The coastline embracing the vast land of Africa and holding together the Arab North and the Sub-Saharan South, the East and the West, measures something over 30’000 kilometers and defines the shape of Africa. The distinct and clear-cut form of Africa has become a recognizable logo for the continent itself. It is printed on tee-shirts, artisans sell it as keyring and necklace pendants, and tourists buy its replica in leather, wood or gold and silver in any African country they visit. Geologically, the shape of Africa shows us what a continent is meant to be: A discrete landmass separated by water. At the time of early Homo sapiens, this was not completely the case. In the very North of Egypt, East of the Nile Delta, the Sinai Peninsula attached Africa to the Levant on the Arabian Peninsula. Already 1’400 years BC, the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt realized this imperfection and started digging a canal through the terrestrial connection. It took almost a thousand years until the waters of the lower Nile through a canal joined those of the Red Sea. But the shifting sand of the desert soon covered the canal and it disappeared. Around 600 AD it was reopened but two hundred years later, it was deserted again. Literally, left to the desert sand. In the middle of the nineteenth Century, the French who had occupied Egypt as ‘La Grande Nation’, cut the Suez Canal through the 200 kilometers of the Sinai Desert between Port Said and Suez. Shortly after completion of the works, the British took over. Rule Britannia! Anyway, the waters of the Mediterranean Sea were now permanently joined with those of the Red Sea. And ever since, Africa is a perfect continent, a landmass separated by water. Emphasize landmass.
A Swiss friend with whom I climbed Mt Kenya once, knows much more about the Red Sea than I do. He goes diving there. His training being confined to the cold and murky waters of the Swiss lakes, he raves of the warm and sunlit water of the Red Sea. And the colorful marine life in the blue-green water, schools of fish and coral gardens. But not all is well, the Red Sea is on the list of the Global 200 Ecoregions of the World Wildlife Fund. And there it is evaluated as being ‘vulnerable’. This is a little bit better than many other African ecoregions on the list, like the rainforests of the Congo and West Africa, the Acacia Savannas of East Africa, the Niger Delta and the Lakes of the Great Rift Valley, which are all evaluated as being ‘critical’ or ‘endangered’. But my friend who goes diving in the vulnerable Red Sea is himself vulnerable. Diving gives him headache. And so did climbing Mt Kenya. In the evening before we went up to the 4’985 meters of Point Lenana, I overheard his conversation with an Austrian mountaineer in the hut where we spent the night. They had found out that both were also divers and exchanged their diving experiences in the Red Sea. And they found out that both of them got headache from diving below a certain sea level and both of them got headache from mountain climbing above a certain sea level. They brought out a hip flask and asked me to join them for a toast to their headaches. We all laughed and exchanged other stories, long into the night. But falling asleep, I wondered why people would do anything for the fun of it, when they get a headache doing it.
The Red Sea is actually an inlet of the Indian Ocean, the seawater of which presses into it from the Gulf of Aden through the Strait of Bab el Mandab between Africa’s Djibouti and Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula. Due to tectonic movements and varying sea levels over the last few hundreds of thousands of years, the Strait of Bab el Mandab, which is dotted with many small islands, has at times been a land bridge between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. And it seems that ever since he mastered technology, Homo sapiens wanted to change Africa’s connection with Arabia. The Pharaohs and then later the French wanted to detach the continent by digging a canal and putting water between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. And today, working counter purpose, the Saudis want to reinstate the land bridge connecting the two. In 2008, they presented plans for a bridge across the Strait of Bab el Mandab. Judging by the time it took the Pharaohs and French to separate the continent, I am not betting on this project to reconnect Africa to the Arabian Peninsula to be realized in my lifetime.
Nevertheless, the small francophone harbor state of Djibouti is the logic African bridgehead for the project. Tectonically, it is the point at which Africa, on the geological African Plate, pushes onto the Arabian Peninsula, on the Arabian Plate to its North. The fault line between the two plates creates the basin of the Red Sea. And due to the pressure of these two plates bumping together, under the ‘Island of the Devil’ in Djibouti’s Gulf of Tadjoura, the African Plate splits into an immense Nubian Plate to the West and a smaller Somali Plate to the East. The fault line between these two African plates runs from Djibouti southward all the way to the Mozambique Channel. Under the ground, it is called the African Rift, and what we see of it on the surface is called the Great Rift Valley.
Djibouti is an important hub for Africa in many respects. Personally, it introduced me to Africa. In 1961, when I was ten years old, my father was transferred to Bangkok. He had chosen to do the trip together with the whole family by ship, on a freighter. We boarded in Marseilles and crossed the Mediterranean Sea, our first stop in Africa was Port Said but there, we were not allowed to go on land. Having then shipped through the Suez Canal and the full length of the Red Sea and now stopping there, Djibouti became the place where I first put foot on African soil. In the evening of the first day of our stop, we went on land. My father took me and my brother to town for dinner. In the dock, they were still off-loading and loading, it was already dark and on the way to town, my father asked a French legionary for a restaurant. We walked a few more busy streets, and I was a little bit scared. Back aboard in my bunk in the night, I dreamt of a mysterious language which I recognized as the one my parents spoke when we children were not supposed to understand what they were talking about, there were lean black men with curved knives in their belts carrying bags on their shoulders, there were soldiers in white uniforms and women with long black hair wearing colorful dresses, and a wobbling ceiling fan over the table was threatening to fall and chop me into pieces. But my dream did not foretell that Djibouti would repeatedly play a role in my later professional life.
Politically, Djibouti always was and remains to be an important hub for international dealings with troubled Somalia. In 1998, two teams of two Frenchmen each were cruising their yachts in a race from Marseilles to Madagascar. They had both passed the Strait of Bab el Mandab at Djibouti and were sailing along the coast of Somaliland toward the apex of the Horn of Africa, Cape Guardafui. There, the trailing yacht was intercepted by Somali pirates and taken hostage. ‘Guardafui’ comes from the French ‘gardez-vous’, ‘be aware’ – not of pirates, but of the heavy sea as you enter the Indian Ocean. This hostage situation would bring me to the French legionaries in Djibouti again. As I was then the United Nations Coordinator for Somalia, the French government consulted me on the feasibility of a commando operation of the French Legion for the relief of the two Frenchmen. I advised against any forceful intervention and, the Legion not being in the line of business of negotiation, they gave the mandate to negotiate the release of the hostages to me. I remembered the seminar in Marrakesh and knew that somehow, I would have to apply the negotiation tool that Somalis know best, the Kalashnikov. We were in the middle of the constitutional conference for the formation of the federal Puntland State of Somalia, at the coast of which the pirates operated. We had already agreed that the UN would assist the new federal state in the transformation of the militia into the governmental police and security forces, so I convinced the warlord who wanted to become the president of Puntland that in this sense, the release of the French hostages was actually a first policing responsibility for him. We interrupted the conference and together with some of the brass of his militia and some Kalashnikovs he went to ‘talk to the pirates’, as he put it. The words and Kalashnikovs of the warlord swayed the pirates. I know that no shots were fired but I never learned whether any camels changed hands. Never mind, three weeks after their capture by the pirates, I handed over the hostages to the French Legion in Djibouti. The legionaries were not wearing white uniforms and the hostages were very impolite. Instead of saying thank you, they complained that we had not negotiated also the release of their yacht.
We resumed the constitutional conference and founded the Federal Puntland State of Somalia. Courtesy of the United Nations, two missions had been accomplished. The warlord became the President of Puntland and later, Interim-President of Somalia. And in Nairobi a few months later, – I had already forgotten the Frenchmen and the legionaries – I received a luncheon invitation from the French Ambassador. With the words, ‘le Ministre a parlé’, he handed to me a personal ‘lettre de recommandation’ from the French Foreign Minister. Now, as a Swiss diplomat, beat that!
Ten years later when I was the Swiss Ambassador to the country, I would get to know Djibouti yet from another side. I visited the Island of the Devil in the Gulf of Tadjoura – around which the Chinese were building a complex of industrial plants and ports. I saw the Chinese setting up their first military presence in Africa and building the railway terminal for the new Djibouti train that climbs to Addis Ababa in landlocked Ethiopia. I met all my Somali friends from Somaliland who did business there between Somaliland, Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen and Saudi Arabia, and whose families lived there in a safe environment with public services. And I licked the salt of Lac Assal which lies 150 Meters below sea level, the deepest depression of Africa. If ever the ocean breaks into the Great Rift Valley, it will be the Red Sea at Djibouti breaking into this depression of the ‘Afar Triangle’ between Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. Djibouti will be flooded and Somalia, eastern Ethiopia, and most of Kenya and Tanzania will then be an island in the Indian Ocean.