One of Zimbabwe’s most senior soldiers and a key US congressman say trouble may be coming to the Horn of Africa.
Major General Trust Magoba – who now serves as a special advisor to the African Union office for Peace and Security – has raised concern at foreign interference on the continent.
“The establishment foreign bases and the involvement of external forces in the conflicts on the Horn of Africa is a worrisome development,” he said. And he called on all countries to focus on “peace, security and stability within the region”.
General Magoba was referring to land adjoining a narrow strait that runs past Djibouti on the only route between the Indian Ocean and Suez, where the US, France and China have stationed their military.
Djibouti is small and hugely in debt to Beijing. And the rule of president Ismaïl Guelleh is frequently under attack from human-rights groups who allege torture and a lack of democracy.
Exports from Australia, India, Zimbabwe and much of East Africa sail through here to Europe along with more than 14m barrels a day of oil from the Persian Gulf.
Djibouti is host to the only permanent US military base in Africa and the largest post of the French Foreign Legion along with small units from Russia, Japan and Italy. But China has built its own barracks to house more troops than the joint strength of all other players.
Djibouti’s value for ships lies in a state-of-the-art container dock, but earlier this year President Guelleh signed a decree ousting Dubai-firm DP World from a 50-year contract to manage the port.
A London court has repeatedly ruled the contract valid only to be snubbed by Djibouti which claims DP World had not fulfilled its obligations and even accusing the firm of economic sabotage.
DP World has made clear it will not surrender its rights, but allies have been hard to find. The US and France – two of the world’s greatest maritime powers – are hostage to Mr Guelleh’s goodwill in order to keep their troops on his soil.
However, disquiet is growing in Congress, with letters of concern sent to cabinet, even to President Trump, warning of Washington’s vulnerability if China were to gain any part of the DP World contract to run the port. Mr Guelleh has assured them this will not happen.
Alabama congressman Mo Brooks is not convinced. Brooks sits on both the Armed Forces and Foreign Affairs committees and has written to US ambassador at the United Nations, Nikki Hayley.
“Mr Guelleh has never been one to respect the rule of law,” he wrote. Guelleh’s “dictatorial reign,” had been “fuelled by a steady flow of Chinese cash, palaces and gifts.”
He called on Ambassador Haley to use her influence to curb Mr Guelleh’s “reckless and unscrupulous behaviour”, and ensure his respect for “international norms, judicial bodies and the rule of law”.
US relations with China slumped last month after vice president, Mike Pence, accused Beijing of using “covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets,” to influence next month’s crucial mid-term vote that could see Republican Party numbers slip in Congress.
“China wants a different American president,” Mr Pence said.
Donald Trump aired the same view when he addressed the United Nations at the end of September.
“They do not want me to win, because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade, and we are winning on trade,” he said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying accused Mr Trump of using “hearsay evidence” to create allegations “out of thin air”.
In Djibouti, President Guelleh has assured Washington that he remains an ally in the war on terror.
However, an incident on 30 September when a Chinese warship nosed within 50 metres of a US military vessel in the Pacific has raised tension between the two countries and is likely to see more letters from Congress like that of Mr Brooks about Washington’s vulnerability in the world’s trouble spots.