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Tiny Djibouti creates coast guard to protect its territorial waters

Asahi Shimbun
Sunday, June 09, 2013

About 10 minutes after heading out into the harbor in a boat, a group of a dozen or so oil tanks came into view along the coastline. A large oil tanker was moored in front of them.

“That’s our vessel,” said Omar Osman, a member of Djibouti’s fledgling coast guard and our guide, as he pointed to a small boat about seven meters in length.

"Garde-côtes" (coast guard) was written in French along the hull. The boat had no roof, and just a solitary crew member sitting in the stern. Comparing it to the size of the oil tanker was like comparing an ant to an elephant.

“The oil tanks are the most important facility in the harbor. We guard them 24/7,” said a proud Osman, puffing out his chest.

Djibouti is located at the entrance to the Red Sea, sandwiched between the African continent and the Arabian Peninsula. It occupies a strategic location near some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes where ships traversing the Suez Canal connect Europe, Asia and Africa. Two and a half years have now passed since this tiny country of 900,000 decided to create its own coast guard at the end of 2010.

Lt. Col. Wais Bogoreh, 45, appointed coast guard commandant by Djibouti’s president, said he was “disappointed” with the assignment. In 22 years with the navy, Bogoreh had worked his way up to the number three spot and had his sights set on becoming the navy’s commanding officer.

“I was transferred from the armed forces to the Ministry of Transport. Even though it’s a new organization, it had no equipment, headquarters or human resources,” lamented Bogoreh.

The primary reason Djibouti created the coast guard was as an anti-piracy measure. Due to civil war, neighboring Somalia had become a lawless area and piracy offshore had increased. Renowned as a pirate haven, Southeast Asia recorded 54 incidents of piracy in 2008. In the same year, however, there were 111 incidents reported off the coast of Somalia, and for three consecutive years since 2009, more than 200 incidents annually have been reported off its coast.

After the international community created an information-sharing network based on a U.N. Security Council resolution adopted in 2009, the United States and France, which maintain bases in Djibouti, and other countries such as Russia, China and India, along with the European Union, sent navy warships to the seas off Somalia to protect and escort merchant ships. Personnel and ships from Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force are also currently based in Djibouti.

Based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, in international waters, any country has the right to crack down on pirates who are called an “enemy of all humankind.” However, since piracy is positioned as a criminal offense, police officials, not the navy, are tasked with their arrest, investigation and implementation of legal action. Though there are some countries that have given their navies police powers, in Japan’s case, such work is the duty of its coast guard. As such, eight officers from the Japan Coast Guard working six-month shifts are always stationed onboard Maritime Self-Defense Force escort ships.

In order to strengthen crackdowns on offenses such as piracy, smuggling and suspicious shipping, Djibouti also thought it needed a separate law enforcement agency in addition to its navy. The primary reason behind the move is that it is easier to advance international cooperation, such as information sharing, through police agencies, rather than naval organizations.

“As a sovereign state, the desire to protect one’s own seas and port facilities by one’s self was strong,” said Bogoreh.

The port is vital to the well-being of Djibouti’s economy. Being an arid country, the nation’s lands are not suited to agriculture, and its manufacturing industry is not well developed. That leaves transit trade as its principal industry. A lot of cargo destined for neighboring Ethiopia, a landlocked country of 85 million with an economy 30 times larger, transits through the country’s main port.

Though Djibouti’s coast guard has boarded about 50 suspicious ships and detained roughly 7,000 illegal immigrants to date, it is a very small operation. There are only 145 uniformed members and it only has nine ships, four of which were donated by Japan, the United States and France. Its largest ship is only 11 meters in length, and the organization does not have enough communications equipment to cover all the territorial waters it patrols. Through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Japan’s coast guard plans to continue cooperating with Djibouti on matters such as in training its personnel.

Makoto Tatsumiya, deputy director of the Japan Coast Guard’s anti-piracy office, spoke of his expectations. Tatsumiya, who escorted four self-proclaimed Somali pirates back to Japan to stand trial in 2011, said, “Even if foreign countries arrest and work to drive away pirates from a particular country’s coastline, it’s like a game of ‘whack a mole.’ There is meaning in making sure countries in the region have the capability to stop suspicious ships transiting their territorial waters.”

Since last year, new developments with pirates operating in the waters off of Africa have been seen. While pirate activity has dropped drastically off the coast of Somalia, it is picking up farther south along the coast of Mozambique and offshore of Nigeria on the western side of the continent. Both of these are resource-exporting countries supporting economic growth in Africa, and the spread of piracy to these areas is further raising concerns.

The International Maritime Organization (IMO), a specialized agency of the United Nations, is setting up a maritime security regional training center in Djibouti. “Somalia is normalizing. Should they decide to create a coast guard, we would like to leverage our experience and cooperate,” said Bogoreh.


The country encompasses a total land area of 23,200 square kilometers, making it about one and a half times the size of Iwate Prefecture. It won its independence from France in 1977, and its official languages are French and Arabic. Its demographics are split about equally between the Issas tribe, originating from Somalia, and the Ethiopian Afar tribe. These peoples faced off in civil war until peace was achieved in 2001.


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