Behind the East African nation of Djibouti's strained relations with Eritrea - and Qatar - is the country's counter-terrorism strategy
November 24, 2017
One of the only things the small East African nations of Eritrea and Djibouti agree on is Qatar’s destabilizing role in the region. When Djibouti downgraded its diplomatic relationship with Doha on June 5th, the government knew there would be consequences. But it was unaware they would fall so close to home.
In a surprise move, Qatar announced the withdrawal of its troops from the Eritrea-Djibouti border on June 14. Qatar’s forces had been keeping the peace between Eritrea and Djibouti since 2010, as part of a Doha-led mediation process. The two African nations had a brief border conflict in 2008 – a dispute which dates back to a 1900 colonial agreement between Italy and France which left the precise location of the border ill-defined.
Following Qatar’s withdrawal Eritrean forces quickly took full control of Dumeira Mountain and Dumeira Island. “Djibouti will have to react to this seizure in some way though in what manner Djibouti will respond to this is unclear,” said Joseph Siegle, Director of the Africa Center for Strategic Studies in a June interview.
As painful as the loss of that territory is, Djibouti may still think its decision was worth it. The country’s stance against Qatar is part of a tougher fight against terrorism both within its region and beyond. Djibouti was a founding member of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism and also participated in the Arab Islamic US Summit held in Riyadh in May. This has continued despite the potential loss of Djiboutian territory caused by Qatar – this summer Djibouti also formally joined the US-led Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
Djibouti believes that its struggle against Eritrea is tied to terrorism concerns. It asked the UN’s Somalia and Eritrea Monitoring Group to investigate alleged Eritrean funding for the Somali terrorist group group Al-Shabaab last year. Djibouti has also accused Asmara of funding a group of 200 Djiboutian rebels. “I personally doubt that Qatar is directly funding Al-Shabab in Somalia. There is more evidence to suggest the possibility of Eritrean support for Al-Shabab but, of course, Qatar could be using Eritrea as a proxy,” said a senior Somali intelligence official who agreed to speak off the record during the recent intelligence conference in Khartoum.
Despite the crisis along the border with Eritrea, Djibouti has maintained a force of roughly a thousand soldiers in Somalia as part of the African Union force fighting Al-Shabaab. But Qatar’s sudden withdrawal may have cost Djibouti more than a strip of its territory. Djibouti also worries about the fate of its prisoners of war held by Eritrea – an issue that Qatar had attempted to negotiate.
At the end of the 2008 conflict, Eritrea held nineteen Djiboutian prisoners of war – though some escaped and four were later were released. “[Eritrea] continues to spread blatant lies about the prisoner’s condition and has refused to account for them despite repeated calls by the UN Security Council,” Ambassador Dualeh said.
While Djibouti would be outgunned in any renewed fighting, the country’s changing economic fortunes might strengthen its military and negotiating position in the future. “The tiny new nation has no army, less than one square mile of arable land and no resources except sand, salt and 20,000 camels,” the New York Times wrote in 1977. In the intervening decades Djibouti has become an economic success story – its GDP of Djibouti increased by 6.5% in 2016, in part thanks to the development of its port and transport services.
Djibouti aims to become the “Dubai of Africa” and serve as a regional trading hub. Ethiopia – with a population of one hundred million – is the world’s most populous landlocked country. It depends on Djibouti’s port to reach the sea, and as a result the tiny country handles ninety percent of Ethiopia’s maritime trade. To better meet those needs, Djibouti opened two new harbors this year – and another port is nearing completion.
Djibouti also maintains its diplomatic clout by hosting several foreign military bases. Camp Lemonnier, a former French Foreign Legion outpost, has been America’s only permanent military base in Africa since 2001. Sitting next to Djibouti’s international airport, the US joint-operating base has been an important part of America’s ongoing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Djibouti has also welcomed military bases from China and Japan in recent years – and Saudi Arabia is also considering a base. Partly in response, Eritrea is host to a base from the home of the real Dubai: the United Arab Emirates.
War is bad for business, and ultimately Djibouti hopes its dispute with Eritrea will be ameliorated through negotiation. Ambassador Dualeh told Raddington Report that, contrary to media reports, China has not offered to act as a mediator of the dispute now that Qatar has gone.
“We would like to see the UN Security Council urge Eritrea to resolve the border issue peacefully,” Dualeh said, “and to accept to submit the boundary dispute to the International Court of Justice, for a final and binding determination of the boundary based on international law”. No one expects that to happen soon.