How Djibouti uses foreign military bases to its advantage

Ra Mason and Elizabeth Cobbett

Chinese Army personnel attending the opening ceremony of China’s new military base in Djibouti
Chinese People’s Liberation Army personnel attending the opening ceremony of China’s new military base in Djibouti, August 1, 2017. Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images.

Djibouti’s position, across the Bab al-Mandab from war-torn Yemen and adjacent to a narrow chokepoint at the gateway to the Gulf of Aden, makes it one of the most important strategic locations on the planet. Indeed, it is now host to a gaggle of overseas military bases and is a centre-point for regional infrastructure and investment.

Our recent article in International Affairs questions the extent to which this explosion of foreign forces is cause for concern. In so doing, we counter simplified narratives of ‘hollowing out’, disempowerment and neo-colonialism typically associated with African states. We find that, while concerning for other reasons, skilful hosting of multiple military bases has reinforced rather than diminished the Djiboutian state’s sovereign power.

Power projection and reflection in Africa

The establishment of powerful foreign military bases in a concentrated geographic space, as is taking place in Djibouti, is not new. For instance, in Okinawa, Japan, the US deployed huge numbers of forces in the aftermath of the Second World War to contain the spread of communism. Some 20,000 plus services members, 74% of all American troops in Japan, remain on the Islands, which amount to only 0.6% of Japan’s total land area. Similarly, the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia has been completely taken over by the American military. While still politically controversial, this is largely understood to reflect the strategic distribution of power throughout the world.

However, when it takes place in Africa, this process is depicted in a fundamentally different way. Often scholars and policymakers assume that the presence of foreign military bases indicates disempowerment and governance failure on the part of African states. In the case of Djibouti, instead of multiple bases being read as a sign of skilful foreign policy, they are seen as undermining the sovereignty of the Djiboutian state.

This interpretation ignores, to the point of being simplistic and misleading, how the Djiboutian government skilfully negotiates leases with competing western and Asian great powers. Djibouti is often perceived as weak simply because it is a small African state. This manifests in public portrayals of Africa as a continent of exceptions to good governance and in assumptions that African governments fail to follow best practice on what states should do as members of the so-called international community. Djibouti, as often happens to African countries, is depicted as a place of distortions, illusions and misinterpretations.

Misreading history into contemporary Djibouti

In fact, African practices, in this case in Djibouti, reflect contemporary forms of global politics. Sovereignty is not defined by rigid lines on a political map as portrayed in UN rhetoric and international public legal practice. Rather, it represents a history of overlapping, divided and fragmented lines that are mostly hidden from sight. Such borders of state power are rooted in postcolonial legacies, continuing colonial and imperial presences worldwide and multi-layered rules of public authority, from the national to the supranational.

The enduring narrative of a ‘scramble for Africa’ obscures these overlapping and negotiated sovereignties within Djibouti’s sovereign space and is deeply embedded in collective perceptions of the continent. It assumes that African states are unable to get the rules or practices right. By seeing foreign military bases exclusively through the lens of exploitation, such approaches miss the ways in which African states use them to enhance their own sovereign power. Djibouti shows us that we must look beyond the convenient idea of one state, one territory and one sovereignty.

Djibouti and the practice of multiple sovereignties

By adopting a more nuanced approach to understanding sovereignty, it quickly becomes clear that the Djiboutian state has effectively used foreign military bases to strengthen its position. By retaining close ties to its former colonizer France, President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh’s ruling party can leverage access to EU markets and institutional infrastructure. Meanwhile, leasing Camp Lemonnier to the US military raised billions of dollars and simultaneously guarantees a built-in security deterrent to the host of the United States’ primary military base on the African continent. The base also incorporates Japan’s only permanent overseas Self Dense Force (JSDF) hub and encourages the Japanese government’s continued extended presence via the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

However, China’s rapidly expanding presence in Djibouti is of greater concern as this investment has been used by the Djiboutian government to enhance its political position and security apparatus along authoritarian lines, including through the repression of political opposition and the strict control of migrants. China has invested massively in both civil and military maritime and inland infrastructure and has provided direct assistance in regional and domestic security provision. But while Djibouti’s close relationship with an authoritarian superpower may be worrying, it should not be mistaken for a loss of sovereignty. On the contrary, it seems that President Guelleh’s regime is learning lessons in statecraft from Beijing. These policies are designed to tighten the government’s grip on power, sustain economic growth and secure a powerful deterrent against external aggression in a volatile region. The end result is that foreign bases have allowed the Djiboutian government to attempt to achieve a level of sovereign power that few western governments can claim. Ultimately, while many automatically equate the presence of foreign military bases with a loss of sovereignty, this obscures the many ways these bases can strengthen host states when used effectively.

Ra Mason is Sasakawa Associate Professor in International Relations and Japanese Foreign Policy at the University of East Anglia, UK.

Elizabeth Cobbett is Lecturer in International Political Economy with a focus on Africa at the University of East Anglia, UK.

Their article ‘Djiboutian sovereignty: worlding global security networks’ was published in the November 2021 Issue of International Affairs.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.



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