For the past quarter century, Djibouti has flourished as the Horn of Africa’s most strategic port, serving as a lifeline for landlocked Ethiopia’s $3.13 billion in exports at the mouth of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. So on the face of it, the Phase 1 opening last month of the Chinese funded, multi-billion dollar Djibouti International Free Trade Zone (DIFTZ) appears to position the tiny nation as a growing trading hub for the entire East African region. But is that just wishful thinking?
The DIFTZ is a sprawling complex meant to house four industrial clusters specializing in trade and logistics, export processing, business and financial support services, as well as manufacturing and duty-free merchandise retail. It’s touted to provide employment for tens of thousands and solidify Djibouti’s reputation as a business-friendly place.
The geopolitical calculations behind China’s generous financing in Djibouti are part of its Belt and Road Initiative, an aggressive economic plan designed to open up and create new markets for Chinese goods and technology by strengthening the traditional Silk Road trade route. That rationale is rooted in the fact that Ethiopia uses ports in Djibouti for about 95 percent of its external trade and pays around $1.5-2 billion in port fees. With the Ethiopian economy growing fast, obtaining better access to Addis Ababa is a crucial objective for the Chinese leadership.
But Djibouti should hold the champagne for now. Despite the glowing press releases, there are at least three major partners who have serious reasons for doubting the trustworthiness of the country’s leaders and its viability as a new axis for regional trade.
First, many U.S. analysts are expressing concern that the DIFTZ is financed by loans from state-backed financial institutions from China, dulling Djibouti’s triumphant expansion as a critical line between the export-rich Ethiopia and vital shipping lanes. In East Africa, the Export-Import Bank of China is the major investor in at least eight infrastructure projects, including an ongoing $322 million water pipeline project from Ethiopia and the $490 million Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway. Yet critics have described the Belt and Road Initiative as a method of entrapping poor countries to Beijing as “economic vassals.” For instance, a major report from the Washington-based Center for Global Development released in March cautions that the Chinese iniatives raise “serious concerns about sovereign debt sustainability in eight countries it funds,” including Djibouti.
Even more worrisome, Chinese commercial investment in Djibouti has been paralleled by the construction of a major Chinese military base, a mere six miles from the United States’ long-established Camp Lemonnier — the only permanent U.S. military base in Africa. The Chinese base is the first outside its borders and gives Beijing a military foothold on the African continent, an outcome that previously led to American political and military leaders pressuring the Djibouti government to block the construction of the base. U.S. military experts have expressed concern that a Chinese presence would hinder U.S. interests and its counter-terrorism missions, tensions that remain as American allies France, Japan and Italy also have bases of various sizes and capabilities in Djibouti.
The second reason: Ethiopia. Until a few months ago, Djibouti represented the country’s only way to access the sea and, as a stable partner, reaped the benefits of a near-monopoly on thriving Ethiopian trade. While ports exist in Sudan, Somaliland, and Eritrea, Djibouti’s developed facilities, political stability and investment-friendly atmosphere have proven more attractive than anywhere else in the region.
Now, however, a new player is coming to town: according to reports from Bloomberg, Eritrea is now mulling building a port on its coastline to export potash from its own mines as well as from Ethiopia. The port will be based at the Bay of Anfile, close to Eritrea’s potash mine at Colluli, which contains large quantities of potash that can be used as fertilizers for fruits, vegetables, and coffee trees. Most significantly, the development follows a historic rapprochement between Ethiopia and its former province of Eritrea in July, which has left Djibouti scrambling to protect its market share.
The third issue: the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Djibouti illegally seized a leased port container terminal from the UAE-based DP World company over a dispute dating back to at least 2012. Earlier this month, Dubai successfully sued the Djibouti government in a London-based international arbitration court over the seizure. Eyebrows were raised when Djibouti issued a statement dismissing the ruling as inconsequential, and the country is now trying to negotiate damages. But the scandal has already cast a shadow over Djibouti with potential foreign investors, as large shipping clients such as DP World publicly advocate for an additional 10 to 12 ports from Sudan to Somalia and continue to make a number of investments in East Africa, including in Somaliland.
The Emiratis also have close ties to Eritrea, where they established a naval base in 2015 that has been used to support the Saudi-led war against Houthi rebels in Yemen. And it was the UAE that helped broker a peace deal between Eritrea and Ethiopia, a further indicator that UAE businesses may favor Eritrean ports over those in Djibouti.
Is Chinese investment in the DIFTZ and other infrastructure projects enough to make up for all of this disruption? Perhaps not. Beijing had already started to cool on Ethiopia as an investment destination, and if the Ethiopian market finds multiple alternative ports in Eritrea or Somaliland, the promises of a thriving DIFTZ may end up being little more than hype.