Djibouti’s Doraleh port terminal: An arms trade hub in disguise

Djibouti has attracted a high level of attention due to developments in the country’s marine sector and geopolitical rivalry over the country’s strategic location. Reports show that Djibouti’s Doraleh port terminal is a lucrative trade hub that has increased the East African country’s importance as a gateway to internal African markets.

A report by Exx Africa Business Intelligence notes that Djibouti has been comprehensively entwined in the geopolitical dynamics of the volatile Horn of Africa and the ongoing war in Yemen, while the foreign military bases of China, U.S. and France, which it hosts, has some of the most advanced weapons systems in the region.

However, over the past few years, Djibouti has become a weapons trans-shipment hub for armed groups in conflict-ridden Yemen and with the arms trafficking trade seeming to thrive unchecked, Djibouti is set to grow even further, not only as a transit location for weapons but also for re-exporting same to the Awdal region of northern Somalia.

Ironically, Djibouti’s enhanced role in regional arms trafficking is occurring at the same time as the country’s government is seeking fresh foreign investment in its important marine port sector and related industries and this has hampered investors’ confidence in the country.

Many Djiboutian companies, which use the ports have been implicated in the illegal weapons trade, raising reputational risks for foreign investors seeking to participate in Djibouti’s economy.

Secondly, the spread of weapons and the lucrativeness of the business has raised concerns over armed criminality and rising risk of terrorist attacks in the guarded Doraleh port. However, none of Djibouti’s international partners are willing to flag such risks, fearing the potential loss of their leases on strategically important military bases in the country.

Contributing to Djibouti’s arms deal trafficking hike is the Chinese military logistics base in Djibouti which was established in July 2017. As China looks to increase its weapon sales and military equipment penetration in Africa, its Djibouti’s military base plays a central role in the increase in arms trade in the country.

China has surpassed the United States in its arms exports to Africa. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China’s arms exports to Africa increased by 55 percent from 2013 to 2017, relative to the previous 5-year period, from 2008 to 2012. In addition to increased exports, China’s share in African arms supplies increased from 8.6 percent to 17 percent over the same period.

China’s preferred transit route

China actively positions itself as a major supplier of arms to the African continent with hopes of protecting its extensive infrastructure investments on the continent. To achieve this, the Asian country uses Djibouti’s ports as a means to distribute arms to government and anti-government factions in and around the Horn of Africa, particularly Sudan and South Sudan.

According to EXX, media reports revealed evidence of large-scale weapons smuggling from China to Djibouti. “The general view from our local contacts found that such long-distance smuggling routes would be unnecessarily complicated and risky, given the readily available high-quality weaponry in the Gulf of Aden. However, we have found evidence that Chinese weapons are making their way from the Chinese PLA Support Base in Djibouti and the commercial Port of Djibouti towards African conflict zones that have been placed under an arms embargo. ”

Following the imposition of a US arms embargo on South Sudan, the SPLA has been looking for new avenues of weapons shipments to avoid detection at usual ports of entry and Djibouti serves as a perfect route given the Chinese military camp based in the country. Currently, the SPLA is considering a purchase of Chinese manufactured weapons and Chinese-financed weapons via Djibouti.

Funding for these weapons are gotten mainly from misappropriated foreign monies invested into South Sudan by aid organisations and foreign governments and other international bodies. With local intelligence suggesting that Chinese supplied weapons have gradually made their way into the South Sudanese conflict, the report noted.

The weapons also extended to Somali by way of smuggling. Although, China has little interest in supplying weapons to armed groups in Somalia, Djibouti’s government is procuring Chinese and other weapons in order to supply allied armed groups to northern Somalia. It was discovered that illegal fishing trawlers run by Yemeni and Somali business networks were being used to establish a prominent supply facility of weapons to Somalia. One of these Djibouti export routes using fishing dhows is done via the Somaliland port of Saylac.