BHM 2015 – #4 Djibouti

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Djibouti is one of the smaller countries of Africa, slightly smaller than New Jersey, located within the Horn of Africa, which is Easternmost, bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. Nearly 90% of Djibouti is volcanic desert. Minor mountain ranges extend from the coastal plain to the Ethiopian highlands, where Moussa Ali, the highest point in the country, rises to 2,063 m (6,768 ft.). The coastline is deeply indented by the Gulf of Tadjoura at the tip of the Red Sea. Djibouti is one of the hottest places on Earth, with an average annual temperature of nearly 90° F. The average annual rainfall is less than 5 in, and vegetation is sparse.





Strategically, Djibouti is in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes and close to Arabian oilfields; it is also the terminus of rail traffic into Ethiopia. Djibouti provides services as both a transit port for the region and an international transshipment and refueling center. Imports, exports, and re-exports – primarily of coffee from landlocked neighbor Ethiopia – represent 70% of port activity at Djibouti’s container terminal. In addition to oil as a natural resource, Djibouti also has gold, clay, granite, limestone, marble, salt, diatomite, gypsum, pumice. The country is mainly desert with some mountains.


Due to its strategic location at the mouth of the Bab el Mandeb gateway to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, Djibouti also hosts various foreign military bases. Camp Lemonnier is a United States Naval Expeditionary Base, situated at Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport and home to the Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) of the U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM). In 2011, Japan also opened a local naval base staffed by 180 personnel to assist in marine defense. This initiative is expected to generate $30 million in revenue for the Djiboutian government.


Djibouti is a country of 800,000 people with three quarters of Djiboutians live in the capital city of Djibouti.  94% of all Djiboutians are Muslim, and mainly peopled by Somali-Issa (60%) in the South , and the Afar (35%) in the North. Both are Muslim, and both were traditionally pastoral nomads. The Afars, who lean politically toward Ethiopia, and the Issas, with traditional affinity to Somalia, have often fought fiercely. Djibouti has also suffered economically from an influx of refugees from Ethiopia and Somalia.  Because of the desert climate, most food has to be imported. Most Djiboutians are employed in service industries supporting the French and US military presence there.


The land that is now Djibouti was known in Egyptian times as the Land of Punt, an old kingdom and trading partner of Egypt, producing and exporting gold, aromatic resins, blackwood, ebony, ivory, and wild animals around 2500 BC.  (giraffes, baboons, hippopotami and leopards). Islam was introduced to the region 3000 years later in the late 800’s to the two peoples living there, the Somali-Issa and the Afar. The Afar had chiefdoms and sultanates in the area while the Somali-Issa had ties to the Adal Sultanate centered on the city of Zeila across the Somalia border.


In the late 19th century, France made treaties with both the Issas and the Afars to create a French protectorate, the colony of French Somaliland. This was a strategic placement for the French to give them a foothold along the Red Sea between Italian Eritrea and British Somaliland, and across the Strait of Yemen to Arabia, which was part of the Ottoman Empire.


The construction of the Imperial Ethiopian Railway west into Ethiopia turned the port of Djibouti into a boomtown of 15,000 at a time when Harar was the only city in Ethiopia to exceed that. The railroad continued to operate following the Italian conquest of Ethiopia. What followed afterwards was a heavy involvement of Djibouti in WWII when Italy, France and England fought over the territory with blockades, starvation and bombing. Following the tumult of the Second World War, the area became an overseas territory of France in 1946. In 1967, French Somaliland was renamed the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas and, in 1977, it became the independent country of Djibouti, despite conflicting Ethiopian and Somali claims. It later tried to remain neutral in conflicts between and within Ethiopia and Somalia. In 1981, Djibouti officially became a one-party state headed by a directly elected president. The country was the base of French operations during the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

In the early 1990s, tensions over government representation led to armed conflict between Djibouti’s ruling People’s Rally for Progress (PRP) party and the Afar-based Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD) opposition group which soon gained control of much of the country, but not the government. In 1994, the FRUD split into a moderate and extreme groups. The moderate group made agreements with the government and leaders took government positions. However, the extremist group still waged wars. On May 12, 2001, President Ismail Omar Guelleh presided over the signing of what is termed the final peace accord officially ending the decade-long civil war between the government and the armed faction of the FRUD


In the presidential election held April 8, 2005, Guelleh was re-elected to a second 6-year term at the head of a multi-party coalition that included the FRUD and other major parties. In March 2006, Djibouti held its first regional elections and began implementing a decentralization plan. The broad pro-government coalition, including FRUD candidates, again ran unopposed when the government refused to meet opposition preconditions for participation. In the 2008 elections, the opposition Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP) party boycotted the election, leaving all 65 seats to the ruling RPP. Voter turnout figures were disputed. Guelleh was re-elected in the 2011 presidential election.


Currently, political power is shared by a Somali president and an Afar prime minister, with an Afar career diplomat as Foreign Minister and other cabinet posts roughly divided. However, Issas are predominate in the government, civil service, and the ruling party. That, together with a shortage of non-government employment, has bred resentment and continued political competition between the Issa and the Afars.


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