Interview: President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh
Where do infrastructure projects fit into Djibouti’s development plans, and how can these be financed in a sustainable way?
ISMAÏL OMAR GUELLEH: Our economy has been expanding since 2005 with its growth rate rising from 3% some years ago to 6% today. This growth has been driven primarily by the tertiary and services sector. Under the Vision Djibouti 2035 strategy we instigated the desire to diversify the sources of our growth.
The choice to invest in our airport and transport infrastructure is strategic, yet the state alone does not have the means to finance everything. By increasing foreign financing for various projects, such as the mineral port in Lac Assal, the potash export port of Tadjourah and the petro-pipeline, which will further link Djibouti and Ethiopia, the country is able to show that it is a viable destination for further development, and that the investments that are made here will be economically profitable in the long term.
What can be done to strengthen the competitiveness of the transport, logistics and trans-shipment sectors in Djibouti?
GUELLEH: For a long time our country stagnated due to a lack of a global vision that incorporates regional input. Today, we are aware that we have a major role to play in regional economic integration. The large-scale projects that we have initiated underline this logic. For example, the new Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway project will not only strengthen imports from and exports to Ethiopia, it will also be a link in the largest pan-African connection from Djibouti to Dakar.
Similarly, in terms of communications projects, our country is connected to several important sub-marine cables and already supplies neighbouring countries, such as Ethiopia and Somalia, with sufficient bandwidth for their data connections. Yet our ambition does not stop here: we aim eventually to supply the whole region through optic fibre, all the way to South Sudan.
Our geostrategic position has allowed our port to handle the trans-shipment of merchandise for the whole region, down to the countries of the Great Lakes. We have and continue to equip ourselves to be competitive in comparison to other ports in the region. For example, our terminal at Doraleh is one of the highest performing in Africa. Evidently, the investments that we have made in our infrastructure and technical equipment have given us a competitive advantage in the region.
At the same time, and in line with our investment policy, we are also working hard to make our national economy as competitive as possible. Accordingly, in 2014 we launched the project to construct a new free zone covering 3500 ha, which will create space for thousands of companies to set up shop in Djibouti.
How can the government help ensure a more equal distribution of economic development across the country?
GUELLEH: The issue of demographic concentration in an urban context is not only specific to Djibouti. All countries that are experiencing development face this challenge. For our country, however, it is undeniable: the problem is all the more pressing here since all economic activities are concentrated in the capital.
We inherited this configuration of Djibouti as a city-state from the colonial era, when the interests of the colonial powers were primarily focused on coastal and port-related activities. It took us some time to come up with a governance system that would allow for the decentralisation of economic activities and decision making, and for the provision of various public services nationwide.
We have since carried out the devolution of sovereign duties in the five regions of the country. Now that we have taken this step, it is our ambition to decentralise our economic activities by putting in place regional economic centres. An example of this is the Tadjourah region that, with its port and road corridor with Ethiopia, will create economic growth in the surrounding area. Based on this model, the government intends to exploit the potential and the specifics advantages of each region to create more employment locally.
What strategies are needed to help create a domestic labour force whose skills are better suited to market demands?
GUELLEH: For a long time our educational system remained elitist. Due to a lack of infrastructure we were obliged to be very selective. The whole country was served by only one high school, and the best of that institution had to continue their higher education in Europe, especially in France.
Today, the government has allocated the means to create an educational system that is available to the masses. We have built our own university with several faculties. This has allowed us to catch up in terms of human resource development in crucial sectors such as health, national education and general administration.
The challenge nowadays is to deliver quality education in line with the needs of the labour market. We have recently reformed the Department of Education by expanding the powers of the ministry to ensure sufficient vocational training. Our aim is to orient education towards those subjects that hold economic viability. It is inconceivable that the development of our economy does not have a positive impact on the labour market. A well-qualified labour force equipped with adequate training is the best guarantee in fighting unemployment.
Given the instability in some quarters of the region, what role can Djibouti play in promoting peace in the Horn of Africa?
GUELLEH: The instability that has engulfed the region is not something that has only been seen in recent times. Unfortunately, since independence in 1977 we have been confronted with a series of regional crises. There has been the war of Ogaden between Ethiopia and Somalia; there has been the war between the two Yemens; there has been the fall of the Derg regime in Ethiopia and of Siad that crossed into Somalia; and, most recently, there has been the breakout of war in Yemen.
Each crisis has led to cross-border flows of refugees and to displaced persons seeking a safe haven in Djibouti. This has come on top of other humanitarian crises that have been the consequence of cycles of droughts that have had a devastating impact on the region.
Our country sees it as an honour to rescue these men and women from distress and misery. Yet this solidarity has come with a price to our public infrastructures, especially as assistance from the international community often remains insufficient.
We continue to face this situation resolutely and to try with all our means and desire to ensure that the region overcomes its conflicts and fratricidal or fraternal wars. An example of our efforts has been the initiative to foster inter-Somalian reconciliation in Arta in 2000. This is similar to what we did at the time by encouraging inter-Sudanese talks within the framework of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development.
Moreover, our country attaches a great importance to clearing the region of terrorist networks such as Al Shabab and Al Qaeda. Our participation in efforts on the side of the international community in the fight against piracy and terrorism has been a great success, and continues to be so today.
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