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A strategic port is booming yet politically vulnerable

Containers—and containing dissent A strategic port is booming yet politically vulnerable The Economist May 4th 2013 | DJIBOUTI VILLE A RED shipping container is suspended from a crane above a tandoori-hot dock alongside the freighter on which it has just crossed

Containers—and containing dissent

A strategic port is booming yet politically vulnerable

The Economist

May 4th 2013 | DJIBOUTI VILLE

A RED shipping container is suspended from a crane above a tandoori-hot dock alongside the freighter on which it has just crossed the Indian Ocean. Suddenly something goes slightly wrong. The container slips, maybe by a foot: no harm done. Perhaps a mechanical fault is to blame, or a gust of wind that feels like the opening of an oven door. Men in bright vests scurry around the dock in a panic, trying to find the culprit. In Djibouti the port is everything.

No country depends more on a string of jetties than this former French territory on the Red Sea. Other states, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, that also began as ports have diversified in recent decades, but not Djibouti. It lacks the skilled workforce to become a financial-services centre. Yet thanks to three unrelated developments it has turned into an ever more extraordinary transit hub.

First, its backdoor leads to the world’s most populous landlocked country, Ethiopia, home to a fast-growing economy that needs access to the sea. Most of the food, oil and consumer goods imported for Ethiopia’s 83m-plus people passes through Djibouti. Instability in Ethiopia’s eastern neighbour, Somalia, and bad blood with Ethiopia’s other old enemy, Eritrea, mean that Djibouti is the only main transit option. Hence a new railway line to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, is being built.

At the same time, freighters chugging between Europe and Asia have been seeking an alternative to their traditional halfway stop in Dubai, which involves a detour into the Gulf. Djibouti is more directly en route. In 2009 it spent $400m on a state-of-the-art container terminal, the only one in the region. In the five previous years, trade volume had already doubled and is set to do so again. To expand still more, Djibouti’s port authority is close to securing $4.4 billion from abroad for another five terminals which, it is hoped, will be ready in the next four years.

Third, the woes of Djibouti’s neighbours have brought the world’s most powerful navies to its shores. Piracy in Somalia and anti-terror campaigns on the Arabian peninsula, only 32km (20 miles) away across the water, have created what a new report by Chatham House, a London-based think-tank, calls an “international maritime and military laboratory”.

The United States is the biggest lab rat. Djibouti hosts the only permanent American base in Africa, home to 3,200 people, not all of them naval. Since 2010, American drones have been flying from Camp Lemonnier, beside the main airport, making it the busiest base for drones outside Afghanistan. Some 50 military flights take off every day, including a squadron of F-15E jets, which arrived in 2011. The Pentagon has drawn up plans to spend $1.4 billion to expand the base and triple the number of its special forces there to more than 1,000.

France, the former colonial master, still guarantees Djibouti’s security and keeps 2,000 troops there. The port-state also hosts the biggest military presence of Japan and China outside Asia, both drawn by the fight against Somali piracy. Along with Western countries, they co-operate keenly to protect commercial vessels—though everyone spies on each other. Djibouti also often hosts security-minded delegations from Russia, Iran and India. Even in the cold war, rarely was neutral territory so colourful or crowded.

All this toing and froing has brought Djibouti windfall revenues. President Ismail Omar Guelleh, whose family has been in charge since independence in 1977, dishes out a good slice of it to the country’s small elite, which is gratefully compliant. The rest of the almost 1m inhabitants are among the poorest in Africa, with 60% of them unemployed.

Rattled by the Arab spring and fearing that even minor instability could frighten away foreign military friends and investors, the president has embarked on a carefully staged course of political reform. During legislative elections in February a fifth of the seats were allocated in proportion to votes cast rather than under the previous winner-takes-all system that has long favoured the president’s allies.

Opposition parties were given access to state media and allowed to hold rallies. They won 16 out of 65 seats but then alleged fraud, leading to demonstrations, street clashes with the police and the incarceration of the leading protesters. For the moment, the president’s attempt to create a veneer of democratic respectability has been thwarted. Voters turn out to be trickier to handle than containers.

Review overview
  • Hazhaz May 6, 2013

    I could not have said better. There is nothing that makes me sadder than seeing Eritreans living under Arab slavery and their languages and heritage burned down by Eritrean Abids.

    Everyone should read this again:
    Truly said: “Don´t make the Eritrean situation exceptional!”

    The Eritrean situation is truly exceptional because it is only in Eritrea that some Eritreans burned their own indigenous language, in this case Tigre, to promote Arabic.

    MightyEmbasoyra wrote, “You just used English language to communicate here but does this make you a slave. As you may know, English is not Ethiopian language.”

    Isn’t Eritrean politics strange, whenever an Eritrean is cornered and can not challenge anything, the person with opposing views is a called “weyane, tigrayan, ethiopian or racist …”
    This is how “Truly”, in his untruly state is acting. This will make the Higdefites better than some of the would be oppositions. As far as I know, Hazhaz is not Ethiopian.
    In this case, Hazhaz is right. Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Egypt, China use a lot of English language but none of them use it as their legal language as some Eritrean slaves or Abeeds want the Arabic language to be used in Eritrea. None of these nations use any foreign language to replace their own languages or to burn their own languages as the Jabha left overs did.
    Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Egypt or China did not prevent their own languages from being used in schools, radio, tv or the courts and to replace it with an alien language, again as some Eritrea Arab slaves want it to do by burning Eritrean languages such as Tigre, Kunama, Afar. It is true the Jabha leadership burned Eritrean text books written in Tigre to give priority to Arabic language.
    As Hazhaz said, in this case, with all its weaknesses and bad human right records, the Eritrean regime even did not stoop to this level as some of the Arab slavish mentality did that is common in the opposition.
    In Eritrea the most popular current local radio program is in Tigre broadcast on Sundays, called Sembet Abay and their Saturday entertainment programs.
    There is even a daily Bilen broadcast as there are in many other languages. On Saturdays, the Bilen program invites guests and the listeners ask phone in questions to lawyers, doctors, psychologists, teachers, elders, sociologists … who speak Bilen language.
    In your little Arab slaved brain this will not be possible. Here, the undemocratic Issaias afewerki beats most of the slavish opposition who hate their own languages so much that they want to burn it or had already burned it down.

    • MightyEmbasoyra May 6, 2013

      You seem to believe in Democracy. At least half of our population seem to prefer Arabic as another Eritrean Language. Whether I like (actually I do support this) it or not, I have to respect my fellow Eritrean’s wish.
      Even though my language is Tigrigna, I wish I was fluent in Arabic. Knowledge is Power and knowing another language is Knowledge. I am fluent in Amharic. Do I regret knowing Amharic. Not at all.
      What is with you and the Arabs? Yes, the Bedouins are (some of them by the way) are killing our people but i am not going against all Arabs. That would be stupid of me. By the way, these killings starts at home (in the middle of Asmara), and should I hate every Eritrean who lives in ASmara? Who is next? All whites? All Asians? All Latinos?
      You need to do serious thinking.
      Just my 2 cents.

  • dekibat May 6, 2013

    Simply Arabic is the language of Quran some Eritrean Muslims want to abandon their own native language and make Arabic official. Well then why not Turkey, Iran, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Indonesia the biggest Muslim population nation on earth, Malaysia and so many other Islamic countries they never made Arabic as their official language. That’s it Jesus language was Aramaic and Hebrew, so as Christians why do not we abolish the Tigrigna language and make everybody in Eritrea speak Hebrew and Aramaic by making it an official language. Our language tells our identity and our history so glory to our forefathers who passed our language to us and we should pass it to our children. Sooner our Tigrigna language is going to be extinct just like the Coptic language used to be official language and widely spoken but these days even the priests preach in Arabic because no one understand Coptic because no one understand it has been abolished and overtaken by Arabic. At list the Coptic were forced to speak Arabic what about us we voluntarily and we are working hard to abolish our own language what a smart Eritreans cheers to all specially to the highlanders. Saudi Arabia and other arab countries paid millions of dollars bribe to Said Barre of Somalia to teach students Arabic and he is the one who joined Somalia to arab league which Somalis still upset and hate Said barre.

    • MightyEmbasoyra May 6, 2013

      If I were you, Arabic language wouldn’t make me worried. The problem is sitting in Asmara.
      According to your theory, since Arabs and Israelites were brothers (long time ago), the the Arabs shouldn’t use arabic but hebrew.
      Most of moslem eritreans want to use arabic as a common language, instead of complaining, you should bless it. I am tigrigna speaker and I blessed it.
      If we get jealous, let’s use geez. If you are scared, don’t be.
      Concentrate on the root cause – isayas.

      • Hazhaz May 7, 2013

        Does democracy also include burning Eritrea’s own indigenous languages to promote a foreign Arabic language as some Eritreans are doing at the cost of our own heritage and identity?
        Does democracy include giving legal protection to alien language like Arabic in a non-Arab nation as Jebha did?
        Does democracy include shirking the responsibility of providing the Afar, Kunama, Bilin … languages a legal protection in their own land while an alien language Arabic is enjoying full legal protection in Eritrea?
        Does democracy also include telling a young kunama and Afar girl that her language is worthless unless she speaks in foreign Arabic language?
        Whose agenda is burning Eritrean languages, heritage and identity ?

        Here is what you will see according to wishes:
        History repeated itself again 28 years later after the second organizational conference of the ELF/Jebha in 1975. Educational books, which were prepared in the Tigré language by teachers at the Sawa training center, were ordered to be burned by the Executive Committee, citing the reason that it was a conspiracy directed against the status and prominence of the Arabic language in Eritrea. The leadership of the ELF gave orders not to prepare any more educational texts in the Tigré language henceforth.

        “ኣብ ፕሮግራም ናይቲ ቀዳማይ ጉባኤ፣ ኣብ ሕቶ ቋንቋታት፣ ትግርኛን ዓረብን ወግዓውያን ቋንቋታት ኮይነን፣ ናይ ኩለን ቋንቋታት ኤርትራ መስልን ማዕርነትን ክሕሎ ዝብል ነጥቢ ነይሩ እዩ። እዚ ነጥቢ’ዚ ድሓር በቶም ዓቃባውያን ወገናት፣ ከም ኣንጻር ዓረብ ዝቐንዐ ውዲት እዩ ተራእዩ። “እዚአን ቋንቋታት ኣይኮናን ዲያለክትስ እየን” ዝብል ምጉት ኣምጺኦም። ከም ውጽኢት ናይዚ ኣመለኻኽታ’ዚ፣ ኩሉ ተጋዳላይ ጀብሃ ከምዝዝከሮ፣ ድሕሪ 2ይ ውድባዊ ጉባኤ፣ ኣብ 1975 ኣብቲ ውድብ ዝነበረ ንመምሃሪ ተባሂሉ ዝተዳለወ ናይ ትግረ መጻሕፍቲ ተቓጺሉ እዩ። ኣብ መዓስከር ሳዋ ዝነበሩ መማህራን፣ ካልኣይ ቋንቋ ናይ ኤርትራ ትግረ’ዩ ብዝብል ገርሃዊ ኣተሓሳስባ እዮም ብትግረ መምሃሪ መጻሕፍቲ ኣዳልዮም። እዚ ምስተሰምዐ፣ ኣብ ኣኼባ ፈጻሚት ሽማግለ ጀብሃ “ናይ ትግረ መጻሕፍቲ ክጸሓፍ የብሉን” ዝብል ውሳነ ሓሊፉ ከምዝቃጸል ተገይሩ። እቲ ውሳነ ኣብ ገለ መራሕቲ ጀብሃ ዝነበረ ናይ መንነት ቅልውላው ዘንጸባርቕ እዩ ነይሩ።” (

  • Weldeamlak May 6, 2013

    I really fallow the situation of our country and about the new conditions of our Port Asaab , which corner , which side and position we are going Please, we have think for the future of our Eritrea what he is doing this Person is he doing the country like its own properity belongs to him like a private good with out informing the peoples of Eritrea with any discussion with the community is he going to make any agreement with Qatar . Please, advice him this Person at least he have to bring the Issue to the Public minimum

  • A.A Yassin May 6, 2013

    “Concentrate on the root cause – isayas.”

    Why do you change the subject?

    • MightyEmbasoyra May 6, 2013

      Good to hear from you, brother Yassin!
      Why would you want be against innocent 50% population because they have chosen Arabic as their main language – side by side with the other 50% Tigrigna speakers?

      • A.A Yassin May 6, 2013

        You have to understand that all of us do not think in the same way. We can not impose our will on Hazhaz and Dekibat.

  • Kabbire May 8, 2013

    you said it better.

    Lauz on May 6, 2013 at 4:28 pm said:

    I wish the language issue was that simple. We’ll create to incompatible entities pulling the nation in two different directions. Why doesn’t Sudan and Ethiopia become one nation? There’s so much emotion involved on the issue, but we have to solve the issue of language and of religion in our politics. We can not push it off to the future any longer.

    Arabic will dominate and kill all our languages including Tigrinya through television, music, tourists and religious institutions. Even as a Tigrinya it is of concern to me. Languages must be nurtured they are not selfsustaining.

    I understand it’s the language of the holy koran and would be a unifying factor for our muslim compatriots, but unify against whom? We are not your adverseries! I would like to see all languages of Eritrea to prosper, language is one of the most important aspects of our Identity. It tells our history and how we are related to each other. Ask any black American, he would wish to be able to say I come from this particular country in Africa and they have this particular food, dance, folklore, language.

    We have so many good things in common. We must try to find a common sense solution, we have been discussing the same thing over and over again for the last 70 years. Madness.

    We have to look 50 years ahead not backwards. Let’s try to stake out a future that benefits all of us. Let’s not get into the politics of religion, we’ve been doing that for the last 500 years. Enough! democracy and separation of state and church/mosque is something we have not tried yet (succesfully).

  • Zeray May 8, 2013

    This report is the “REPORT CARD” of his excellency know-it-all, diplomatically bankrupt, Issayas Afwerke. And Eritreans get to stand by and watch this happen. Well let’s worship “nay Nakfa Anbesa and aba Gobiye”. Assab was going to be made Singapore by his excellency along with Eritrea, instead he has made it “Sing-a-poor”.

  • M May 9, 2013

    it seems to me that Eritrea is being targeted by America and other countries for not giving them access to Eritrea’s hard earned ports fought for by blood of their people but I would hope that the people of Eritrea will eventually benefit from access to the Red Sea