Djibouti (country), republic in northeastern Africa, strategically located at the strait of Bab el Mandeb, which links the Red Sea with the Gulf of Aden. The small country takes its name from its capital and only large city, Djibouti. Located at the intersection of trade routes connecting the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea, and Africa with the Middle East, Djibouti has long been a cultural and commercial crossroads.
The People of Djibouti
The population of Djibouti was 466,900 in 2004, yielding a population density of 21 persons per sq km (55 per sq mi).The population is 84 percent (2002) urban. The capital, principal port, and only sizable city is Djibouti, located on the southern side of the mouth of the Gulf of Tadjoura.
Roughly 60 percent of Djiboutians are ethnic Somali, the predominant group in the south, and about 30 percent are Afar, the main group in the north. Arab, French, and other minorities make up the remaining population. Of the Somali, more than half belong to the dominant Issa clan. Djibouti’s official languages are French and Arabic, but Somali is the most widely spoken language in the south, including the capital. The Afar language prevails in the north. Almost all Djiboutians are Sunni Muslims.
Education is free and, theoretically, compulsory for six years of primary schooling starting at age 6, but in 2000–2001, the latest year for which figures are available, only 40 percent of primary school-aged children attended school. Only 19 percent of the teenage population attended secondary school. In 2000 only 51.4 percent of Djibouti’s adult population was literate. Djibouti has no colleges or universities.
Historically, most Afar and Somali lived a nomadic life in patriarchal societies organized into clans. They herded sheep, goats, and camels. Until recent years, the Afar and Somali languages lacked written forms. These two nomadic peoples consequently developed rich rural traditions of folk music, dance, and oral literature. Somali are renowned for their poetry. These rural traditions survive today, although most Djiboutians now live in the capital city.
Djibouti lies at a major global crossroads where, some 100,000 years ago, early humans migrated from Africa to the Middle East. Livestock herding, which remains important to Djibouti’s people, was introduced to this region by nomads more than 10,000 years ago. The ancient region’s small ports, inhabited by the ancestors of the Afars, hosted merchants from Persia, Arabia, Ethiopia, and the Mediterranean. In the first centuries ad, a series of kingdoms dominated the region and its rich trade, paying tribute to the powerful inland kingdom of Aksum, in what is now Ethiopia. Arab traders brought Islam to the coastal ports by the 9th century and founded the Islamic sultanate of Adal at Zeila, a port to the southeast in what is now Somalia. Somali people moved into what is now southern Djibouti by the 14th century. By 1500 Adal ruled Djibouti. Starting in 1527 Ahmed al-Ghazi, the ruler of Adal, led Afar and Somali troops in a holy war against Christian Ethiopia. The Muslims won a major victory in 1529, destroying an entire Ethiopian army, and they went on to capture several Ethiopian provinces. However, in 1543 an Ethiopian force with Portuguese assistance defeated and killed Ahmed, and Adal collapsed. Subsequently, small Afar sultanates, including Obock and Tadjoura, emerged on the northern side of the Gulf of Tadjoura. These sultanates still survive, though the sultans have little formal power. During the second half of the 16th century, European merchants began a lucrative trade in Ethiopian coffee and perfumes with these Djiboutian sultanates.
France sought to challenge British dominance of the Indian Ocean trade by establishing a base at the strategic entrance to the Red Sea, so France signed a treaty with the sultan of Obock in 1862. Beginning in 1881 France set up a trading mission in Obock and concluded a series of treaties with other local rulers that recognized French control. In 1888 France established the colony of French Somaliland—encompassing what is now Djibouti—and chose the town of Djibouti as the colony’s capital in 1892 because it offered a good site for a rail link to Addis Ababa. The French completed the railroad in 1917, and the port of Djibouti grew rapidly. Large numbers of Somalis and Arabs migrated to the port to take advantage of the opportunities for employment and trade.
French rule met some resistance from Afar and Issa nomads, but the French mainly ignored the interior of the territory and focused their attention on the port. In 1946 France made French Somaliland an overseas territory with limited self-rule. Ethnic conflicts soon arose over representation in the territory’s legislature. The French adopted a policy of favoritism toward the Afars because the Somali population generally sought independence from France and possible unification with Somalia. In a 1967 referendum, Djiboutians voted to remain under French administration, and the colony’s name was changed to the French Territory of the Afars and Issas. Ten years later, however, increased nationalist sentiment and international pressure led France to hold another referendum, and this time Djiboutians overwhelmingly voted for independence. The Republic of Djibouti achieved full independence on June 27, 1977.
The people of Djibouti elected Hassan Gouled Aptidon, an Issa, as its first president. Gouled quickly monopolized power and established a single-party state in 1981. Gouled dominated the RPP—the sole party—and rewarded his supporters with patronage. The population of the capital city grew, and the subsequent lack of clean water, sanitation, and adequate employment caused growing dissatisfaction and tension. Afars and other dissidents organized resistance movements, but the government acted to suppress any opposition.
Beginning in 1991 an armed Afar rebellion destabilized Djibouti. By mid-1992 Afar rebels controlled two-thirds of Djibouti’s territory. Later that year the government, under pressure from France, held a referendum in which voters approved a new constitution permitting opposition parties. However, the constitution required opposition groups to gain government approval in order to compete in elections, and the government rejected the application of FRUD, the party of the Afar rebels. The government defeated the rebels in a 1993 military offensive. In late 1994 the two sides signed a peace agreement. However, over the next two years several factions split off from FRUD and vowed to continue armed resistance. Under the peace agreement, the government granted cabinet posts to two Afar leaders, incorporated former rebels into the military, and recognized FRUD as a legitimate political party. With its economy devastated by the war, Djibouti was forced to cut government spending to gain international financial assistance. Government austerity measures further worsened Djibouti’s chronic unemployment and poverty.
Gouled’s health began to deteriorate in 1995, and in early 1999 he announced that he would not run for another term. Ismail Omar Guelleh, an aide of Gouled’s who had built a power base within the RPP, won a solid victory in presidential elections in April 1999. The outbreak of border clashes between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998 proved a boon to Djibouti, which became virtually the only outlet for Ethiopia’s external trade during the ensuing war. Growing port traffic improved the country’s economy, but persistent unemployment and ongoing attacks by Afar rebel factions continued to threaten Djibouti’s stability.
Climate and Tourist Spots
The country has a climate that is hot and dry year-round, but it is especially hot and dry in the summer, when winds blow from the inland desert. In the capital, average daily temperatures range from 23° to 29°C (73° to 84°F) in January and from 31° to 41°C (87° to 106°F) in July. Annual rainfall ranges from 127 mm (5 in) in the capital to 380 mm (15 in) in the mountains. Djibouti lies in an earthquake zone along several major faults. The land is mostly rocky desert with scattered drought-tolerant grasses and shrubs. Wildlife includes jackals, hyenas, ostriches, and gazelles.
Djibouti’s volcanic desert soils are among the least hospitable in Africa. The soil is poor, and there are regular droughts. Less than half of the population has easy access to safe drinking water.
Djibouti has an area of 23,200 sq km (8,960 sq mi). It extends 190 km (120 mi) from north to south and 225 km (140 mi) from east to west. The country is bordered by Eritrea to the north; Ethiopia to the north, west, and south; and Somalia to the southeast. To its east lies the Gulf of Aden, an arm of the Indian Ocean. The Gulf of Tadjoura extends over 100 km (60 mi) into Djibouti from the east coast. Plateaus and mountains rise above narrow coastal plains to the north and south of the gulf. The country’s highest point, Moussa Ali (2,063 m/6,768 ft), is on the northern border, at the junction of the Ethiopian and Eritrean boundaries. Western Djibouti is a desert lowland with depressions containing several salt lakes. The largest, Lake Abbé, lies on the Ethiopian border. Another, Lake ‘Asal, is the lowest point in Africa at 153 m (502 ft) below sea level. Djibouti has a potential for generating geothermal energy and limited deposits of gypsum, copper, and other ores, which are not exploited. Very little of the country’s land is arable, and there are no regularly flowing rivers or streams. Djibouti relies on an underground aquifer for fresh water.