The reluctance of western and other powers to act against Djibouti’s increasing arms trafficking activities poses an existential threat to the security of the Horn of Africa and imperils ongoing efforts to end long-running conflicts in the region.
EXX Africa published a special report on the arms trade in the Horn of Africa. The trade of illegal weapons in the Horn of Africa remains highly lucrative and is comprehensively entwined with transnational terrorist groups, drug smuggling, and the conflict in nearby Yemen.
The focus of the regional arms trade remains volatile Somalia and its semi-autonomous regions where demand for weapons remains unabated despite various embargoes and other sanctions.
Over the past few years, Djibouti has emerged as an increasingly important hub for weapons trans-shipment to armed groups in the region. There is growing evidence that Djibouti is acting as a strategic transit location for weapons derived from Houthi-held territory in Yemen, which it then ships to the Awdal region of northern Somalia through its peacekeeping deployment in the AMISOM mission.
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. Many Djiboutian companies that are engaged in the country’s thriving marine sector have been implicated in the illegal weapons trade, raising reputational risks for foreign investors seeking to participate in Djibouti’s economy. The proliferation of weapons in Djibouti is also raising concerns over armed criminal activity and rising risk of terrorist attacks in a location frequented by foreign military personnel.
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. One local source described the arms trade in the Gulf of Aden as a ‘political mess that most western nations do not want to wade into.’ Despite evidence implicating senior Djiboutian officials in the arms trade, there has been no concerted effort to impose punitive sanctions on these individuals.
Djibouti’s role in regional arms trafficking is set to grow even further as old foes Eritrea and Ethiopia seek to agree a lasting peace that will have significant ripple effects on the arms trade supply chain in the Horn of Africa. Armed groups in Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Sudans, as well as al-Shabaab, have long relied on Eritrea to supply weapons. As Eritrea seeks rapprochement with Ethiopia and a return to the international community, its role of arms trafficking hub will become significantly diminished.
Djibouti, which favours a weak Somalia and an isolated Eritrea, is likely to step into the gap and leverage its existing arms trafficking networks to continue to supply illegal weapons to armed groups in the Horn of Africa as Eritrea potentially steps out of the trade. Since seizing control of the Doraleh port terminal, the Djiboutian government seems to be preparing to increase shipments through the country’s main port. However, most shipments of illegal weapons through Djibouti will continue to be done by smaller dhows via the fishing communities on the south-east coast and via the Garacad port project.