The Scramble for the Horn
Evelyn Waugh, who passed through Djibouti on his way to the coronation of Haile Selassie in 1930, when it was still a French colony, said that no one voluntarily spends long there. But it’s the only major trading port on the 4000 miles of coastline between Port Sudan to the north and Mombasa to the south, as well as being strategically situated on the Bab al-Mandab Strait, the narrow entrance to the Red Sea and a choke point on one of the world’s major shipping routes. The coast of Yemen is just twenty miles away. Pirates based in Somalia attacked more than 150 ships in the Gulf of Aden in 2011, costing international trade over $6 billion; the threat has been reduced but large freighters were taken in March and April this year.
The French have kept a military base in Camp Lemonnier since independence in 1977 – the air base was set up in 1932 – and it is now their largest outside France, with armour, artillery and nearly 2000 troops. In 2002 they were joined by a US base, from which F-15 strike aircraft attack targets in Yemen. Around 5000 US troops live in CLUville, long rows of Containerised Living Units. In 2013, after a hellfire missile crashed in the town, the US moved their drone operations, the largest outside Afghanistan, to a second base seven miles away.
In 2011, Japan established a base in Djibouti for anti-piracy operations, with 200 personnel and two maritime patrol aircraft. Turkey has built a military base in Somalia capable of training more than 1500 troops at a time. In February this year, the Somaliland parliament approved the establishment of a UAE naval base in Berbera, 150 miles south of Aden; Somaliland, a former British protectorate, declared independence from Somalia in 1991 but is not recognised internationally. Berbera will be the UAE’s second base on the coast – it already has one at Assab in Eritrea – and will soon be operating fighter jets. The UAE also conducts ‘intensive military training’ on the Yemeni island of Socotra, 150 miles east of the Horn. Socotra is notoriously inaccessible; when I went there in the 1960s it was in an RAF Blackburn Beverley, an aircraft capable of landing in thick bush. Saudi Arabia is expected to start work on a military base in Djibouti shortly.
China has already invested heavily in a commercial port and a railway to the Ethiopian interior, and is now constructing a military base in Djibouti. On 12 July, two warships sailed from China for the Horn: an amphibious transport dock that can carry 800 troops, helicopters, landing craft and armoured fighting vehicles; and a semi-submersible that can carry hovercraft, transport heavy equipment and repair damaged ships at sea.
Notable absentees are the UK (which has a naval base in Bahrain), Russia (with a base at Tartous in Syria), India (with a base in the Seychelles) and Iran.
Why all this international military activity in the Horn? All the states with bases there have an interest in guarding the entrance to the Red Sea and fighting piracy. China needs a base somewhere in the Middle East if it is to have a ‘blue-water navy’ (i.e. one capable of operating globally). It’s also a base for war operations, for Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen, and for the US in Yemen and Somalia.
For Djibouti and its neighbours, it’s all about money. The Americans pay $70 million a year in rent and China $20 million. Djibouti isn’t much larger than Wales and its population is under a million.