February 2018

Ismaïl Omar Guelleh :
« Djibouti is free to make its own choices »

By Zyad Limam

Debts, the fight against poverty, national sovereignty, China, future projets... the Head of State takes all questions. He sees himself as the leader of a courageous movement on the difficult road towards its objective... The afriquemagazine.com site has exclusive rights to the full interview which is to appear in the February n°377 issue of AM.

The discovery or rediscovery of the capital and its environs shows the scale of the changes taking place. There is, of course, the traditional image of the military bases, a garrison country, an outpost, as it were, of the strategic interests of the major powers, at the entrance of the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, through which pass nearly 20% of the world's exports, 10% of oil transit per annum, and over a billion dollars’ worth of Chinese goods every day. And yet, over and above what might seem like a contemporary postcard landscape with its high khaki coloured walls, serious economic and trade issues are at stake. This small country with a million inhabitants, and an area of just over 23000 km2 (the world's 149th in size), is determined, with the resolute support of China, to become a new Singapore, one of Africa's foremost logistical and port strongholds. A services hub that can provide competitive services to Ethiopia, a giant of 100 million people undergoing an economic boom, but with no sea outlet. And beyond, with identical efficiency, to the region and the immense interior stretching towards Central Africa and, perhaps, one day, as far as the other coast, the Atlantic Ocean. And to become an active component of the gigantic New Silk Road project. In just a few months, there has been a clear multiplier effect, fuelled by Beijing's investments and support. After the inauguration of the Port of Tadjourah (primarily for cattle) and that of Goubet (for salt exploitation), the year began with the opening, close to the capital, of the DMP, Doraleh Multipurpose Port, after two and a half years' work (and a budget of $580 million). Nearby, machines are at work almost round the clock to create the ambitious 48 km2 Djibouti Free Trade zone, opposite the imposing Chinese military base. The railway lines of the famous Djibouti-Addis-Ababa Railway pass through this road. A Pharaonic project also backed by China, and thanks to which goods and services can now circulate more efficiently between the two 
capitals over a distance of more than 700 km. The imposing Nagad Station, just outside the capital, shows the ambitious nature of the project. The town centre is being gradually transformed, with the rapid development of a banking and financial sector. The projects are numerous, and said to include new roads to Ethiopia, an airport, and telecom centres for data traffic between Asia, Africa and Europe.
In this supercharged context, Djibouti should form part of the ten economies with the highest growth rate in 2018. There is no doubt a high percentage of risks in Djibouti's endeavour. The country is poor in natural resources, and has a small population. Everything has to be based on strategy and skilfully playing outside partners against each other. On attracting investors without renouncing its sovereignty. Designing projects without becoming mired in debt. Something is at work here in what had long been a part of the periphery, a confetto of colonial empire that seems to have found its place among the new emerging countries. But this wealth must also provide concrete gains for the citizens of the country.
President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, who has been in power for 19 years, is the lynchpin of this emergent strategy. He played host to AM on the first floor of the palace, a modern mansion, all white and built alongside the former Palace of Governors. « IOG », affable, skilful and resolute as to his objectives, took our questions.
AM: Trains, new ports, infrastructure… The changes are truly spectacular in Djibouti. But many analysts feel that this strong growth is not «inclusive» enough, that the level of poverty is not being reduced quickly enough, and that the model would not seem to be doing enough in the fight against precariousness. As Africans often say: «you can't eat tar»…
Ismaïl Omar Guelleh: That is a legitimate point. We as Djiboutians can measure the scale of our shared ambition, the fight against poverty and precariousness. We can measure the effects of the drought that is driving young people to come to our one and only large town, the capital. We can measure the active solidarity that transcends our society and enables its weakest members to avoid hunger and destitution. Humility is also one of the traditional hallmarks of our country, and the term wealth is difficult to define in our culture. What we want, above all, are a roof over our heads, education for our children, and healthcare for all. We have built schools in all our different communities. And none was built without drilling for water at the same time. Not to mention canteens. We also dispatch medical caravans across the country on a regular basis. But we are also an open country, with borders that are difficult to «padlock». At the heart of a region where people move about. Occasional migrants who come and go into and out of our country for family, climate or economic reasons, and can end up settling down permanently. It is no mean task, dealing with these « floating » populations, often poor, that we host and which increase our economic burden but which the international institutions refuse to take into account. They cannot be put into the traditional categories. The government is trying to determine with our Ethiopian partners and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) how we can fix these populations in their countries, by enabling them to obtain once and for all what they come to look for in Djibouti over periods of months (or years…)
Such « floating» populations are not always only poor people. Our schools, our universities, also attract young people from everywhere in the region, including non-French speakers seeking education, opportunities, and even work in Djibouti, and who increase the pressure on the job market. We are doing our best with all these
data which should be better explained to our partners.
The statistics show that nearly 60 % of the population is out of work.
These are the numbers being circulated and we don't see them as credible. I have explained our regional context and the influx of «floating populations» to you. In addition, the calculation methods used exclude the jobs in the informal economy. They leave out dynamic sectors, such as the building, commercial urban transport,
stock breeding and fishing sectors in which traditional, informal, work is widespread.
Another important point raised by these « partners», is the question of public debt which is a burden for the State budget.
A very good point, but, here again, it has to be put into context. A part of this « debt» was lodged with public sector enterprises which are in the commercial, telecommunications, electricity, airports and ports sectors. The State could guarantee this or that loan, but these are financially independent entities that collect their revenues, assume their charges, and do not depend on the State budget and the Treasury. For instance, the different entities of the Ports Authority and the Free Economic Zone (APZFD) of Djibouti unfailingly pay their creditors
as well as their dividends to the State. Moreover, our traditional development partners comprise 80% of Arab funds that give concessional loans at very low interest rates, very long terms, and with substantial grace periods. They include Fades, the Islamic development Bank, the Saudi Fund, the Kuwait Fund, and the OPEC Fund. And, as in the case of unemployment, greater attention should be given to the contribution of the informal sector to our gross national product. One should also concede that a high growth rate (7%) will soon lighten our debt burden.
So, why the «debate»?
It concerns our very ambitious collaboration with China. And, in particular, two long term infrastructure projects that greatly increased «the bill». First of all, there is the project, crucially important I have to say, of water supply between Ethiopia and Djibouti that we inaugurated last June. To free us from an existential anxiety with regard to national consumption, that of the capital, and agriculture.
The cost of the operation for us, is a little over US$ 322 million and this is financed by China's Eximbank. And, most of all, the Djibouti-Addis-Ababa Railway which was also backed by Eximbank. This project is essential for the future of our country and that of Ethiopia. A costly but necessary ambition (some $ 491 million for us), which will be profitable in the long term. The former Ethiopian Prime Minister, my late friend, Meles Zenawi, was firmly convinced of the importance of the railway. We wanted to speed ahead with it, and China gave us a positive response. It is possible that certain points concerning profitability were not sufficiently dealt with as regards financial charges and revenues, especially during the initial years of service. I spoke about these problems with President Xi Jinping during my recent visit to Beijing. He was very receptive to a quick solution. However, the rules and procedures of Eximbank have to be taken into account. We must also understand - it should be stressed - that in both cases, water and train, these are must projects, essential for our development, and offering long term prospects. And that only our Chinese friends came forward to carry them out.
Another question raised by «international partners », is the famous law on strategic investments, voted by Parliament in October 2017, whereby the State can renegotiate, and even withdraw from contracts it has already signed, but which are contrary to its fundamental interests…
There are no hidden targets or ulterior motives. It is a law of the Republic whose objective is clear. We have a great economic ambition for our country. A key aspect of our approach is that we want to become one of the main logistical and commercial platforms in emerging Africa. This strategy requires investments in the infrastructure sector. The relevant major contracts were signed at the beginning of this century. The installation and execution of some of them proved to be inadequate with regard to essential requirements concerning the fundamental interests of the nation, its sovereignty, the State’s sovereign prerogatives. We have a duty to defend these interests, which are universally defined by all the world's nations. Especially when we are faced with contracts that do not take such interests into account, at least not sufficiently... The world has changed!
Is this law especially aimed at DP World and the Doraleh Containers Terminal (DCT)?
As I have already said, this law is general in scope. We have to bear that in mind. But as everyone knows, we have a specific problem with Dubai Ports World. I would like to remind you of the context. The Djibouti Port has been in existence since 1926. We were one of the very first ports of France’s «colonial period», and even of the world. We have a history, a past, and experience in this area. But, since independence, we have had to begin afresh. The old port soon proved to be insufficient. It had become seriously polluted, particularly during the period when the major French oil companies carried out bunkering activities. We needed to develop rapidly and regain our operational capacity. At that time, at the beginning of the 1990s, we ran the risk of fierce competition from the Eritrean Port of Assab. We needed a structure that was better designed to serve Ethiopia in order not to lose the market. We also had to envisage the provision of transhipment activities in order to improve the smoothness of the operations.
And to adapt to changes in world shipping. Our partners in Dubai had launched the major port of Jebel Ali, in the heart of the Arabian-Persian Gulf, some distance away from the main East-West maritime route. They also wanted to open out onto the world, of which they knew very little at the time. The management contract for the Port Of Djibouti, concluded in 2000, was their first operation outside their country, and the Doraleh Containers Terminal (DCT) was simply an extension of the Port of Djibouti designed to respond to the strong market growth. Today, DP World manages nearly 50 ports worldwide. At the time, the urgency and circumstances I have mentioned led us to sign quickly, too quickly. We made mistakes, in good faith, and we acknowledge that. As a result, we are now majority shareholders, but a minority in the boardroom. DP World has exclusive rights in the Republic, and this puts limits on our capacity to develop. We got into debt in relation to the project and when we reimbursed them, we tried, unsuccessfully, to enter into fresh discussions. We went into arbitration in London, and we lost. We were told that the law between the parties has force of law. We do not want to « nationalise » any structure. We are patient. We have diversified interests with the United Arab Emirates. We have mutual friends. We do not wish to upset anyone. Our primary and essential aim is to reach an agreement. But over and above the contractual terms, we are bound by an obligation, that of the fundamental interests of our nation. The Doraleh Containers Terminal (DCT) must work to the country's benefit. It must be able to develop, expand and invest, for instance, in the transhipment activity which is a vital necessity for us.
You were re-elected in April 2016, which is a little short of two years ago. What is your initial assessment of what you have done so far?
I believe that we have already acted decisively to preserve our security in a difficult region that is gripped by many conflicts. To use an image, Djibouti could be compared to a caravan passing in the desert, moving towards a destination over difficult and unknown terrain, while doing its best to avoid obstacles. That is what we are doing. 
So you are the leader of that caravan?
Exactly (laughter)! Yes, I strive to guide the caravan, to chart its course, the way forward, keeping everybody together, with the people in the caravan being as unified as possible, while taking into account their diversity and differences.
40 years after independence, do you think that the concept of a Djibouti nation has progressed? Or are we still prisoners of supposed ethnic divisions between Afars, Issas, Arabs…
The Almighty created us as races, tribes and clans. Our elders used to say: « Your neighbour, the person who lives close by, is your close friend, your relative». The most important thing is to understand what brings us closer together, to understand that we belong to the same land. Colonialism brought us together. In 1977, at independence, everybody said that Djibouti would not last longer than six months. We are still here, we have proved these dire predictions wrong. We have made great strides on the road to unity, to « being together »
And for me, this mission of being closer together is paramount. 
Do the « floating » populations, the migrants, the refugees, put this national union, this sense of belonging to one and the same country at risk?
No, on the contrary. This strengthens our identity. But, then, we have been fortunate. The populations on our main borders belong either to Afar culture (in Ethiopia) or to Somali culture (in Somalia and in Somaliland). This creates continuity, homogeneity, a community of interests.
The general elections are to take place on February 23. On 11 January this year, the government made the Parliament vote a law establishing a quota of 25 % of eligible positions reserved for women in the different lists. We have been told that the political class is not really enthusiastic about this development…
Well... Let's say that it's difficult to get rid of tradition and a certain kind of misogyny. The men do not want to give up their eligible positions! But we do have to make progress, to move. Making reasonable but resolute steps. Women are in the majority in Djibouti. They are also in the majority on the electoral lists. And they also
vote more than men.
Without predicting the future, what are the priorities of the second part of the mandate?
In addition to all the strategic points we have already mentioned, our two main concerns are youth employment and housing. With respect to housing, it is imperative that we respect our commitments on grounds of social equity, and in order to meet population and migration challenges. As the government and public authorities,
there are objectives we have to attain. I have also been active, in a private capacity, in the Right to Housing Foundation which I created with the goal of providing housing to the poorest population groups. I enjoy the support of Djiboutians, of the private sector in particular. On the employment front, the goal is also to be able to react to the changes in our economy, based on the port activities, services, infrastructure, industries... With the provision of training, notably bilingual instruction, implying proficiency in English.
Let's talk about a recurring and emotional subject: France. It changed its president in May last year. What is your first impression of Emmanuel Macron? 
I found a man who was more open, direct, pragmatic and without bias. He is interested in investments, trade, and development. This very positive change comes at a time when the French seem to be more interested in Djibouti. We must remember that we are the only French-speaking country in the region. That means a lot to us. We ensure that contracts are written in French. We are also a door opening out onto a whole area of Africa. With infrastructure which are growing fast to service the interior...
Another recurring subject for Djibouti is the stability of your powerful partner and neighbour, Ethiopia. There are numerous, and at times violent, identity and regional conflicts, with populations being displaced. Do you see a risk there?
Ethiopia is our sister country. We are linked, inextricably I would say, by trade and strategic interests, geography, human ties and history. It is a vast and complex nation, which goes through recurrent cycles of political and identity crises that could be aggravated by economic growth, and territorial and land problems. The opening of the country, the growth of the Internet and social networks also play a role. There are also more surprising alliances, like those of certain Oromo and Amhara elites. There are no doubt situations of injustices to be repaired, as is the case elsewhere. A probable adaptation of the federal State. A balance has to be re-established. But I do not at all think, as some people do, that there is a risk of implosion. Ethiopia is a strong emerging country that is accustomed to upheavals. And the Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, is adept at managing the situation.
Another strategic issue, the Gulf. How does Djibouti position itself in relation to these different powers around you? You, very recently (end of December 2017), also went on an official visit to Turkey, and you have good relations with President Erdogan. Which is perhaps not to the liking of your Saudi allies... And Yemen, torn by civil war, is just there, just opposite.
We are a small country, you know! I do not think that our position is that important. First of all, to give you a frank answer, we are a member of the Antiterrorist Islamic Coalition created by our Saudi friends. But Yemen, just opposite us as you said, are our brothers, our cousins. And many of them have found refuge among us.
Sometimes close relatives of former President Abdallah Saleh. We strive to strike a balance. The same goes for Turkey. We have deep relations, but our position with regard to the Muslim Brothers is clear and unequivocal. We are fighting against them. And President Erdogan knows about our relationship with Saudi Arabia and other allies among the Gulf countries. Once again, we are realists. What is important to us is not the strategic play between the big countries. What is important to us is what all of them can contribute to the development of our country. In the context of a balanced relationship.
Let's come to China and your relations with Beijing. There is talk of a new form of colonialism…
These people are talking nonsense! China is a genuine partner, indeed the only one today that functions on cooperation on a long-term basis. China is our friend. It opened its first base outside its borders in our country.
We form part of the grand Silk Road plan. It is making massive investments in Djibouti. The Chinese are extremely dynamic and ambitious. They drive a hard bargain. You have to get used to it, and also be a good negotiator. They are unrivalled investors in Africa. They believe in our future, our emergence. Moreover, Djibouti
symbolizes a major strategic interest for them with our position on the Bab-el Mandeb, the transit point of a good proportion of Chinese and international trade. And we have major ongoing projects, over and above the ports, free trade areas and trade. For instance, I could mention the projects concerning telecommunication connexions
by cable which would connect China, Asia, to Africa and Europe, passing through data centres in Djibouti. (Peace Project).
To conclude, allow me to return to national topics. Some people say that Djibouti is « a democracy under trusteeship». Do you accept this description?
(Smiles) Under what trusteeship?
Under your trusteeship. Yours. That of President Guelleh.
Honestly, I ask nothing for myself. I have worked a lot. I have given a lot. I could live, I would like to live outside the exercise of power. To devote myself to other important work. For instance, the Right to Housing Foundation. That is very important to me. It affects people’s lives.
But what some Djiboutians say is that no one has been groomed to be your successor…
And you, what do you want me to do? If I choose a successor, he is sure to become the target of all attacks. And if I say nothing, I am criticized for that. At the same time, I have a duty to fulfil my mandate, to ensure that things run smoothly. And, in any case, I believe in the future of my country. We are a peaceful people and are forward looking. We are making progre
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