Djibouti's Veteran Leader in Paris for Talks On France's Military Base

President of Djibouti Ismail Omar Guelleh in 2019.

French President Emmanuel Macron met with Djibouti's long-standing leader Ismaël Omar Guelleh in Paris on Friday, with the renegotiation of a military agreement at the top of the agenda. The deal gives France the right to host its biggest foreign military base in the Horn of Africa country.

The French government signed a defence agreement in 1977 and once again in 2011, giving Paris the right to use Djibouti as a base for some 1,500 soldiers, fighter jets and navy. In exchange, France provides air defence for the country and pays some US$40m in annual rent.

Although the French government wants to retain the base, Guelleh's government hopes to use the location for a new business district, according to RFI's Leonard Vincent.

At the time same, Guelleh also wants to discuss French investment in his country, which he has ruled since 1999, and its understood that a deal with the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region is set to be signed, as well as a contract with Engie, the multinational electric utility company.

The last meeting between the leaders of the two countries took place in March 2019, and Djibouti signalled some disappointment over France's "shyness", RFI service Afrique's Vincent reported.

This contrasts with other countries who have a presence in the strategically-located country, such as China, which has financed large infrastructure projects.

The rendezvous also takes place in the context of the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia's Tigray region, Djibouti's larger neighbour, which is significant given past tensions between Djibouti and Eritrea, which is involved in the Tigray fighting.

Elections on the horizon

The Paris visit comes ahead of Guelleh's attempt to stand for a fifth term as president in elections expected in April 2021. The opposition has already boycotted the polls, complaining that the vote will not be fair or transparent.

Djibouti's ruling party claims the elections will take place in the best possible conditions, but the opposition hopes Macron will warn Guelleh about the consequences of holding rigged elections.

"French presidents have long been inviting dictators like Ismaël Omar Guelleh and each time they butter them up," Adan Mohamed Abdou, president of Djibouti's opposition coalition, told RFI.

"This time around, we think it might be different, we are waiting for Mr Macron to tell Ismaël Omar Guelleh that 43 years is enough, and he has to give up his place," the opposition leader added, referring to the number of years Guelleh's family has been in power.

Guelleh won a fourth term in 2016, taking 87% of the vote, according to the country's electoral commission, although the polls were largely criticized by opposition parties and rights groups.

Besides hosting a French military base, Djibouti has become known as a garrison state - it is also home to military bases for the US, China, Italy and Japan, as well as an agreement for Saudi Arabia to build a base.

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