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Mahamoud Ali Youssouf.DR
Mahamoud Ali Youssouf.DR
Découverte / Djibouti

Mahamoud Ali Youssouf
“We want to actively contribute to peace and security.”

Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Par Zyad Limam - Publié en mai 2024

At the helm of the ministry since 2005, Mahamoud Ali Youssouf talks about his bid for the African Union Commission chairmanship and describes the challenges facing Djibouti and the region.​​​​​​​

President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh took over the chairmanship of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in June of last year. We can see the extent to which the organisation has to contend with conflicts between member countries and major operational challenges. What are the most significant developments during his chairmanship?

The Djibouti Summit held in June 2023 marked a particularly important milestone. A new treaty governing the organisation’s operations and activities was adopted. The IGAD treaty had not been amended since 1996 and, given the challenges and conflicts you mentioned, we needed to update it.  First and foremost, by introducing effective conflict resolution mechanisms. Secondly, to accelerate the region's economic integration. This integration has been on hold, even though it is a major goal of the organisation.

Our chairmanship has also been marked, of course, by the Sudanese conflict. We have done our utmost to bring about a ceasefire, which to date remains largely elusive. We have held three summits and two ministerial meetings to reconcile the warring parties', and to ensure that they can meet in Djibouti or elsewhere. We have supported regional initiatives, such as the Jeddah process. We have met with the United Nations Secretary General's special envoy, Ambassador Ramtane Lamamra, and have worked in coordination with him. The African Union has set up a high-level panel headed by Mohamed Ibn Chambass. Diplomatic efforts have been collective and intense, commensurate with the conflict and its repercussions and with our history too.  Sudan is a founding member of IGAD.

The Horn of Africa is a complex and difficult region.

​​​​​​​Yes, our region is demanding.  President Guelleh has spared no effort, for example, in managing the tension between Addis Ababa and Mogadishu over Ethiopia's access to the sea via Somaliland. We are also dealing with the issue of security in the Bab El Mendeb Strait. The Horn of Africa is in contact with the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen. We consider that Yemen is, in a way, part of the Horn of Africa. We have strategic and military partnerships with major countries. But we do not want to be party to a conflict and have forces attacking neighbouring countries from our territory. We must perform a balancing act. We have to take the middle road, the traditional approach of our diplomacy because, above all, we want to be a constructive player promoting dialogue, peace and security.

Fifteen years ago, we decided to host the ships participating in the EUNAVFOR’s Operation Atalanta which are combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden and in the Indian Ocean. In doing so, we found ourselves at the forefront of international mobilisation in the fight against piracy. The Djibouti Code of Conduct, adopted in 2009, has been a decisive instrument in curbing acts of piracy, even if we are still not immune to the resurgence of this problem. We recently agreed to host the forces of the European operation Aspides, for the protection and security of convoys that is strictly defensive in nature.

We have always faced up to what we consider to be our responsibility by offering all the facilities required to deal with the major crises that have arisen, serving as a logistical hub for humanitarian operations to evacuate foreign nationals in the wake of the crisis in Yemen and more recently in Sudan.  We have also acted as a nerve centre for operations to secure the SFO SAFER supertanker and avert an unprecedented environmental disaster in the Red Sea. This is our role, and this is what we are doing within IGAD. We seek to be a mediating force, to contribute directly to the security and stability of our region.

Djibouti and Yemen are in effect ‘cousin countries’. You mentioned being a balancing act and a middle road. The war in Gaza and the operations carried out by the Houthis in the Bab el Mandeb Strait are having an impact on Djibouti's economy.

Djibouti recognises the legitimate government of Yemen led by Rashad al Alimi. In this conflict, we have always been on the side of legality. Contrary to what has been written we have no ties with the Houthis. We have denounced the attacks on ships in the Strait zone. The disruption to shipping is causing real damage to our economy.  It also poses serious logistical problems for the continued supply of essential products, such as medicines, to the region. Almost 40% of the world's maritime trade passes through the Bal el Mandeb Strait, and these attacks are driving up costs across the board. This situation must stop. This does not change our position on the conflict in Palestine, on the tragedy in Gaza, on which we have repeatedly expressed ourselves with the utmost clarity.

Djibouti is host to several major bases from powerful, competing countries. How do you manage this proximity, this ‘fraternising’ in your country? Particularly at a time of regional crisis?

We consider collective security to be an absolute priority.

Each country came here within a different context: France, as a historic partner, has had troops in Djibouti since independence as part of a bilateral military cooperation treaty. The United States has been present since 11 September 2001 as part of the fight against terrorism. Japan, Italy and the Atalanta Force have deployed troops as part of the fight against piracy. The Chinese arrived later within the same context.

We are not confronted with an ‘impossible mathematical equation’. When we signed these military and strategic agreements, we also set out our principles and rules for pragmatic coexistence that preserves and protects our country's sovereignty. We are acting to avoid unnecessary tensions.

Furthermore, as Djibouti, we have no ideological alliances. We are equidistant from China, the United States and France, and we do not adhere to an imported model. Lastly, and very importantly, we have been transparent from the outset. And on every major decision. If we want this, we say so. If we don't want that, we say so too. When the United States and its allies launched Operation Prosperity Guardian, we said so clearly. Djibouti does not want to be involved in an operation that could affect neighbouring countries and that would contradict our policy of neutrality and mediation. If you are clear with your allies from the outset, you will not run into difficulties along the way.

We take no ideological stance, we are Djibouti, in the heart of our region, we have interests, we have allies, we are working for security in the Bab el Mendeb Strait.

In this particularly turbulent context, you announced your candidacy for the chairmanship of the African Union Commission.

Based on the African Union's institutional reform, led by President Kagame, the Chairmanship of the Commission is open to the principle of regional rotation. This measure has been in effect since 2018. In 2025, it will be East Africa's turn to have the honour of seeing one of its nationals head the Commission.  And we believe that our candidacy is legitimate. We have a wealth of experience to draw on. Whether in an individual capacity, in my case, or the experience that our country has accumulated through its diplomacy. Over the past 20 years, we have been particularly active in dialogue, peace and security.  We have a long tradition of mediation and listening. We are a small country and we have no hidden strategic objectives. Above all, we want to to contribute first and foremost to silencing the guns, to contribute to the effective implementation of the AfCFTA, to the promotion of our economic integration, this is absolutely essential for our development. To contribute to the success of the organisation's reforms, which are already underway and implemented. To bring our dynamism and a fresh perspective to the workings of our organisation. I have been Minister of Foreign Affairs since 2005, so I have a thorough knowledge of the issues and the terrain. We have a plan, and I think I am the right person to implement this plan for Africa. President Guelleh presented my candidacy on behalf of Djibouti. I would like to thank him for his decision and his choice, and we will be actively campaigning.

You know what General de Gaulle said about the UN, that it was a ‘thing’ with no real influence. Many people think the same thing about the AU, citing its bureaucracy, its plethora of officials, and its highly questionable operability.

I don’t think anyone is questioning the validity of these organisations, whether it’s the UN, created in the aftermath of a devastating world conflict, or the African Union, which symbolises our shared desire for emancipation. The main objective of these organisations (international, continental or regional) is to contribute actively to peace and stability.  Nor do I believe that we can do without a collective instrument for coordination between nations, be it on economic, trade, security, scientific or medical issues. What creates frustration is that these organisations are not up to the task of meeting people’s expectations. They often work over the long term, which does not always correspond to the urgent needs of the present. Let me give you an example. Africa has a ‘master plan’, Agenda 2063. It’s an ambitious programme, but it covers half a century, two generations.  It’s a long way off, and it’s certainly frustrating, but a course has been set. Having worked extensively in diplomacy, I am convinced of the need for multilateralism. That it is the only possible instrument for a more peaceful,more integrated, less unequal world. There are no other alternatives. If those who criticise this approach put forward other instruments, we will listen. Of course, the system is not perfect. Multilateralism requires constant reform. This is particularly true of the United Nations. The Security Council needs to be reformed to make it more effective. This is a matter of urgency.

And in the specific case of the African Union?

We aren’t inactive, far from it. And that’s one of the main priorities of my candidacy: to step up the implementation of the organisation’s reforms. You mentioned personnel; we are already working on this issue, on workforce efficiency, on career options and prospects. A lot of projects are underway, but you know we are an organisation with 55 member countries. We need to create a sense of ownership, get everyone on board, and take an inventory of points of view and expectations. It is also the role of the Chairperson of the Commission to manage this complexity. I also think, above all, that we must constantly return to our common strategic objectives, the Union’s programmes. I mentioned peace and conflict resolution, an urgent necessity for Africa. I mentioned the AfCFTA and economic integration, which is just as urgent and necessary. And we also need to focus on the fight against climate change and the adaptability of our societies, which are still largely rural, and the financing of the ecological transition. This is a major challenge for Africa. We are already being affected every day. It’s essential for the continent.​​​​​​​

You won’t be the only candidate. How will you approach the campaign?

I’ve set myself a principle, I will run my candidacy by focusing on the issues facing the continent and the concerns of the people. The question of individuals and candidates is not important, Africa needs everyone and may the best person win. What matters is Africa and not losing sight of our objectives and ambitions.

You represent a post-independence generation. The baby-boomers. Today, the average age on the continent is 20. How does one mobilise these young people, and engage them in dialogue?

This is a real issue, a daily challenge. Our young people have high expectations and ambitions. They are connected, they can project themselves into the world in real time. They see and understand what is happening elsewhere in real time. These young people ‘know’, they are mature. This may not have been the case with the generation of the founding fathers, who did not have the same tools at their disposal. And it’s up to us to rise to the level of these young people. This is one of the African Union’s flagship programmes: youth and gender equality. We are eagerly awaited on these issues. It will be up to us, as candidates, to talk to women and young people and get them on board. It will also be up to us to talk to the African diasporas and to reach out to them.

We hear a lot about the notion of the Global South. About its emergence. You are Djiboutian. You studied in Canada, France and the UK, and you travel the world. How do you perceive this Global South? Is it purely a concept for the media?

There are realities and wishful thinking. I'll start with the wishful thinking.  We would all like to see a fairer, more equitable world, a world in which the West does not wield global domination. We would like to see more hope for the emerging countries, trapped in a trade system that favours the wealthiest. The BRICS are the embodiment of this Global South. But this multipolarity is not going to happen overnight. It will take time. The disparity between ‘us and them’ is enormous. The world economy is a dollar economy. And this dollar economy determines the commercial and strategic balance of power. All this, too, will take time to evolve. It’s also up to our countries to grow, to move forward to give themselves more and more room to manoeuvre.

China is one of Djibouti’s major partners. Seen from a little further afield, one gets the impression that it is curbing its major international ambitions, that it is putting the brakes on its New Silk Roads plan.

​​​​​​​The first thing to stress is that Western countries have largely abandoned Africa. They have not given us the necessary support to help us join the circle of truly emerging countries. Particularly when it comes to infrastructure. Without infrastructure, there can be no development. China has filled this gap. What China is doing in Africa is not much compared to what it is doing in Asia, Latin America, or even Europe or the United States, but it is a huge step for us. And the Chinese don't come here with any sanctimonious ideas. They don’t lecture us. This is not the case with Westerners, who nonetheless tolerate immoral situations such as what is happening in Gaza. Ultimately, we need to be lucid. China is a major economic power, the world leader in terms of GDP. It has interests. It is not investing in Africa for our benefit. China needs resources, raw materials and secure its trade routes. It does what is necessary to defend these interests. It is a power that operates in the long term, and which may have to rearrange its priorities in the short term. Covid also had an impact. But that doesn't call its commitment into question.​​​​​​​

Let’s talk about your oldest friends, France. You are the only French-speaking country in the region. Where do things stand with Djibouti’s partnership with Paris?

​​​​​​​We value the quality of the relationship and the friendship between our two countries. We are working on a win-win partnership. The two heads of state talk to each other and exchange views. The renegotiation of the defence treaty is in its final stage, with some necessary rebalancing.  We are currently working on the details. But overall, the mood is very positive and constructive.

Another strategic partner is Ethiopia. There have been recent tensions over trade and strategic issues. How do you deal with such a powerful and populous neighbour?

Our interests are closely intertwined: economic, commercial, human and social. It’s our big neighbour, a brother country. The quality of this relationship, the ongoing consolidation of this partnership, is our number one concern. 50% of our GDP is linked to trade with Ethiopia. We therefore have to pay very close attention to this relationship. Of course, there may be differences of opinion, like in an old couple, if you’ll forgive the image, but nothing fundamental.

Yet Ethiopia is doing everything it can to diversify its access to the sea. It's a policy that goes directly against your interests.

This is a false analysis. Ethiopia has a population of 120 million. By 2050, it will probably have 200 million people. And just as many consumers. It’s a fast-growing economy that needs to export and import goods. They need several ports to keep up with this pace. In Djibouti, we have four ports in operation that serve Ethiopia. Then there’s Berbera in Somaliland, Lamu in Kenya, I could mention others. We are continuing to invest in infrastructure to serve the Ethiopian market, for example with the Damerjog Industrial complex. What’s important is that we have organic relations with Ethiopia, and that we are Ethiopia’s natural port, the closest, the best equipped, with the necessary gantries, the train, the road. What matters is that we have organic and fraternal relations with Ethiopia.