The country of Djibouti is known officially as the Republic of Djibouti. The country is home to two official languages- French and Arabic. The country’s history has been shaped by its vicinity to both the Arabian Peninsula as well as the northern region of Africa. Located in the northeastern portion of the African continent, the country’s coastline falls on the waters of the Gulf of Aden in the Red Sea. Today, the coastline of the country is valued for its close proximity to Arabian oilfields and also lies conveniently on the railways that lead from northern Africa to Ethiopia.
Much of the country’s population lies in the capital city of the country, also named Djibouti. This portion makes up about two-thirds of the entire amount of inhabitants in Djibouti. The other one-third mainly consists of nomadic herdsmen that roam the desert-like landscape that covers most of the landmass, with exception to the strip of land along the eastern coasts. The official category of the land is semi-desert, and contains some highlands and plateaus. These higher elevations lie mostly in the central part of the country.
The large amounts of desert allow for very little agricultural land. In fact, there are close to no permanent crops throughout the entirety of the country. Roughly 9% of the total land is considered permanent pastureland, while the amount of arable land is negligible. The only forest lands in the entire country may be found in the Day Forest National Park, which lies in the higher elevations. The lack of agricultural abilities for Djibouti has caused the country to import most of its food supply. Therefore, the economy survives mainly on natural resources, such as the country’s fair amount of bio-thermal energy and on the service industry, which focuses on providing to surrounding areas. Due to its location, Djibouti faces three main sorts of natural disasters. Droughts threaten the majority of the country, as do earthquakes. Along the eastern coast, there is also the threat of cyclones from time to time.
There is not very much known about the ancient history of Djibouti, other than it was inhabited by people from the Arabian peninsula by around the 3rd Century BCE. This group of nomads was known as the Ablé tribe. This ethnic group is still present in the country today as one of the top two most prevalent, through the tribe that would later develop from its descendants, known as the Afars. The other major ethnic group during this time that is also still present in the country are the Issas. The Issas also led a nomadic lifestyle. Today the two groups are more closely connected to two other countries; the Afars with Ethiopia, and the Issas with Somalia. It is also known that these tribes traded commodities, such as animal pelts, with traders from surrounding areas for products from places as far away as Egypt, India, and even China.
The birth of Islam played a key role in the years after its inception in Djibouti. The country’s geographical relation to the Arabian Peninsula is the most probable reason as to why it was the first region in the whole of the African continent to adopt Islam. The expanding Arab Empire even created an Islamic state in the present-day capital of the country, which was called Adal. After the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the region became part of the Habesh Province from 1555-1884. Islam was still the dominant religion during this time.
French interest in the area began in the middle of the 19th Century with several explorations into the area. The port-town of Obok, on the country’s northwest coast, was bought from a group of Somali sultans that ruled the area in 1862. The Italians and the British were also acquiring territory there, mainly due to the wealth that was connected to the trade routes. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, this wealth only increased as trade routes were extended. The territory of the French in present-day Djibouti further expanded during the years of 1883 to 1887 through additional treaties between the Somali sultans. In the year 1896 the territory officially became a French protectorate, which was known as French Somaliland, through combining the cities of Obok and Tadjoura and moving the capital to the port city of Djibouti. France took advantage of the wealth from the trade routes that connected Africa to countries like India, Madagascar, and the Arabian Peninsula through the port of Djibouti and also by connecting the city to Ethiopia. In 1897 to 1917, a major building project connected Djibouti city to Addis Abba, the capital of Ethiopia. This was a major advancement for the region, due to the fact that the railway ran through some of Ethiopia’s higlands. Eventually, nearly 60% of the country’s imports would be delivered to the city through this railway.
By the middle of the 1930’s, Italian forces had come to occupy Ethiopia. This led to confrontation between Italian forces and the French forces of French Somaliland. These disputes led to French Somaliland playing a key role in WWII, especially in the East African Campaign. When France fell in 1940, due to German bombing, a new French government was set up in the area, known as the Vichy government. Fighting continued along the boarder with the Italians, until British forces helped to drive them out. The British also enacted a blockade on French Somaliland, which was successful in ousting the Vichy government in 1942. This allowed the Free French government to take control of the area.
After the end of WWII, France and the Issa majority within the country began to take measures for the independence of the country. This first began with the legistlation passed in 1957 to give French Somaliland more self-governance. In addition, the territory was given seats in the French National Assembly the following year. Also in 1958, and again in 1967, votes were administered to the people of the colony to pass legislation for French Somaliland to become an independent nation. The majority of voters both times decided to remain under French rule. However, in 1967 French Somaliland was renamed the Territory of the Afars and the Issas.
The fact that the Afars were a minority, and thus would have been guaranteed less influence in a democratic society, caused many of the ethnicity to oppose independence. The neighboring country of Ethiopia also opposed independence measures. However, it was favored by the majority ethnicity of the Issas, but due to the citizenship regulations at the time, many were not considered to have the same full status as the Afar ethnic group. This was mainly due to the fact that during early French colonialism of the territory, the Afars were considered privileged over the Issas.
Measures were taken to change this with new regulations that were passed in 1975 when France allowed more Issas citizenship. A third vote for independence for the territory was administered in 1977, and it passed overwhelmingly. As a result, the country was declared free on June 27, 1977 and was renamed after its capital city, Djibouti.
The first president elected under the new independent government was an Issa by the name of Hassan Gouled Aptidon. Shortly after his election, legislation was passed that created an authoritarian rule with only one official political party in the country. This led to an imbalance of political power between the Afar ethnic group and that of the Issas, even though Gouled had placed several Afars in positions throughout the government. Also, as a result of the majority of Issas in the country, Gouled was reelected in 1981 and again in 1987.
During Aptidon’s second term in office, opposition grew within the country. Civil war began when an Afar group, known as the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD), began uprisings in the north. In 1992, France sent in forces to help the Djibouti deal with the rebels, who had conquered several small towns. As a result the violence was quelled and several of the FRUD leaders were taken as political prisoners. Three years later, in 1995, the government signed peace accords with FRUD and the majority of the rebels disarmed. Those who were against reconciliation with government created a branch of FRUD known as FRUD- Renaissance. The initial FRUD, officially became recognized as a political party in 1996.
In 1999, political unrest hit Djibouti again when the only president the independent country had ever known declared that he was retiring. The successor to Gouled was his closest advisor and nephew Ismail Omar Guelleh, who finished out his term and was reelected in 2001. This election was revolutionary in the country, due to the fact that Guelleh was a multi-party coalition candidate, and the first one backed by FRUD candidate. The other party in the coalition was the Ruling People’s Progressive Assembly, a major Issa group. Although there was this cooperation between the two once-opposing ethnicities, there was still an overwhelming amount of Issa control in both the government and the economy. The solution to the problem was to create a less- centralized government, which would allow for each group to elect its own representatives, according to carefully divided districts. This de-centralization plan began in 2006.
Currently, the government of Djibouti is considered a semi-presidential republic. It consists of the president, his cabinet, and a 56-member parliament. The legislative power is controlled by the president. Although there are several parties in the government, The Ruling People’s Progressive party is the only one currently participating in elections. Therefore the government today is considered a one-party system. The other parties in the government have boycotted both of the last two elections. This allowed the RPP to take control of all of the seats in parliament.
Along with affecting the politics in Djibouti, the two main ethnic groups of the country have also played a significant role in the culture of the language. The shield of the country consists of two olive branches that surround two swords, with a spear in the center. The combination of these elements represents the Afars and the Issas and their ability to come together as the people of Djibouti. However, there is not total equality within the country and many of the poorer classes of both groups are held in relatively low esteem with members of higher ranking positions, such as government officials.
The rich history of the two groups is also apparent in the humanities and arts within the country. Most art is considered traditional, such as the oral poetry and rhetoric popular among pastoral societies. Also evident of traditional influence are the crafts within the country. However, most fine art is derived from the French tradition, and is typically marketed towards wealthy foreign businessmen.