The regime in the small country stands accused of using the sport to curry favour with its young population instead of investing meaningfully in uplifting the nation.
Djibouti, a tiny country in the Horn of Africa with one of the continent’s smallest populations at just over one million people, has consistently been one of world governing body Fifa’s worst-ranked sides. They’re currently sitting at 182 out of 210 teams.
Their weaknesses were exposed again against Algeria in their first match of the group stages of 2022 World Cup qualifiers that was played on 2 September in Blida, Algeria. It took only five minutes for Algeria to score their first of eight painful goals. Riyad Mahrez and Ismaël Bennacer played a short corner kick before Mahrez chipped in a lofted cross that striker Islam Slimani nudged in – his first of four goals that evening.
Djibouti had previously advanced past the preliminary stage of World Cup qualifying only once, in 2010, when they finished bottom of their group, scoring two goals and conceding 30. The East Africans were hoping at least to improve on that performance, but they still managed to underperform.
“I said before the match that Algeria had to play poorly and that we had to be excellent to perhaps stand a chance,” said Julien Mette, Djibouti’s dapper young French coach in the post-match press conference. “In the end we played poorly and they were excellent.”
Internally, and off the record, several staff members in the Djiboutian delegation were not satisfied with the conditions of their travel to Algeria. Souleiman Waberi, the president of the Djiboutian federation, a Confederation of African Football (CAF) vice-president and strong ally of Fifa president Gianni Infantino, could not make the trip to North Africa. He was still in Russia for the 2021 Fifa Beach Soccer World Cup, reflecting the defeatist attitude of some surrounding the Djibouti camp.
“When I hear that some people in the players’ entourage were talking about forfeiting this match… these are mentalities we have to change,” Mette said at the Mustapha Tchaker Stadium in Blida.
His tone juxtaposed the skim of optimism that had formed atop the national team prior to the qualifying matches. In addition to Waberi’s role in CAF, new money was being pumped into a few local clubs and, under Mette, the Sharks of the Red Sea were a young squad that played attractive, possession-based football.
Captain Daoud Wais, 34, a short, balding, ball-playing centreback, was the eldest of the bunch, the only player over 30. “For some time now, Djiboutian football has progressed,” he said timidly inside a hotel conference room before the match.
Wais, who is contracted with Arta Solar 7, the Djiboutian champions, illustrated his point by pointing out the high-profile players who have come to ply their trade in Djibouti. “At my club Arta Solar 7 we have signed [Cameroonian veterans] Alex Song and Carlos Kameni … so we can definitely say that we have seen some progress.”
Yet any veneer of superficial progress has been completely cracked. After the pummelling in Algeria, Djibouti travelled to Morocco for their second match of the month, against Niger, as CAF had not deemed any stadium in Djibouti fit to host international matches. This time they lost 2-4.
Footballing stakeholders from the former French colony have preferred to dump their investments in pet projects, rather than grassroots infrastructure.
Alongside Waberi, the current strongman in Djibouti football is Tommy Tayoro, a French-Ivorian businessman who also happens to be the son-in-law of President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh. Rumours have it that Tayoro met the president’s daughter at a Parisian nightclub where he worked as a bouncer.
After being married into the presidential family, Tayoro found the capital to open a solar panel company named Solar 7 and a private jet company called Ivory Jet Services. It is with Solar 7 that he decided to purchase the club Arta, which captured the imagination of African football aficionados after he signed former Cameroonian international Alex Song in November 2020.
Song’s arrival in Djibouti, however, seemed much too forced from the very beginning. A convoy of black SUVs and luxury sedans were waiting for the former Arsenal midfielder at the airport. Schoolchildren flanked the dirt pavements. They look like they had been whisked away from class just to welcome the high-profile footballer.
Song would later justify his bizarre career move by speaking about the motivation those same kids provided him after signing with Arta Solar 7, a club that has only recently enjoyed a significant cash injection.
In a small room crammed with journalists, the charismatic Song said: “I remember when I was younger and the Cameroonian national team would pass by in a team bus and I’d run after it. Now I see the same kids running after me and I think … this was me just a little while ago. This is what I wanted to bring to Djibouti. This is why I am here.”
Tayoro then interjected and almost menacingly quizzed the roomful of journalists: “Who else on the continent has done this? Alex played in the biggest clubs in the world, from Barcelona to Arsenal to West Ham, and we were all proud to watch him on television. And we never thought he’d one day play for Arta Solar 7 or another African club.”
Despite the marquee signing, Tayoro’s experiment with Arta can only be deemed semi-successful thus far.
While it is true that Arta Solar 7 won the 2020-2021 Djiboutian Premier League for the first time in the club’s history, they were also prematurely eliminated from the preliminary round of the 2020 CAF Confederation Cup.
Song scored the only goal in the first leg against Egypt’s Arab Contractors, or Al Mokawloon Al Arab, but it was scored in his own net. Arta were spanked 9-1 in the return leg for an aggregate score of 10-1.
After the season, fellow Cameroonians Dany Nounkeu and Carlos Kameni joined Song, and so did Senegalese marksman Diafra Sakho. The club spent a few weeks of pre-season touring Cameroon and harbour high ambitions for the upcoming season, especially in the CAF competitions.
Yet, like the national team and the country as a whole, the Arta Solar 7 project flashes on the surface but is built on shoddy foundations of negligence and corruption.
Since 1999, Djibouti has been ruled by Guelleh, 73, a former intelligence officer who was the nephew of the country’s first president, Hassan Gouled Aptidon. Guelleh rules over the enclave with an iron fist. Those that oppose him and his party are quickly forced into exile.
In fact, after the Algeria match, three Djiboutian internationals defected from the national team in the transit zone of the Orly airport in Paris. Both backup goalkeepers and a midfielder asked for political asylum from the French authorities, in a shocking move that managed to escape headlines back home.
The footballers will join a dynamic Djibouti diaspora that has transformed into an active force, opposing the regime. One such is Abdirahman M Ahmed, a human rights activist now based in neighbouring Somalia after claiming to have received credible threats to his life. He paints a worrying portrait of the current president.
“When Guelleh came to power, Djibouti was in a precarious situation,” Abdirahman explained. “The French military, which never left after colonisation, did not want him, but he quickly made peace with various armed rebellions and united the factions tussling for power.
“After 9/11 he quickly jumped on the opportunity to meet the Americans. In fact, he was the first foreign president to visit Washington DC after the attacks. He made a deal on 20 September 2001.”
In one fell swoop, Guelleh played the Americans against the French. The United States quickly built Camp Lemonnier, which has been described by The Economist as “the most important base for drone operations outside the war zone of Afghanistan”. While the US has up to 32 operational military outposts and 7,000 military personnel on rotational deployment across the continent, Lemonnier is officially the only permanent American military base in Africa.
“Guelleh may be a dictator,” said Abdirahman, “but he is very intelligent. He plays the major powers against one another.”
After Camp Lemonnier, Guelleh rented land to China, Germany, Spain and Japan. There are now a total of seven foreign military bases in the tiny country of 23 000km² – the third smallest in continental Africa but strategically located on the Horn of Africa, close to the entrance to the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden.
Guelleh quickly found ways to sell megaprojects in his country. From gigantic railway infrastructure and submarine telecom cables to tentacled shipping ports that service global naval cargo fleets, the world’s superpowers continue to find ways to curry favour with their preferred dictator. Yet opponents of the regime point to the fact that one-fifth of the population are forced to live on less than $2 per day.
“We have been hearing that we are the ‘New Dubai’ or the ‘Singapore of Africa’ for a decade and a half now, but most projects never materialise,” said Abdirahman. “When they do, the wealth is concentrated around the presidential circle.”
As for the Djiboutian national team or Arta Solar 7, a significant chunk of the population with its median age of 23.9 sees such projects as a way of pandering to the youth.
“Djibouti is a young country. My opinion is that those in power understand that if they want continued support, they have to invest. Instead of developing a grassroots national strategy or sporting policy, they started focusing on national teams to instrumentalise sport to attract the youth for political gain,” said Abdirahman.
Such a strategy would explain the recent investment in football in Djibouti, but if the results continue to be as poor as they have been, it may well have the opposite effect.