Djibouti — NATIONALISATION of Africa's most strategic harbour plans for China to run the facility could put Beijing in charge of the only waterway linking the Indian Ocean to Europe.
For those who know Djibouti and the unpredictable president Ismaîl Guelleh, it should have come as no surprise, but the ousting long-time operator DP World from the tiny country's harbour at Doralah near the capital has seen crisis talks in Dubai, Paris, Nairobi and Washington.
An edict seizing the container terminal was issued on 22 February by the government of President
Ismaïl Guelleh at the same time as Djibouti was carrying out elections largely viewed as a farce.
Mr Guelleh (71) along with his ruling party control more than 80 per cent of the national assembly in a country listed by every human rights index as among the most oppressive in Africa.
But it was the container docks at Doraleh five kilometres west of the capital Djibouti city, and plans to hand its operation to a Chinese conglomerate that led to urgent meetings this weekend in Washington and Paris. Both the United States and France have military bases in Djibouti from where they monitor terror groups in Somalia, Yemen and Kenya.
China has its own base, with more troops than the US, but control of the port by Beijing could be a problem for French and American warships in the area. One of the berths is already reserved for exclusive use of the Chinese navy.
The terminal was under lease to Dubai company DP world, which runs more than 70 ports across the globe including Maputo and with new facilities underway at several harbours in South Africa.
The government of Dubai was quick to issue a statement condemning the takeover by Djibouti. "The illegal seizure of the terminal is the culmination the government's campaign to force the DP World to renegotiate the terms of the concession," the statement said.
"Those terms were found to be fair and reasonable by a London Court of International Arbitration tribunal."
The statement said DP World would contest the move in "the London Court of International Arbitration to protect their rights, or to secure damages and compensation for their breach or expropriation."
Nearly all of East Africa's exports to Europe - along with those sent from Zimbabwe via Beira in Mozambique -- are shipped through the narrow waterway past Djibouti, the only route from the Indian Ocean to Suez and on to the Mediterranean.
Before independence in 1977, this was French Somaliland, and since then Djibouti's only two presidents have been Mr Guelleh and his uncle who died in 1999.
Human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have long condemned the Guelleh regime, citing torture, killings, control of the press and elections where opposition candidates have been detained or forced into exile. On index lists for human rights issued by various NGOs, Djibouti has fared worse than Zimbabwe even during the most oppressive years under Robert Mugabe.
But it is from here that the United States - with its base of almost 4000 personnel at Fort Lemonier near the capital, Djibouti City -- is able to launch attacks on terror group al-Shabaab who were responsible for the 2013 attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi and the slaughter of 148 students and teachers at Garissa University two years later.
In the past decade, al-Shabaab has carried out more than 200 attacks in Kenya though most were small-scale ambushes on military convoys, the most recent in January this year.
The strategic importance of Djibouti has left both Nairobi and Washington with little room to move, though in recent years the US Congress has been critical of Mr Guelleh's support for China along with plans for a new Russian army base in the territory.
A letter from senior congressmen to the US State Department during the Obama presidency described Guelleh as "erratic and unreliable", and called for a wider spread of American forces across Africa rather than being concentrated at Fort Lemonier.
However, seizure of the port and plans for China to operate the harbour are the first test in the region since President Donald Trump took office in January last year.
Mr Trump has been more aggressive than President Obama in dealing with countries like Iran and North Korea, and in his what he perceives as a threat to US interests, though by time of going to press neither the White House nor the Pentagon had issued a statement.