The ‘New’ Non-alignment: Understanding Djibouti’s Geostrategic Romances



Before us is a small country with a small population, no natural resources, and no clear sources of revenue. It gained independence from France in 1977, and its name is Djibouti. Djibouti has seen the continuation of a colonial legacy of political repression post-independence, including under the recently elected President Ismael Omar Guelleh who has been in power since 1999 after succeeding his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon. Opposition parties dispute the results of the 8 April 2016 election, calling it fraudulent. The international community has now recognised the ‘new’ government under President Guelleh as legitimate. But whom and what determines legitimacy?

Djiboutians’ livelihoods have improved only marginally since independence from France, with high levels of poverty, unemployment, and a repressive political culture. However, many actors are hopeful for change given Djibouti’s key position in the Horn of Africa. Djibouti sits next to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, one of the world’s largest shipping lanes. For this reason - as well as its proximity to places facing various crises and conflict - external actors are interested in cementing their relationships with the country in trade, investment, and peace-building. France, the USA, China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia can speak to the country’s geo-strategic importance. Djibouti’s strategic location is its main resource and, therefore, its main source of revenue through the establishment of foreign military bases on its soil. These establishments are supposed to help reduce poverty through the provision of jobs. But how can we better understand these developments, including the motivations of Djibouti's ruling elites in hosting these various actors and what it means for Djiboutians?

We can begin by undoing a predominant myth about decolonisation that continues to inform analyses of developments and challenges to international security today. This is the myth of equal sovereignty. African peoples achieved formal independence after the establishment of the United Nations in 1945. The UN is widely understood to have been established with the mandate to “expand” state sovereignty to peoples under colonial rule, ushering in a new norm of negative or juridical sovereignty in world politics. Two common understandings of this norm are that: 1) states are subject to no other authority and leaders have full and exclusive power within their territory, and 2) recognition of state sovereignty is dependent upon the existence of popular sovereignty. The latter is upheld today and underpins norms like the Responsibility to Protect, that aim to end human rights abuses around the world.

What understanding of contemporary Djibouti arises after discarding these interpretations, viewing juridical sovereignty instead as recognising state legitimacy only when a given state is organised in accordance with external actors’ interests? Post-independence, the Global North still dominates and, though there are so-called “emerging powers” (BRICS), these countries are operating within a world states system universalised through European colonisation and naturalised as the only legitimate socio-political arrangement, despite the violent legacy of this system for much of the world. The Global North largely determines what constitutes good governance, which today is neoliberal.

Djibouti is in need of political reform, but can reform and institutional legitimacy be achieved without the reconstitution of the international political economy itself? Internationally, state leaders’ primary concern is the protection of global flows of capital, securing lucrative trade and investment deals, access to resources, and geostrategic interests. Neoliberalism increases poverty and human insecurity, yet we see countries pressured to liberalise their economies for private foreign businesses to operate. Multilateralism is largely a means of fostering “cooperative competition”, without recognising how this naturalisation of competition nurtures conflict and bad governance. Most of the states with bases in Djibouti are purveyors of human rights abuses whose policies contribute to (state) instability in the Horn of Africa. The unequal distribution of power in the international system incentivises leaders everywhere to engage in patronage politics, punishing those who challenge the status quo.

Djibouti, therefore, tells the story of ‘allied non-alignment’. Countries can establish relationships with a range of different actors or blocs, but with a shared ideological commitment to an international system of unequal sovereignty and (neoliberal) capitalism. There is no sovereign equality between the Global South and Global North. A lack of will to implement political reform by Djibouti’s leaders and the international community reproduces these relations, exacerbating human insecurity. Poverty in Djibouti is unlikely to be reduced through the provision of jobs from foreign military bases. For such a reduction, fundamental changes to the international system must be implemented, against militarism and with a commitment to people and the achievement of equality, not global capital. This includes transforming existing multilateral institutions. The P5 in the UN Security Council should be abolished for balanced decision-making on matters of international security, alternatives to neoliberal policies must be upheld, and African countries’ primary commitment - supported by the international community - must be to the African Union and achieving continental integration. After all, military bases cannot combat underdevelopment nor achieve equality.

Tinashe Jakwa is a Master of International Relations student at The University of Western Australia. Her article, “Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme: Beyond Emancipation Towards Liberation” was recently published in the Australasian Review of African Studies.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email publications@youngausint.org.au with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: DVIDSHUB (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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