China muscles in to key Africa port

In Africa’s largest nationalisation since Robert Mugabe took over white-owned farms in 2002, the Djibouti government has seized the country’s busiest harbour with plans for China to run the only waterway linking the Indian Ocean to Europe.

African shipping and the French and US military presence in Africa is facing a potential crisis after the Government of Djibouti nationalised one of the world’s most strategic harbours.

The port which was built and operated by Dubai-based company DP World was seized by the state on Friday 24 February. Djibouti strongman, Ismaïl Guelleh issued a presidential decree to nationalise the terminal.

Diplomatic sources in the capital, Djibouti City, say the facility will be handed to a Chinese company.

Shipping makes up an estimated two-third’s of Djibouti’s GDP and Friday’s takeover makes this the largest asset grab in Africa since former president Robert Mugabe placed white farms under state control. Zimbabwe has since suffered economic collapse and a shortage of food.

Djibouti lies on a narrow strait that forms the only waterway between the Indian Ocean and Europe via the Suez Canal.

Both the United States and France have military bases in Djibouti from where they oversee the “war on terror” against Islamic militants in Somalia, Kenya and the Middle East. Last year China completed its own military base with accommodation for more troops than the US and France combined

Naval ships rely on the port, making Chinese control a problem for a number of maritime powers.

Mr Guelleh (71) along with his ruling party control more than 80 per cent of the national assembly in a country listed by every human rights index as among the most oppressive in Africa.

DP world runs more than 70 ports across the globe including Maputo and with new facilities underway at several harbours in South Africa.

The government of Dubai was quick to issue a statement condemning the takeover. “The illegal seizure of the terminal is the culmination the government’s campaign to force the DP World to renegotiate the terms of the concession,” the statement said.

“Those terms were found to be fair and reasonable by a London tribunal.”

The statement said DP World would contest the move in “the London Court of International Arbitration to protect their rights, or to secure damages and compensation for their breach or expropriation.”

Nearly all of East Africa’s exports to Europe – along with those sent from Zimbabwe via Beira in Mozambique — transit the waters past Djibouti.

Before independence in 1977, this was French Somaliland, and since then Djibouti’s only two presidents have been Mr Guelleh and his uncle who died in 1999.

Human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have long condemned the Guelleh regime, citing torture, killings, control of the press and elections where opposition candidates have been detained or forced into exile. On index lists for human rights issued by various NGOs, Djibouti has fared worse than Zimbabwe even during the most oppressive years under Robert Mugabe.

The strategic importance of Djibouti has left Paris and Washington with little room to move, though in recent years the US Congress has been critical of Mr Guelleh’s support for China along with plans for a new Russian army base in the territory.

A letter from senior congressmen to the US State Department during the Obama presidency described Guelleh as “erratic and unreliable”, and called for a wider spread of American forces across Africa.

However, last week’s seizure of the port and plans for China to operate the harbour are the first test in the region since President Donald Trump took office in January last year.

Mr Trump has been more aggressive than President Obama in dealing with countries like Iran and North Korea, and in his what he perceives as a threat to US interests, though by time of going to press neither the White House nor the Pentagon had issued a statement.

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