Djibouti – A Brief History

Published on 15th November 2005

Djibouti lies in northeast Africa on the Gulf of Aden at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. It borders Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia. The country which is the size of Massachusetts, is mainly a stony desert with scattered plateaus and highlands.

The Republic of Djibouti gained its independence on June 27, 1977. It is the successor of French Somaliland (later called the French Territory of the Afars and Issas), which was created in the first half of the 19th century as a result of French interest in the Horn of Africa. However, the history of Djibouti, recorded in poetry and songs of its nomadic people, goes back thousands of years to a time when Djiboutians traded hides and skins for the perfumes and spices of ancient Egypt, India, and China. Through close contacts with the Arabian peninsula for more than 1,000 years, the Somali and Afar tribes in this region became the first on the African continent to adopt Islam.

It was Rochet d\'Hericourt\'s exploration into Shoa (1839-42) that marked the beginning of French interest in the African shores of the Red Sea. Further exploration by Henri Lambert, French Consular Agent at Aden, and Captain Fleuriot de Langle led to a treaty of friendship and assistance between France and the sultans of Raheita, Tadjoura, and Gobaad, from whom the French purchased the anchorage of Obock (1862).

Growing French interest in the area took place against a backdrop of British activity in Egypt and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. In 1884-85, France expanded its protectorate to include the shores of the Gulf of Tadjoura and the Somaliland. Boundaries of the protectorate, marked out in 1897 by France and Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia, were affirmed further by agreements with Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I in 1945 and 1954.

The administrative capital was moved from Obock to Djibouti in 1892. In 1896, Djibouti was named French Somaliland. Djibouti, which has a good natural harbor and ready access to the Ethiopian highlands, attracted trade caravans crossing East Africa as well as Somali settlers from the south. The Franco-Ethiopian railway, linking Djibouti to the heart of Ethiopia, was begun in 1897 and reached Addis Ababa in June 1917, further facilitating the increase of trade.

During the Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia in the 1930s and during World War II, constant border skirmishes occurred between French and Italian forces. The area was ruled by the Vichy (French) government from the fall of France until December 1942, and fell under British blockade during that period. Free French and the Allied forces recaptured Djibouti at the end of 1942. A local battalion from Djibouti participated in the liberation of France in 1944.

On July 22, 1957, the colony was reorganized to give the people considerable self-government. On the same day, a decree applying the Overseas Reform Act (Loi Cadre) of June 23, 1956, established a territorial assembly that elected eight of its members to an executive council. Members of the executive council were responsible for one or more of the territorial services and carried the title of minister. The council advised the French-appointed governor general.

In a September 1958 constitutional referendum, French Somaliland opted to join the French community as an overseas territory. This act entitled the region to representation by one deputy and one senator in the French Parliament, and one counselor in the French Union Assembly.

The first elections to the territorial assembly were held on November 23, 1958, under a system of proportional representation. In the next assembly elections (1963), a new electoral law was enacted. Representation was abolished in exchange for a system of straight plurality vote based on lists submitted by political parties in seven designated districts. Ali Aref Bourhan, allegedly of Turkish origin, was selected to be the president of the executive council. French President Charles de Gaulle\'s August 1966 visit to Djibouti was marked by 2 days of public demonstrations by Somalis demanding independence. On September 21, 1966, Louis Saget, appointed governor general of the territory after the demonstrations, announced the French Government\'s decision to hold a referendum to determine whether the people would remain within the French Republic or become independent. In March 1967, 60% chose to continue the territory\'s association with France.

In July of that year, a directive from Paris formally changed the name of the region to the French Territory of Afars and Issas. The directive also reorganized the governmental structure of the territory, making the senior French representative, formerly the governor general, a high commissioner. In addition, the executive council was redesignated as the council of government, with nine members.

In 1975, the French Government began to accommodate increasingly insistent demands for independence. In June 1976, the territory\'s citizenship law, which favored the Afar minority, was revised to reflect more closely the weight of the Issa Somali. The electorate voted for independence in a May 1977 referendum, and the Republic of Djibouti was established on June 27, 1977. Hassan Gouled Aptidon became the country’s first president.

In the three years that followed, the Afar and Issa-Somali communities struggled to obtain control over the government. In 1979, efforts were made to unite the two ethnic groups through the formation of the People\'s Progress Assembly (RPP). In 1981, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, president since independence, established the RPP as the only legal political party in the country.

Despite its attempts at peacemaking, Djibouti has been adversely affected by warfare in and between neighboring Ethiopia and Somalia. Moreover, beginning in 1991, tensions between Afars and the Issa-dominated government resulted in an Afar rebellion. A reconciliation agreement was reached in 1994, but the last remaining rebel group signed a peace accord only in 2001. Djibouti was the base of operations for French forces during the Persian Gulf War, and the French remain a strong military and technical presence. The United States also established a military presence in the nation beginning in 2002.

In 1992 a constitution allowing for a limited multiparty state was approved by Djibouti\'s voters. In 1993, Gouled was reelected in the country\'s first multiparty elections, which were widely boycotted by the opposition. The 1999 presidential election was won by Ismail Omar Guelleh, the governing party candidate. In 2003 the government sought to expel an estimated 100,000 illegal immigrants, largely Ethiopians and Somalis, from the country. The move was prompted by security and unemployment concerns. Guelleh was reelected in 2005, but the opposition refused to contest the election, believing that the government would rig the vote.

Economy

Djibouti\'s economy is based on a number of service activities associated with its strategic location and its position as a free-trade zone. It is a major port for NE Africa, as well as an international transshipment and refueling center. Otherwise, the nation is largely economically underdeveloped. Nomadic pastoralism is a chief occupation; goats, sheep, and camels are raised. Date palms are grown and there is a small fishing industry. Manufacturing is mainly limited to food processing and shipbuilding and repair. The city of Djibouti is the terminus of the Addis Ababa-Djibouti RR; it and the port were undergoing modernization in the late 1990s. The main exports are hides, cattle, and coffee (transshipped from Ethiopia). Djibouti imports transport equipment and petroleum, as well as most of its food and consumer goods; its economic development depends largely on foreign investment and aid. The main trading partners are France and other European Union countries, Ethiopia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.

Below is an analysis of Djibouti according to The 2005 Index of Economic Freedom, The Heritage Foundation Heritage and The Wall Street Journal:

Rank: 98

Score: 3.30

Category: Mostly Unfree

Population: 693, 000

Total area: 22, 000 sq. km

GDP: $508 million

GDP growth rate: 1.6%

GDP per capita: $733

Major exports: coffee, hides and skins

Exports of goods and services: n/a

Major export trading partners: Yemen 22.0%, Pakistan 5.2%, Ethiopia 4.8%,US 1.2%

Major imports: machinery, petroleum products, food and beverages

Imports of goods and services (fob): n/a

Major import trading partners: Saudi Arabia 18.1%, Ethiopia 10.5%, US 9.2%, France 8.5%, China .2%

Foreign direct investment (net): 54 million

REFERENCES

www.encyclopedia.com/html/ section/DjiboutiEA_History.asp

www.hejleh.com/countries/djibouti.html

www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/ PlainTextHistories.asp? historyid

infotut.com/geography/Djibouti/

history-of-djibouti.iqnaut.net/

The 2005 Index of Economic Freedom, The Heritage Foundation Heritage and The Wall Street Journal

 


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