Country, eastern Africa, on the Gulf of Aden at the entrance to the
Area: 8,950 sq mi (23,200 sq km). Population (2008 est.): 506,000.
Capital: Djibouti. Roughly half of the people are Issas and related
Somali clans; Afars are about one-third; the balance includes Yemeni
Arabs and Europeans, mostly French. Languages: French, Arabic (both
official). Religion: Islam (predominantly Sunni). Currency: Djibouti
franc. Djibouti is divided into three principal regions: the coastal
plain, the volcanic plateaus in the country’s south and centre, and the
mountain ranges in the north, reaching 6,654 ft (2,028 m) high at Mount
Moussa (Mousa). The land is primarily desert—hot, dry, and desolate;
virtually none is arable. Djibouti has a developing market economy that
is based almost entirely on trade and commercial services, centring on
Djibouti city. The country is a republic with one legislative house; its
head of state and government is the president. Settled by the Arab
ancestors of the Afars, it was later populated by Somali Issas. In 825
ce Islam was brought to the area by missionaries. Arabs controlled the
trade in this region until the 16th century; it became a French
protectorate in the 19th century. It was made a French overseas
territory in 1946, assumed the name French Territory of the Afars and
Issas in 1967, and gained its independence in 1977. In the late 20th and
early 21st centuries, it hosted a sizable population of refugees from
conflicts in neighbouring countries.
Official name Jumhūrīyah Jībūtī (Arabic); République de Djibouti
(French) (Republic of Djibouti)
Form of government multiparty republic with one legislative house
(National Assembly )
Head of state and government President
Official languages Arabic; French
Official religion none
Monetary unit Djibouti franc (FDJ)
Population estimate (2008) 506,000
Total area (sq mi) 8,950
Total area (sq km) 23,200
small strategically located country on the northeast coast of the
Horn of Africa. It is situated on the Bab el Mandeb Strait, which lies
to the east and separates the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden.
Formerly known as French Somaliland (1896–1967) and the French
Territory of the Afars and Issas (1967–77), the country took Djibouti as
its name when it gained independence from France on June 27, 1977.
Djibouti’s capital, Djibouti city, is built on coral reefs that jut into
the southern entrance of the gulf; other major towns are Obock,
Tadjoura, Ali Sabieh, Arta, and Dikhil.
The country’s Lilliputian aspect belies its regional and geopolitical
importance. The capital is the site of a modern deepwater port that
serves Indian Ocean and Red Sea traffic and hosts a French naval base.
Djibouti city is also the railhead for the only line serving Addis
Ababa, the capital of neighbouring Ethiopia.
Djibouti is bounded by Eritrea to the north, Ethiopia to the west
and southwest, and Somalia to the south. The Gulf of Tadjoura, which
opens into the Gulf of Aden, bifurcates the eastern half of the country
and supplies much of its 230 miles (370 km) of coastline.
The landscape of Djibouti is varied and extreme, ranging from rugged
mountains in the north to a series of low desert plains separated by
parallel plateaus in the west and south. Its highest peak is Mount
Moussa at 6,654 feet (2,028 metres); the lowest point, which is also the
lowest in Africa, is the saline Lake Assal, 509 feet (155 metres) below
The country is internationally renowned as a geologic treasure trove.
Located at a triple juncture of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and East
African rift systems, the country hosts significant seismic and
geothermal activity. Slight tremors are frequent, and much of the
terrain is littered with basalt from past volcanic activity. In November
1978 the eruption of the Ardoukoba volcano, complete with spectacular
lava flows, attracted the attention of volcanologists worldwide. Of
particular interest was the tremendous seismic activity that accompanied
the eruption and led to the widening by more than a metre of the plates
between Africa and the Arabian peninsula.
Besides Lake Assal, the other major inland body of water is Lake
Abbe, located on Djibouti’s southwestern border with Ethiopia. The
country is completely devoid of any permanent above-ground rivers,
although some subterranean rivers exist.
The often torrid climate varies between two major seasons. The cool
season lasts from October to April and typifies a Mediterranean-style
climate in which temperatures range from the low 70s to the mid-80s F
(low 20s to low 30s C) with low humidity. The hot season lasts from May
to September. Temperatures increase as the hot khamsin wind blows off
the inland desert, and they range from an average low in the mid-80s F
(low 30s C) to a stifling high in the low 110s F (mid-40s C). This time
of year is also noted for days in which humidity is at its highest.
Among the coolest areas in the country is the Day Forest, which is
located at a high elevation; temperatures in the low to mid-50s F (low
to mid-10s C) have been recorded.
The average annual precipitation is limited and is usually spread
over 26 days. Different regions of the country receive varying amounts
of precipitation: the coastal regions receive 5 inches (130 mm) of
rainfall per annum, while the northern and mountainous portions of the
country receive about 15 inches (380 mm). The rainy season lasts between
January and March, with the majority of precipitation falling in quick,
short bursts. One outcome of this erratic rainfall pattern is periodic
flash floods that devastate those areas located at sea level.
Plant and animal life
Despite Djibouti’s relatively harsh landscape, abundances of flora
and fauna abound. In the northern portion of the country, one finds the
ancient Day Forest National Park and a variety of tree species, such as
jujube, fig, olive, juniper, and momosa. To the south and southwest of
the Gulf of Tadjoura, the vegetation is similar to that found in other
arid regions of Africa, inclusive of acacia and doum palm trees. Among
the types of fauna are a wide variety of bird species, numerous types of
antelopes and gazelles, and more limited numbers of carnivores (such as
cheetahs) and scavengers (such as hyenas), as well as monkeys,
squirrels, and warthogs. Perhaps most spectacular is the extremely rich
diversity of marine life found along Djibouti’s coastline and coral
reefs, a factor that has made the country a special point of interest
for international scuba-diving associations.
On the basis of linguistic criteria, the two largest ethnic groups
are the Somali and the Afar. Both groups speak related, but not mutually
intelligible, eastern Cushitic languages.
The Afar (Denakil, or Danakil) speak a language that forms a dialect
continuum with Saho. Saho-Afar is usually classified as an Eastern
Cushitic language of the Afro-Asiatic language phylum. The Afar live in
the sparsely populated areas to the west and north of the Gulf of
Tadjoura. This region includes parts of several former as well as extant
Afar sultanates. The sultans’ roles are now largely ceremonial, and the
social divisions within the traditional Afar hierarchy are of diminished
importance. The Afar are also found across the border in neighbouring
Ethiopia. Their population distribution in the two countries forms a
pattern that is somewhat elongated and triangular in shape and is often
referred to as the “Afar triangle.”
The Somali, who also speak an Eastern Cushitic language, are
concentrated in the capital and the southeastern quarter of the country.
Their social identity is determined by clan-family membership. More than
half the Somali belong to the Issa, whose numbers exceed those of the
Afar; the remaining Somali are predominately members of the Gadaboursi
and Isaaq clans that migrated from northern Somalia during the 20th
century to work on the construction of the Djibouti–Addis Ababa railway
and Djibouti city’s port expansion.
Djibouti city is home to a long-established community of Yemeni Arabs
and houses a sizable contingent of French technical advisers and
military personnel. In recent decades these groups have been joined by
small but significant numbers of ethnic Ethiopians as well as Greek and
The republic recognizes two official languages: French and Arabic.
However, Somali is the most widely spoken language, although it is
rarely written and is not taught in the schools. The use of Afar is
mostly restricted to Afar areas. Many Djiboutians are multilingual.
Fluency in French is particularly important for those with political
aspirations. French is the means of instruction in primary and secondary
schools, although Arabic is also taught as the first language at both
More than nine-tenths of the population is Muslim; nearly all adhere
to the Sunni branch of Islam. Some Christian religions are represented
in Djibouti, including Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.
Djibouti is virtually a city-state, since about two-thirds of the
population lives in or near the capital. Outlying towns are small
trading centres that experience periodic population increases as camel
caravans and sheep and goat herders encamp.
Djibouti is the most urbanized country in sub-Saharan Africa, with
some four-fifths of the population classified as urban. The annual rate
of population increase is higher than the world average but has dropped
significantly since the 1980s. Some two-fifths of the population is
under age 15, with an additional one-third under age 30. The average
life expectancy is less than 50 years.
Both the Afar and the Somali maintain ties with relatives living in
neighbouring Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Since independence, many
newcomers from rural areas and regions beyond the national frontier have
migrated to live with family members in Djibouti city.
Djibouti is host to a considerable number of refugees. In addition to
thousands of economic migrants who, on an ongoing basis, clandestinely
enter Djibouti and illegally assume a variety of jobs (usually in
Djibouti city), the country periodically has been inundated with waves
of refugees fleeing political persecution in neighbouring countries.
Djibouti has few natural resources and has limited capacity for
agricultural and industrial pursuits; the country also has extensive
unemployment, foreign debt, and regular budget deficits. The government
continues to focus on financial-, telecommunications-, and trade-related
services, solidifying the country’s position as an important regional
business and trade hub in the Horn of Africa. As a result, the economy
relies heavily on the service sector, which accounts for some
four-fifths of the country’s gross domestic product.
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
Because of Djibouti’s harsh landscape and limited areas of arable
land, agriculture is not a viable economic sector and is largely
practiced at subsistence level only. In rural areas, nomadic pastoralism
is a way of life. Sheep and goats are raised for milk, meat, and skins,
while camels are used for transport caravans. Agriculture there is
confined to a few wadis, which produce small yields of vegetables
(mostly tomatoes) and dates.
Forests account for less than 1 percent of Djibouti’s total land
area. Much of the country’s limited forest cover has long been exploited
for grazing and firewood.
Offshore, Djibouti’s waters teem with many species of marine life,
including tuna, barracuda, and grouper. The government has sponsored
experimental fisheries projects and has succeeded in producing small
marketable yields of fish products. However, many Cushitic peoples in
the region do not consume fish, and this factor has limited development
in this area.
Resources and power
Djibouti has few natural resources. Salt is exploited—some is
exported, and some is marketed through the informal sector of the
economy. Efforts to exploit the country’s vast potential for geothermal
energy are under way but have yet to yield substantial results.
Virtually all the country’s electricity is generated by fossil fuels.
Because of limited development in the manufacturing and industrial
sectors, Djibouti is heavily reliant on the import of consumer products.
Despite liberal investment laws and Djibouti’s status as a free-trade
zone, high labour and energy costs, an extremely small domestic market,
and regional instability have hindered the attraction of foreign
investors. The government traditionally has sought to overcome this
handicap by launching parastatals (government-owned enterprises) in
specifically targeted industries, such as a mineral-water-bottling plant
at Tadjoura and a dairy plant outside Djibouti city. It has also
attempted to exploit significant geothermal activity in the hopes of
making the country energy self-sufficient. However, the parastatal
sector was plagued by inefficiency and the need for significant budget
subsidies. Since the mid-1980s the government has worked toward the
privatization of these companies in an attempt to increase profit and
productivity. In 1996 these efforts were further expanded as part of a
structural-adjustment program sponsored by the International Monetary
Fund and the World Bank.
Finance and services
The Central Bank of Djibouti issues the Djiboutian franc, the
national currency, which is pegged to the U.S. dollar at a fixed parity.
There are several commercial banks, development banks, and insurance
companies in the country, most of which are located in Djibouti city.
The country is a popular business and finance centre in the region,
as its banking and finance laws tend to be less restrictive than those
of other countries. Subsequently, foreign businesspersons, particularly
those from neighbouring countries, have utilized Djiboutian banks as
financial havens for investment capital and as centres for generating
import transactions in order to avoid the more regulated banking systems
of their respective countries. The quality of the country’s
telecommunication services also benefits the business sector.
Since 1982 Djibouti has suffered from an overall trade deficit.
Because of limitations in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors,
the countrymust import almost all goods intended for final consumption.
Imports include food and beverages, machinery and transportation
equipment, electric appliances, and petroleum products. Exports include
aircraft parts, animal hides and skins, and live animals. Many goods
listed as exports are reexports destined for neighbouring countries.
Important trading partners include Somalia, Ethiopia, India, and China.
A darker side of Djibouti’s trade habits concerns its daily
importation from Ethiopia of the mild narcotic known as khat (qat; Catha
edulis). This item of trade, which is managed by a government-sanctioned
private syndicate, constitutes a sizable part of Djibouti’s total
imports. The Djiboutian government continues to support the khat trade
because it is estimated to employ as much as almost one-tenth of the
country’s working population and contributes to a windfall in government
revenue through taxes.
Labour and taxation
Djibouti’s high unemployment rate—estimated to be anywhere from
almost three-fifths to more than four-fifths of the country’s
workforce—is further exacerbated by the thousands of illegal migrants
who go to Djibouti and are willing to accept subminimum wages.
Tax revenue in Djibouti funds more than half the annual budget.
Sources of revenue include indirect taxes, direct taxes, transit taxes,
and harbour dues and related fees.
Transportation and telecommunications
Djibouti’s title as a regional trade hub is built upon its modern
international port and the Djibouti–Addis Ababa railway. There is also
much unrecorded transshipment, via camels, dhows, and trucks, to
Djibouti’s road network comprises about 2,000 miles (3,000 km) of
roads, of which less than half is paved. Primary routes include a paved
road linking Tadjoura and the north with the capital, and the Grand Bara
road, which links the capital with the south.
The Djibouti–Addis Ababa railway is an important source of revenue
for Djibouti. It is jointly owned by the governments of Djibouti and
Ethiopia and has been upgraded with the financial support of the
European Union. Despite these upgrades, however, the line has continued
to deteriorate, affecting both passenger and freight traffic. Still, the
railway serves as an important economic lifeline for landlocked
Ethiopia, especially in the wake of rising border tensions with the
neighbouring coastal country of Eritrea that began in 1998.
The port of Djibouti is a free-trade zone with modern container and
refrigeration facilities and a rail link to Ethiopia. The international
port provides capabilities for bunkering and the transshipment of goods
to other countries in the region. Attempts at diversification—including
the construction of new container terminals, the refurbishment of
docking berths, and the inauguration of a new port with a deepwater
container facilities and an oil and gas terminal at nearby Doralé—have
centred on capturing a larger share of the worldwide transshipment of
goods along the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden.
Djibouti has several small airports throughout the country that
provide access to domestic air service. There is an international
airport located at Ambouli, near Djibouti city.
Djibouti’s international telecommunications services are some of the
best in sub-Saharan Africa, designed to support the country’s position
as a financial and business hub. An earth station links Djibouti to the
Arab Satellite Communication Organization (Arabsat). Djibouti is also
linked to the submarine South East Asia–Middle East–Western Europe–3
(SEA-ME-WE-3) telecommunications system.
With regard to personal communication, mobile phone use is far more
prevalent than landline use and continues to increase. Internet usage
outside the business realm is limited but growing.
Government and society
Djibouti did not adopt a constitution until 1992, 15 years after
having achieved independence. Prior to that the country was governed by
nine constitutional articles that had been adopted in 1981. Under the
constitution the president, who serves as head of state and head of
government, is elected by universal suffrage for a period of six years
and may serve no more than two terms. The president nominates and is
assisted by a prime minister. The National Assembly is the legislative
arm of the government and comprises 65 members who are presided over by
the prime minister. Assembly members are elected by universal suffrage
for a period of five years.
The country is divided into six administrative units: five régions
(Ali Sabieh, Arta, Dikhil, Tadjourah, and Obock) and Djibouti city.
The judiciary is divided into three separate court systems. A
customary court system maintains a trial level in Djibouti city and each
region, as well as an appellate level in Djibouti city. These courts are
responsible only for civil matters. A second court system, based on
Sharīʿah, deals with family matters that fall under the jurisdiction of
the Islamic faith. Although presided over by a kadi (a Muslim judge),
this system is similar to the customary court system in that it includes
both trial and appellate levels. The third court system is Western in
origin, heavily patterned after the French judicial system. The Supreme
Court constitutes the top court of appeals for this system. Its
jurisdiction includes appeals from both the customary and Sharīʿah court
From 1981 until 1992 Djibouti had a single-party system, with the
Popular Assembly for Progress (Rassemblement Populaire pour le Progrès;
RPP) being the sole legal party. During this time deputies to the
National Assembly could be elected only from a list supplied by the RPP;
abstention from voting was the only legal form of opposition.
The 1992 constitution officially inaugurated a multiparty political
system that authorized competition between four political parties.
Although it was a significant departure from the single-party rule of
1977–92, critics noted that Djibouti largely remained a de facto
single-party political system, with the ruling party maintaining wide
powers. In 2002 the restriction on the number of parties was lifted,
allowing for the creation of many new legally recognized political
Women and minorities are able to participate in the political
process, although representation tends to be disproportionate. In the
mid-2000s, women held one-tenth of National Assembly seats. Women have
also served in cabinet positions and as president of the Supreme Court.
Minorities have held National Assembly seats as well as a number of
Djibouti’s army and security forces fall under the direct control of
the president as commander in chief. The Djiboutian Armed Forces
comprise army, navy, and air force contingents as well as a National
Security Force; the army is by far the largest branch. There are also
paramilitary forces. Djiboutian forces have participated in missions as
United Nations Peacekeeping Forces.
Djibouti also hosts international forces. France has long had a
military presence in the country stemming from when Djibouti was a
French colony. In the wake of the September 11 attacks in the United
States in 2001 and the subsequent international campaign to combat
further acts of terror, the Djiboutian government has allowed the United
States to station troops in the country. Germany also has a small number
of troops stationed in Djibouti.
Health and welfare
Historically, Djiboutians on average have been better off than the
populations of their immediate neighbours. There are still problems,
however. Many Djiboutians live in poor housing with inadequate water and
sanitation. The infant mortality rate is high because of diarrhea, acute
respiratory infections, malaria, and nutritional deficiencies. For the
general population, tuberculosis is a major health problem, as are other
respiratory diseases, diarrhea, and HIV/AIDS. About four-fifths of the
country’s population has access to health care; that figure is
considerably lower in rural areas. Djibouti city has a hospital and
several primary care clinics, and local dispensaries serve the rural
The widespread chewing of khat in Djibouti presents some health and
societal problems. There is the obvious issue of physical side effects
associated with prolonged usage that have a negative impact on one’s
health. Some studies have indicated that most adult male Djiboutians
spend more than five hours a day chewing khat, with the country’s high
level of unemployment thought to be partially to blame for the pervasive
habit. There is also a problem with khat usage by the portion of the
Djiboutian workforce that is gainfully employed, as it is widely
recognized that use of the drug severely hinders labour productivity.
Six years of primary education begin at age six. This is followed by
seven years of secondary education that begin with a four-year cycle and
continue with an additional three-year cycle. Although efforts have been
made to increase school enrollment and attendance, it is estimated that
fewer than half of primary-school-age children obtain an education.The
University of Djibouti (2006) offers undergraduate and postgraduate
programs. More than two-thirds of the adult population is literate.
Djibouti is renowned for its delicate multicoloured textiles, which
are made into saronglike garments called futa. These garments are sold
in the capital’s colourful central market.
The cuisine of Djibouti mingles African and French influences to
produce meals that might include roast lamb with a delicate yogurt
sauce, lentil stew, flatbread, and cucumber salad, served with mineral
water and fruit juice. The souk (marketplace) of Djibouti city is famed
for its spicy oven-baked fish. The capital also houses several
high-quality Vietnamese, Chinese, and Lebanese restaurants, making it a
somewhat remote but altogether fascinating destination for gourmands.
Muslim feasts and holidays, including ʿĪd al-Fiṭr, which marks the
end of Ramadan, and ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā, which marks the culmination of the
hajj, are celebrated by Djibouti’s predominant Muslim population. In
addition to these, other major holidays in the country include
Independence Day, which is celebrated on June 27.
The arts and cultural institutions
Among students of literature, Djibouti is best known for having been
the sometime home of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, who lived in
Djibouti for several years. Rimbaud lends his name to a cultural centre
housing a small library and museum, on the grounds of which an annual
music festival takes place. This festival draws performers from all over
the country, and live recordings of headliner acts have proved popular
with international audiences. Among the best-known performers are the
Soukouss Vibration Band, Dinkara, Aïdarous, Père Robert, and
Passengers—the last a Rastafarian group that performs reggae tunes by
Bob Marley and other Jamaican artists, with lyrics translated into the
Somali language. The government sponsors several organizations dedicated
to the preservation of traditional culture and dance.
Sports and recreation
Athletics is a major component of Djiboutian society. The most
popular sport in Djibouti is running, and during the 1980s Djiboutian
runners enjoyed a considerable amount of success. Ahmed Salah, the most
accomplished Djiboutian marathoner, won several international events,
including the first world marathon championship in 1985.
Football (soccer) has long been popular as a spectator sport. The
Djiboutian national team participated in its first international
competition in 1998. Tennis is developing a following, although access
to tennis courts and equipment remains limited. Pétanque is also
extremely popular. Similar to bocci ball, the game features players who
take turns rolling a ball as close as possible to a target ball. Every
night around the city, groups of Djiboutians play pétanque under the
streetlights. Other sports favoured in Djibouti include volleyball,
handball, basketball, and judo. Volleyball and handball each have active
leagues, but basketball is less organized, largely because of the lack
of suitable courts.
Djibouti made its first Olympic appearance at the 1984 Summer Games
in Los Angeles. Its runners have had strong showings, and, at the 1988
Summer Games in Seoul, Salah won the country’s first medal, a bronze in
the men’s marathon.
Media and publishing
Djibouti’s only television and radio broadcast company, which offers
programming in French, Arabic, Afar, and Somali, is state-run, as is the
daily French-language newspaper, La Nation. Independent publications
include La Renouveau and La République, which are both weeklies.
Catherine C. Cutbill
Peter J. Schraeder
This discussion focuses on Djibouti since independence. For a
more detailed treatment of earlier periods and of the country in its
regional context, see eastern Africa, history of.
Independence and the Gouled presidency (1977–99)
Balancing ethnic tensions
On June 27, 1977, the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas
became independent, taking the name Djibouti, with Hassan Gouled Aptidon
as president. On the eve of independence, Djibouti’s viability as a
sovereign state was questionable. However, fears that the Afar and the
Issa Somali would become pawns in a struggle between the republic’s
rival neighbours, Ethiopia and Somalia, did not materialize. No
Djiboutian political leader, either Afar or Somali, ever condoned
unification with either of the larger states. Indeed, Djibouti
established a peaceful international profile through a policy of strict
neutrality in regional affairs. In keeping with friendship treaties with
both Somalia and Ethiopia, the government refused to support armed
groups opposing the neighbouring regimes, and it hosted negotiations
between Somalia’s and Ethiopia’s leaders that resulted in a series of
accords in 1988.
Djibouti’s balanced posture in external relations was reflected in
its internal politics. Gouled, an Issa Somali, was elected to two
consecutive terms as president in 1981 and 1987. Barkat Gourad Hamadou,
an Afar serving as prime minister since 1978, was reappointed in 1987.
Power appeared to be shared, with ministry appointments following a
formula designed to maintain ethnic balance.
In the first years of self-government, though, ethnic tensions were
evident. By 1978 the state had experienced two cabinet crises and
changes of prime minister. Those ousted were Afars accused of fomenting
ethnic strife. After opposition parties were banned in 1981, ethnic
conflict in the political arena was for the most part minimal. However,
Issa predominance in the civil service, the armed forces, and the
Popular Assembly for Progress (Rassemblement Populaire pour le Progrès;
RPP)—now the only legally recognized political party—was only slightly
masked, and occasional tremors of social unrest disturbed Djibouti’s
Urban development and challenges
Challenges to Djibouti’s stability could not be reduced to
traditional Afar and Issa enmity; signs of the serious problems facing
the young nation were also to be found in the urban demography of its
capital. On the outskirts of the city, an expansive squatter community
known as Balbala, which originally developed just beyond the barbed-wire
boundary erected by the French colonial administration to prevent
migration to the capital, tripled in size within a decade after
independence. In 1987 it was officially incorporated into the city, with
the promise of development of basic water and sanitary services. Its
growth continued because of a high birth rate, rural migration, and
displacement of persons from the urban core.
Conditions in some of the densely populated quarters of Djibouti city
were only marginally better than in Balbala. Structures were limited to
wood and corrugated iron by colonial, and later national, restrictions
on the construction and location of permanent dwellings. Distinct ethnic
enclaves were identifiable: the retail centre surrounding the main
mosque (Hamoudi Mosque) and the former caravan terminus (Harbi Square),
housing the Arab community; the neighbourhoods radiating beyond this
area, settled by the Isaaq, Gadaboursi, and Issa Somali; and the quarter
known as Arhiba, built by the French to house the Afar dockworkers
recruited from the north of the colony in the 1960s.
As the urban infrastructure was developed, and as
government-subsidized housing was realized through international aid
programs, conditions in the old districts of the city improved. Yet the
needs remained immense, and progress was accompanied by perceptions of
ethnic favouritism. Discontent was also fostered by a high cost of
living, unemployment, and a widening gap in living conditions between
the majority of the population and the new urban elite.
Multiparty politics and civil war
Djibouti’s status as a single-party state ended when a new
constitution promulgated in 1992 introduced multiparty politics,
although the number of political parties allowed to participate in the
political process was initially limited to four. In the subsequent
multiparty presidential election held the following year, Gouled emerged
victorious over opposition candidates by a wide margin of victory.
Meanwhile, the country’s ethnic tensions had continued to simmer, and
in late 1991 the Afar Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy
(Front pour la Restauration de l’Unité et de la Démocratie; FRUD) took
up arms against the Issa-dominated government; the conflict quickly
developed into civil war. By mid-1992 FRUD forces occupied some
two-thirds of the country, although the territory that they held
consisted of sparsely populated rural areas. In 1994 internal dissent
within FRUD’s leadership caused the group to splinter. Later that year a
power-sharing agreement signed by the government and primary FRUD group
largely ended the conflict, although the final peace agreement would not
be signed until 2001. As part of the 1994 agreement, some FRUD leaders
became ministers in the government, and FRUD was allowed to register as
a legal political party in 1996.
Djibouti under Guelleh
In 1999 Gouled announced that he would not stand in the presidential
election scheduled for April, and the RPP nominated Ismail Omar Guelleh,
a former cabinet secretary and Gouled’s nephew, as its candidate.
Guelleh easily beat his opponent, Moussa Ahmed Idriss, who represented a
small coalition of opposition parties. In 2001 the long-serving prime
minister Hamadou resigned for health reasons, and Guelleh named Dileita
Muhammad Dileita, an accomplished public servant, to the post. Dileita,
like his predecessor, was an Afar, and Guelleh’s appointment of him to
the post maintained the balance of power between the Afars and Somali
Issas that Gouled had established after independence.
In 2002 the previous restriction on the number of political parties
was lifted, which allowed for the creation of many new legally
recognized political parties and offered the potential for change in
Djibouti’s political landscape. One such change was the creation of the
Union for the Presidential Majority (Union pour la Majorité
Présidentielle; UMP) coalition, which included both RRP and FRUD and was
formed in preparation for the 2003 legislative elections. Despite the
problems affecting Djiboutians at the time, including a serious drought
and food shortage, it was the presence of U.S. troops in the country
that appeared to be the dominant campaign issue. U.S. troops had been in
Djibouti since 2002 to utilize the country’s strategic location during
the U.S.-led global campaign against terrorism. The opposition argued
against the government’s decision to allow the troops in the country,
saying it could provoke acts of terrorism against Djiboutians. Despite
the argument, the UMP prevailed in the election, taking all
parliamentary seats. Although Guelleh continued to cultivate diplomatic
ties with the United States, he was openly critical of its role in the
Iraq War that began in 2003, citing the lack of UN approval for the
operation, and he did not allow the U.S. to launch any attacks from
Djibouti. Whether the presence of U.S. troops would be an issue in
future elections was not immediately known: the next scheduled
election—the 2005 presidential poll—was boycotted by the opposition, who
cited the need for greater transparency and electoral change. As a
result, Guelleh was the only candidate, and he won 100 percent of the
Djibouti’s somewhat acrimonious relationship with neighbouring
Eritrea (a former Ethiopian province that had gained independence in
1993) worsened in April 2008 when Eritrea amassed troops along the Ras
Doumeira border area of Djibouti; this action resulted in border
skirmishes that in June led to the deaths of more than 30 people and
injuries to many more. Eritrea’s actions were widely criticized, notably
by the African Union, the United Nations Security Council, and the Arab
Catherine C. Cutbill