Djibouti sucked into Yemen crisis

The growing violent conflict in Yemen between the Saudi Arabian-backed forces ranged against Houthi rebels who are supported by Iran is threatening stability in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa.

The country has been a playing a pivotal role in the fight against the Islamist threat in the Gulf, just across the Red Sea.

The US base in Djibouti, Camp Lenmonnier, has been Washington’s centre for its fight against terrorism in the region.

It is now becoming even more important since the US closed its embassy in Yemen at the height of the fighting there.

Last week, US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Djibouti and had discussions with President Omar Guelleh on the security threat to the region.

In a letter to Mr. Kerry before his trip, Republican Congressman Duncan Hunter noted: “Djibouti’s strategic importance cannot be overstated.”

The Americans have been worried of late about the political course that Guelleh is charting, and which they feel could rock the boat in Djibouti.

Last October, an analyst in Nairobi told the GNA: “The stability of the leadership in Djibouti is now an increasing concern to the US, which needs Djibouti to be a reliable partner providing secure bases to fight terrorism in Somalia and beyond.”

President Guelleh, who has been in power for 16 years, has been accused of using the country’s strategic position in the fight against Islamist terrorism to squeeze support from the US and French governments, even in the face of political repression in Djibouti.

The French have had a long-standing military presence in Djibouti.

“Being the wily politician that he is, Guelleh will now use the Yemen situation to strengthen his position in the county,” the Nairobi analyst told the GNA this week.

“But what he really needs to do is to assure the US that he will not act in a manner that could lead to instability in the country at this crucial time. Of course, Guelleh puts it about that he is the only politician in Djibouti who could deal with Islamic radicals in the Horn of Africa.”

Apart from US worries about regional instability, Washington is also concerned about the growing presence of China in Djibouti, which was solidified in February last year with the signing of a military pact between the two countries.

This grants Beijing access to Djibouti Port through an investment of $185 million, while also providing a loan of $400 million to the government to rehabilitate the port.

American concern about this was raised last month by the head of the House Foreign Affairs sub-committee on Africa, Republican Congressman Chris Smith, who said he was worried about whether the US would have full access to port facilities in Djibouti to aid America’s counter-terrorism campaign.

In a letter to Defence Secretary Ash Carter, Smith wrote: “I am concerned with this, because of China’s unprecedented investment in Djibouti and worrisome behaviour by the country’s long-time leader.”

When the Nairobi analyst spoke to the GNA last month, he wondered how the deal with China would work, given that the US and France more or less have entrenched security roles in Djibouti.

“The American and the French governments have interests in Djibouti that are completely different from China’s,” he said.

Meanwhile, Senegal has sent 2,100 troops to Saudi Arabia to help in the conflict in Yemen. The official Senegalese government explanation is that the troops are going to protect holy sites in Mecca – just as they did 24 years ago under the then President, Abdou Diouf.

Then, 92 members of a much smaller contingent died in a plane crash. GNA

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