the change of Elysée, they vote in large part to the extreme right, as in the past they had been faithful followers of Marshal Petain, head of the collaborationist France in the Second World War. We will see if the Socialist Hollande will actually change French foreign politics, that, seen from Africa, is, beyond declarations of principle, currently neo-colonialism. In Djibouti anybody has ever had no illusions. They have grown accustomed to international politics as a game of relationships based on the strength and convenience. So, after the openness to the United States in the wake of the "war on terrorism", Djibouti has ridden the wave of the fight against piracy in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, hosting military convoys and giving national ground to Germany, Japan (the first Japanese warships outside the national territory by the end the Second World War) and now even China (!).
The Djibouti authorities are so pragmatic that, despite not having diplomatic relations with Israel, they host a private security company run by former Mossad agents: the old 007 offer expensive security guard to yachts of billionaires who want to ride in these always restless waters, between Yemen and Somalia, along the routes of oil tankers and container ships from the Gulf countries, China, India and the rest of Asia that impetuously grows. Globalization is largely cause of the evils that it has to deal, including piracy, because they are fishermen who are no longer able to do their job. But the globalized world also offers opportunities to the countries of South. The famous West, unable to get out of his superiority complex, is playing very bad its cards. And from here you can see certain politics in a very simple and clear approach, as Khaled Haidar explains: "I have completed my studies and I have worked extensively in France, before to be correspondent for the AFP. I love the French language and culture, I love Aznavour and all civilization, we all have absorbed here in Djibouti. But I could not send my daughters to study in France, for the tough visa regime. The treatment of foreigners is humiliating, There is no equality of treatment, there is no respect. That is why they went to study in China and Morocco, and it is fine. " That is, if Europe locks itself in, with its inertia, with its petty vision, devoid of ideals, with its aging, with its declining birthrate, the rest of the world adapts, and finds its opportunities elsewhere. It is pretty sure that, a time when Djibouti will not need the "protection" of France will soon come , and then it will take a moment to say"adieu." It will be another missed opportunity. A gift for the"Asian"competitors, needless to use the human rights and democracy, and not really practice them: China, India and other countries simply offer the best conditions. Just like Arab countries, big investors of Djibouti, starting from the UAE, the famous Dubai: "they have invested more in recent years - 300 million only for the port - than the French in a century and a half, "explains Haidar. Now the company from Dubai that ran the port in synergy with a company from Djibouti is in serious financial difficulties, for the serious housing crisis that has involved the Emirates. But with the modernized structures, with the traffic of oil from newly independent state of South Sudan and headed for China, with the imports/exports of Ethiopia (mostly for China, which invests in infrastructure and buys food and fertile land), the country's future is guaranteed. Of course, there is always a price to pay: the money coming from Saudi Arabia, for example, went to support above all new Koranic schools and new mosques, encouraging penetration of a more aggressive and fundamentalist Islam. "It is an involution that we see, every day - said father Mark Desser, American, 39 year old missionary in Djibouti since 2007 - especially in the very young people, including young girls, which live in the city and attend Koranic schools: they are hostile, they have aggressive behaviors that their parents do not have: it may seem a paradox, but in the rural society, where tradition is much stronger, there is much more tolerance, openness and welcoming spirit (especially among the Afar). " But father Mark, as well as the experienced journalist Haidar or the consul Rizzo, excludes Djibouti can become a fundamentalist country, and they all highlight the most visible presence of the Catholic Church (and not only), and the peaceful coexistence of natives and foreigners, regardless of the religion. Here various public places quietly serve alcohol, you can go to seaside dressed as you want, there is obviously a fair amount of freedom in all the manifestations of social life. Certainly good will and peaceful attitude of people of Djibouti are not enough: there is also an intelligence that works very well, a widespread police presence, but not oppressive, and a strong cohesion of society. And then, in this area of the Earth, there are many nations needing a safe place, where to find shelter: for example, when the two Yemen, very turbulent states painstakingly gathered, waged war, many Yemenis have sought refuge here.
Djibouti, in short, perhaps for necessity or convenience, has developed a strong culture of peace, starting from conflict mediation. This is its larger value-added, in addition to a better understanding of the international dynamics than many presumed "Think tank" of the Western powers. Here no one believes the legend of the "clash of civilizations", or "world crusade against terrorism "; and also the famous, imminent supremacy of China is seen with the necessary degree of realism and skepticism. Here it is clear that Africa will follow in any case more and more independent and autonomous logics, and Djibouti, among the three perspectives (Western, Arab, African) highlights more and more its African identity. In the triangle between Djibouti, Ethiopia and Somaliland you can already see the future Horn of Africa, no longer torn apart by senseless wars and expansionist visions, instead connected by new infrastructure and trade and knowledge networks, united in tackling common problems (such as, recently, the drought and the resulting famine). If we add the Southern Sudan, the 193rd state recognized by the UN, as part of the quartet of"friendly" countries (although Somaliland waits in vain for a recognition it deserves widely), you can understand how the common membership of Africa makes more sense than any religious or ethnic difference. On the contrary, Eritrea appears increasingly isolated and without future, the most politically promising nation in the area turned into a sad military dictatorship, a country-prison from which one can only escape. In short, problems are big, for this part of the world, and dynamics in progress are extremely dangerous. But today, perhaps for the first time since the end of colonialism and Cold War, the overall picture "gives peace a chance", to quote John Lennon's words (but without his utopian vision). Even Djibouti, however, need to change. For now, we can say that the push towards a democratic modernization was literally "addicted" by the consumption of qat. This exciting herb, being chewed releases substances similar to amphetamines, it is basically a State drug: jealously guarding the commercial monopoly (the production is located mostly in Ethiopia), the State regain with the interests what it spends in social investments (not much, in fact), and "politically” managing the rise or the fall of price, It often manages to pacify the turbulent moods of the masses, to neutralize the forces of opposition against the system. But in the long run, even the President Guelleh must accept change, willy-nilly. Despite many problems, this rugged and charming land on the inside (in the surreal moors of Lake Abbé was filmed "Planet of the Apes"), beautiful in its crystalline waters, in its uncontaminated shores and islands, clearly indicates the way to the future to all the great planet powers. It is certainly not the fault of Djibouti if future is only halfway.
Cesare Sangalli