Djibouti’s Dilemma: Balancing Regional Politics and National Interests

Djibouti’s Dilemma: Balancing Regional Politics and National Interests

Djibouti, situated in the Horn of Africa, boasts a population of approximately one million, with Somalis comprising the majority, followed by the Afar ethnic group and some Arabs.

The nation’s economy relies heavily on the service sector, particularly port services and free zones. Despite its modest size, Djibouti holds significant geopolitical importance and exerts a considerable influence owing to its strategic location and political stability, especially in comparison to its neighboring countries in the Horn.

Various global powers vie for a presence in Djibouti due to its strategic significance, with military bases established by prominent players such as the United States and China.

As for the people, Djiboutians exhibit a commendable culture of tolerance and multiculturalism, preserving their traditions and cultural heritage despite the influences of colonialism. Their unique cultural practices include the “xeer ciise,” a customary judicial system akin to common law, and a traditional governance structure led by the “Ugaas,” the traditional leaders of the Issa Somali community, prevalent in Djibouti, Somalia, and Ethiopia.

While Djibouti maintains political stability, some opposition parties criticize the government, alleging limited political space. Nonetheless, the nation remains a beacon of stability amidst regional turbulence. Djibouti’s commitment to preserving its cultural identity while embracing modernity underscores its resilience and adaptability.

In the recent diplomatic rift between Somalia and Ethiopia over the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Ethiopia and Somaliland – a self-declared autonomous region in northern Somalia, Djibouti has adopted a nuanced stance, ostensibly neutral but actively safeguarding its interests. This has involved clandestine efforts to mobilize residents of the Awadal and Salal regions of Somaliland, primarily comprising of the Somali Issa clan, against the proposed MOU.

Ethiopia’s plan to lease territory from Somaliland for a naval base, particularly in the coastal areas of Lughaya and the historic town of Zeila, has drawn Djibouti’s attention. Despite not officially rejecting the MOU, Djibouti’s covert actions align with Mogadishu’s interests, much to the chagrin of Somaliland’s regional government. Somaliland officials and their supporters, who aspire to secede from Somalia, have launched a propaganda campaign against Djibouti and its populace in response to these developments.

The situation escalated following an interview given by Djibouti’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mahamud Ali Yousuf to media affiliated with Somaliland. The minister emphasized Djibouti’s longstanding commitment to fostering good relations among Horn of Africa countries and expressed readiness to mediate and ease tensions between Somalia and Ethiopia. He underscored Djibouti’s respect for Somalia’s national unity, sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity.
However, Somalilanders reacted strongly to the minister’s statements, culminating in threats directed towards the Djibouti government and its people. Despite Djibouti’s intentions to mitigate tensions and promote regional stability, its actions have ignited controversy and friction within Somaliland region.

The delicate balance between diplomatic neutrality and safeguarding national interests remains a challenging tightrope for Djibouti as it navigates the complexities of regional politics.
The recent mediation initiative efforts by Djibouti in the dispute between Somalia and Ethiopia over the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) have sparked discontent among Somalilanders.

Djibouti’s intention to alleviate tensions arising from the MOU is perceived as detrimental to Somaliland’s aspirations for recognition, particularly from Ethiopia, and potential economic benefits, including shares in Ethiopian Airlines.

Meanwhile, Djibouti President, Ismael Omar Guelleh, has expressed dissatisfaction with Somaliland President Muse Bihi’s unilateral agreement with Ethiopia, viewing it as a betrayal given Djibouti’s longstanding support for Somaliland.

President Guelleh’s sentiments were evident during a recent interview with the French media outlet Jeune Afrique, where he likened the MOU to a stab in the back. This sentiment underscores Djibouti’s dismay over Somaliland’s actions, which seemingly disregarded Djibouti’s efforts and support.

Djibouti has historically played a supportive role in Somaliland’s political landscape, particularly during the struggle against the regime of Siad Barre, when the Somali National Movement (SNM), largely led by the Isaaq clan, sought to oust Barre from power. Despite the pivotal role played by the Issa community, who aligned with the SNM, they were ultimately marginalized in Somaliland’s governance structures. This exclusion extended to development projects, with Issa-dominated areas lacking essential infrastructure such as water, schools, and healthcare facilities.

Furthermore, the Issa community faced disenfranchisement in Somaliland’s political sphere, with their representation overshadowed by the dominant Isaaq tribe. The efforts of the Issa clan to elect representatives in their districts were thwarted, contributing to a sense of neglect and marginalization within Somaliland.

Djibouti’s track record of support for Somaliland underscores the complexity of the current rift between Djibouti and Somaliland. While Djibouti has historically aided Somaliland’s political objectives, recent events have strained their relationship, highlighting divergent interests and priorities. As Djibouti grapples with balancing its regional alliances and national interests, the ramifications of its actions on the broader Horn of Africa dynamics remain to be seen. However, a contrasting scenario unfolds within Djibouti, where the Isaaq tribe, originating from Somaliland, enjoys substantial benefits across the public and private sectors. Despite their considerable influence within the country, predominantly holding key governmental positions, the Isaaq community lacks a localized presence beyond the capital city of Djibouti. The prosperity and influence of individuals from the Isaaq tribe in Djibouti are not necessarily a reflection of their capabilities or merit but rather stem from favoritism, notably exemplified by the fact that the First Lady herself hails from the Isaaq tribe.

Significantly, numerous development projects in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, such as infrastructure improvements, educational institutions, and healthcare facilities, have been financed by the Djibouti government. Prominent figures in Somaliland, including President Muse Bihi and Edna Adem, received their education in Djibouti.

Additionally, many well-known businessmen currently operating in Somaliland originate from the Isaaq tribe, having accrued wealth, whether through legal or illegal means, in Djibouti before relocating to Hargeisa.
Moreover, individuals from Somaliland, particularly the Isaaq tribe, occupy critical government roles in Djibouti, including the Minister of Education, the President of the Constitutional Court, the Governor of the National Central Bank, the Head of Djibouti Aviation, and directors within the oil and gas sector, among others. Over thirty-five influential directorate positions across various ministries are held by individuals from the Isaaq tribe. Furthermore, a significant proportion of Somaliland officials possess Djiboutian diplomatic passports, and students have been granted scholarships under Djibouti auspices.

Djibouti has extended guarantees to banks and other large businesses in its dealings with international partners. However, despite these extensive benefits provided to individuals from Somaliland, particularly the Isaaq tribe, Djibouti’s native population feels marginalized and unappreciated. Resentment brews as they observe the perpetuation of false information and propaganda against both the people and government of Djibouti by certain segments of the Isaaq community. This stark dichotomy underscores the complexities of identity, power dynamics, and socio-economic disparities within Djibouti’s multi-ethnic society.

In conclusion, it is imperative for the government of Djibouti to reassess its priorities and place the well-being of its citizens at the forefront of its decision-making process. While fostering diplomatic relations and providing support to neighboring regions such as Somaliland may have been well-intentioned, it is essential to critically evaluate the impact of such actions on Djibouti’s native population.
The government must carefully examine the hostile activities undertaken by certain Somaliland political elites, which have fueled tensions and propagated misinformation against Djibouti and its people. By doing so, Djibouti can safeguard its interests and promote a sense of unity and solidarity among its diverse population.

Furthermore, Djibouti should strive to address the socio-economic disparities within its society, ensuring that all citizens, regardless of ethnicity or background, have equal access to opportunities and resources. This entails investing in infrastructure, education, healthcare, and job creation initiatives that benefit the entire populace, thereby fostering a more inclusive and equitable society.

Ultimately, by prioritizing the needs and concerns of its citizens and taking proactive measures to address internal challenges, Djibouti can strengthen its position as a stable and prosperous nation in the Horn of Africa.


By @NomadlandSomali



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