Analysts are expressing fear that increasing rebel activity in Djibouti in recent months could threaten the stability of one of the most strategically important nations in the Horn of Africa. The internal upheaval is some of the worst since Djibouti gained independence from France 33 years ago.
Last month, three Djiboutian soldiers were killed in an ambush in the north of the country, where a low-intensity anti-government rebellion has been simmering for nearly two decades.
The incident has been followed by near-daily reports of armed clashes in the area, stoking public fears that the country is sliding toward another civil war.
Horn of Africa observer Jack Kalpakian at Al-Akhawayn University in Morocco says the latest unrest began in April, when Djibouti’s second president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, tried to pressure the parliament into changing the constitution so that he could serve a third, six-year term in office.
Kalpakian says the move by the president, who belongs to a Somali sub-clan called the Issa, deeply angered Djibouti’s other major ethnic group, the Afar.
In the early 1990s, an Afar rebel group, the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy, led a bloody insurgency over the lack of representation in the Issa-dominated national government. The conflict officially ended in 2000 when the rebel group signed a peace treaty with the government in return for cabinet posts. But some Afar rebels have continued their quest for autonomy in the north, where the Afars form the majority.
“The underlying structural issue has to do with Djibouti as an Afar-Issa state, literally, and that was its original name by the French,” said Kalpakian. “They have been trying to go at a power-sharing arrangement, but the real power remains with the Issas and that, of course, feeds resentment with the Afars.”
Djibouti, a tiny country of just 800,000 people bordering Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia, has little natural resources or industry. But in the past decade, its strategic location in the Horn of Africa has turned Djibouti into a key partner for the United States and Western countries fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia and conducting counter-terrorism operations in the region.
Djibouti is home to France’s largest military base in Africa, and since 2001, the U.S. military’s Combined Task Force, Horn of Africa, now numbering about 3,000 troops, has been based there. The military bases earn President Guelleh’s government millions of dollars every year in lease revenue.
The former French colony is also an important economic ally of the region’s landlocked giant Ethiopia. Virtually all Ethiopian imports and exports pass through the port in Djibouti.
Kalpakian says there is no evidence to suggest that external actors are involved in fueling the latest round of turmoil. But he says Djibouti’s ties to Ethiopia and the West leaves the country vulnerable to destabilization by groups interested in destroying those relationships. “It would not surprise me at all if we find out there was some linkage with the Shabab or with Eritrea in this messKalpakian. “If I was an opponent of the United States, one of the things I would be thinking is how to use Djibouti’s internal divisions to destabilize it and to make it less of a secure toe-hold for the United States and France in the region.”
Al-Shabab is an al-Qaida-linked Somali extremist group, whose top leaders have been targeted and killed in U.S. counter-terrorism operations run from its base in Djibouti. Eritrea has been accused by the West and the United Nations of supporting Islamist insurgents in Somalia as part of a proxy war against Ethiopia.