To get to Japan’s only foreign military base you pass a whitewashed mosque, cross a disused colonial-era railway line and turn onto an unfinished dirt road where a fine fog of choking dust is thrown up by rumbling trucks. The 12-hectare base in Djibouti is next to an airport a few kilometres from the sea, occupying a scorched chunk of desert and rock on Africa’s northeast coast that is among the most sought-after military property on Earth. Clustered around Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport’s single runway are the biggest foreign French base in the world and the largest US base in Africa, as well as Italian, German, Spanish, EU and Japanese facilities, all of varying size, ambition and function. Chinese and Russian bases are in the pipeline.
In May, president Ismaïl Omar Guelleh, in charge since 1999, confirmed that discussions with Beijing were “ongoing” over plans for a new base in Obock, a northern port a couple of hours by boat across the Gulf of Tadjoura. China has had an agreement allowing its warships to dock at Djibouti’s main port since February last year. “France’s presence is old and the Americans found that the position of Djibouti could help in the fight against terrorism in the region,” said Guelleh. “The Japanese want to protect themselves from piracy and now the Chinese also want to protect their interests. They are welcome.”
Bone-dry, without a single flowing river and little in the way of extractable minerals, Djibouti produces almost nothing. At the capital’s main Riyad Market, all but the fish is imported. Yet successive governments have leveraged its location to drive its economy, now growing at nearly 6 per cent a year, and develop political clout well out of proportion to its diminutive size.
The proliferation of foreign military bases is accelerating but their presence is not new. Djibouti guards the southern end of the Red Sea where it funnels through the 30km-wide Bab-el-Mandeb Straits before widening into the Gulf of Aden and then the Indian Ocean. For nearly 150 years it has attracted armies, mercenaries, smugglers, traders, gunrunners and merchants: anyone and everyone with an interest in the movement or control of goods.
“The opening of the Suez canal [in 1869] was the beginning of the military presence,” says Antoine Camus, a navy captain and deputy commander of the 1,900-strong French force in Djibouti. The route was vital for French colonial interests in Vietnam, he adds: “For France it was the only place to resupply on the route to Indo-China.”
British, French, German and Italian soldiers fought over Djibouti in an obscure Second World War sideshow that turned ancient Omani forts into contemporary garrisons. Italian comic-book artist Hugo Pratt portrayed the conflict in his acclaimed Scorpions of the Desert graphic novels. At that time, says Cpt Camus, the place was “a spies’ nest”.
After Djiboutian independence in 1977 the French Foreign Legion stayed on and today the French military continues to guarantee Djiboutian security. (In 2008, French soldiers deployed alongside Djiboutian troops when Eritrea threatened war.) “The US has an agreement to stay and pay but we have an obligation to fight and defend Djibouti,” says Capt Camus.
This is a rentier economy. The US alone pays $63m (€56m) a year to lease Camp Lemonnier, a 202-hectare former French base on the inland side of the airport’s runway. Washington has 4,000 troops here as part of its Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa (cjtf-hoa) and uses it to launch Special Forces missions across Africa and the Middle East. There is also a US drone base outside the city.
Signing a new 20-year lease in 2014, US president Barack Obama described Camp Lemonnier as “extraordinarily important not only to our work throughout the Horn of Africa but throughout the region”. According to John Lee, senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute think-tank, Djibouti “more than doubled the rent”. Lee says that Guelleh ignored US protests against the China-Djibouti deal in the wake of big investments by Beijing in Djiboutian infrastructure, including its ports and railways. “China is reading from a well-worn playbook: Beijing offers attractive commercial incentives to develop key port facilities with the hope of future strategic and military access.” Djibouti’s “only national business plan”, he says, is its ports and foreign military facilities.
The coming Chinese presence will test the limits of competing militaries’ proximity and is being watched warily. “China is investing a lot of money in east Africa and must secure its interests, so it wants to set up a military hub in Djibouti. We can understand that,” says Cpt Camus, whose own country has made the same calculation. “We are observers of these new relationships and strategic alliances. We’re eager to know how it will match the interests of Djibouti and France.”
Already Djibouti is a “curious” place, he says: “It’s the only place in the world you might find Chinese, French and American ships all in one port.”
The Japanese are latecomers to the region and small in number but the presence of the country’s only overseas base confirms Djibouti’s reputation as a locus of foreign military ambition.
Japan’s Self-Defence Forces would flinch from that description. Under Shinzo Abe, Japan has been keen to take a more proactive role around the world. A small team has been sent to support the UN mission in South Sudan but the most ambitious operation is in Djibouti, fighting piracy in the busy shipping lanes off the coast of neighbouring Somalia.
“We have only one mission for being here and that is anti-piracy,” says Shohei Iizuka, a naval captain and commanding officer of the ground-support group in Djibouti. That, however, may change. Earlier this year, Japanese press reported plans by the defence ministry to “strengthen” and “increase functions” of the base in Djibouti.
Despite the hostility of the Djiboutian environment, Japan’s base is an oasis of meticulous politeness, air-conditioning and Japanese manners. “This is not important,” Cpt Iizuka says soon after we meet, sweeping a diagram of the structure of Japan’s army to the side of the table. “This is important.” He reaches for a plastic jar of Daruma doll good-luck charms. He encourages us to pick one (your writer gets white for happiness; your photographer red for victory) as a welcome gift. Each kitsch, plastic-wrapped rubber Daruma is about the size of a gobstopper and doubles as an eraser.
Outside, Japanese soldiers in desert camouflage, body armour, wraparound sunglasses and surgical masks guard the entrance between the blast walls and razor wire with Howa 89 assault rifles and 9mm semi-automatic pistols. Inside are 200 Japanese military personnel, along with 4.5-tonne Komatsu light armoured vehicles and Orion pc-3 surveillance aircraft. Somewhere out in the Gulf of Aden the Japanese navy destroyers Ikazuchi and Murasame are patrolling international waters looking for Somali pirates. They have not seen any in more than a year. Japan’s two surveillance aircraft are wide-bodied, four-prop planes modified with infrared detectors and radar equipment but it’s the human eye that does most of the work. The aircraft fly low at just a few thousand feet, their 12-man crew scouring the surface of the Indian Ocean for the tell-tale signs of a pirate gang: fast-moving skiffs tethered to the back of a wooden dhow “mother ship” or kitted out with ladders, grappling hooks and guns.
“From 3,000 feet, if you look to the water the pirate skiff is very, very small – like this,” says pilot Takashi Kusakai, bending down to scratch at a speck of gravel on the apron close to the aircraft hangar. “It’s a very easy mission here in Djibouti,” he says. As he talks a French Mirage fighter jet roars overhead. Its right wing tips down, throwing the aircraft into a sharp turn. Soon afterwards an American c130, a fat-bellied, gunmetal-grey hulk of a plane, lumbers along the runway. Commercial carriers such as Air France, Ethiopian Airlines and Kenya Airways that fly to Djibouti have to fit their schedules around the heavy military traffic with which they share the runway.
In the clinic medical officer Hirotsugu Awamoto, wearing teddy-bear flip flops, says his days are fairly quiet. This is not a combat mission so injuries tend to be minor and rare. The day before, a soldier dislocated his shoulder playing badminton but, despite the heat and oppressive humidity, Awamoto has had to deal with few cases of heat stroke. “Japanese soldiers are very strong,” he says.
Once a week there are martial-arts classes. Every fortnight there are international five-a-side indoor football tournaments. On a Friday evening in June it was Japan’s turn to host France and Italy. In a hard-fought but good-tempered final against Japan, Italy won on penalties. Recently the Japanese also hosted a sushi dinner, serving freshly caught fish to 40 foreign military officers in a bid to introduce them to Japanese culture.
Japan is not alone in worrying about piracy and its impact on what is one of the world’s busiest maritime transport corridors. On the other side of the Djibouti airport apron, housed within the French base, a cluster of air-conditioned containers comprises the EU’s anti-piracy operation. Nicolas Blache, a French navy commander, is the liaison officer for the European Union Naval Force Somalia (EU Navfor) counter-piracy mission known as Atalanta. Since late 2008, European naval forces have patrolled Somalia’s 3,000km coastline looking for pirates and their equipment. There are currently three warships, three helicopters and one aeroplane operating. “It’s a strategic place and always has been – and its one of the safest places in east Africa,” says Cmdr Blache of the choice to headquarter the EU operation in Djibouti.
The commanding officer of Spain’s surveillance mission is Alfonso Reyes, an airforce lieutenant colonel. His aircraft is a specially modified Casa cn-235 Vigma transport plane with radar attached to the fuselage, infrared and super-high-resolution cameras on the nose, bubble-windows for taking pictures on the sides and computers, monitors and servers bolted to the inside of the cabin.
“The pc-3 is faster and has more endurance but the Vigma has newer sensors, so the information is better with this aircraft,” says Lt Col Reyes, whose 10-man crew makes regular eight-hour sorties.
Victor Sobrino, a major who flew F18 fighter jets for 12 years, finds his current four-month deployment comparatively dull. He doesn’t even pilot the Vigma; instead he runs the operations room, where missions are planned and information gathered. His images of the Somali pirate town of Hobyo are so detailed it’s possible to tell the make of a car, even though the camera that shot them was in the nose of a moving aircraft 6.5km away. The intelligence analyst manning the computer on which the pictures are dissected knows every dirt track, fenced compound, vehicle and building in a town that he will never visit.
According to EU figures, piracy reached its peak in 2011 when 151 vessels were attacked and 25 hijacked but it has been in steep decline since. There has only been one hijacking in each of the past two years. Those statistics can make the expensive missions seem pointless but without them piracy would almost certainly return because the underlying causes – Somalia’s lawlessness and lack of economic opportunity – persist. “We know that piracy’s gone down but if everyone leaves from here it will come back,” says Maj Sobrino. “We do pretty good but it’s not finished.”
Djibouti has little but its location to attract foreigners. Certainly the weather is not a draw: few have ever had good words to say about Djibouti’s climate, in any language. “Truly a valley of hell” was how author, pearl-diver and hashish smuggler Henry de Monfreid described the place in the 1930s. “Everywhere there are thorns,” he wrote. “Everything seems to want to scratch, to tear, to harm… it is all the stuff of nightmares.”
During our visit everyone sweated and everyone complained, whether Djiboutian or foreigner, resident or visitor. “Yes, the climate is horrible,” says Cpt Camus, “but there’s a French way of living that is good.” There are French cheeses, salamis and wine in the supermarkets, baguettes in the bakeries, cheap childcare at home, decent infrastructure, adapted French laws and, of course, the French language.
When asked how he is coping with humidity and temperatures above 40c, Japanese airforce captain Masahisa Motomura, commanding officer of the counter-piracy mission’s air-support unit, looks wistful. He sketches a map of Japan and draws a circle on the northern tip of Honshu Island to mark his hometown of Hachinohe. “We get snow in the winter,” he says with a smile. “This Djibouti climate is very hard for us.” Foreign military bases have come to define modern Djibouti and, while they drive money into the economy, there are risks. Some of Djibouti’s more affluent and secular residents detect a hardening of Islamic austerity: those who choose not to fast during Ramadan used to be ignored, now they are subject to muttered complaints and criticism; women who choose not to wear a headscarf are tutted at while increasing numbers, they say, are wearing the face-covering niqab.
In Djibouti this is worrying. Despite income from bases and ports, the tiny population of about 850,000 suffers from yawning inequality and pervasive poverty, conditions that in parts of Africa such as Kenya and Nigeria have allowed militant Islam to flourish. “The government gets money from the Americans, from the French – but it’s not a government for the people and we get nothing,” says Abdirahman, a taxi driver by night and teacher by day, who struggles to make ends meet even working two jobs.
In May last year two suicide bombers blew themselves up at a restaurant on Place Menelik in the heart of Djibouti’s old town, in the first such attack in the country. Al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate based in Somalia and operating in east Africa, said it carried out the attack because Djibouti had sent troops to Somalia as part of a 22,000-strong African Union force.
The foreign military bases went into lockdown; more than a year later movement remains restricted and cautious. Masahki Awakami, a first lieutenant responsible for personnel and welfare, says the Japanese soldiers are now permitted to visit just six vetted restaurants (the best, he says, is the surf’n’turf Restaurant Bel-Air; there’s no Japanese option in town). His colleague Isuyoshi Yamauchi, a warrant officer responsible for base security, is clear about the risk: “Terrorism is the biggest threat we face here. It’s not like Japan.”