Djibouti, history of

      history of Djibouti from independence in 1977 to the present.

      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. Hassan Gouled Aptidon, 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. Since the banning of opposition parties in 1981, ethnic conflict in the political arena has been for the most part minimal. However, Issa predominance in the civil service, the armed forces, and the RPP was only slightly masked, and occasional tremors of social unrest disturbed Djibouti's superficial calm.

      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 owing to a high birth rate, rural migration, and displacement of persons from the urban core.

      Conditions in the densely populated “native” quarters of Djibouti city (Djibouti) 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 Issaq, 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.

      Finally, government efforts to assist the people in desolate rural areas were complicated by the presence of large numbers of Ethiopian and Somalian refugees. Under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, thousands of persons who were displaced by the Ogaden dispute of the late 1970s and the droughts of the early 1980s were repatriated. However, continued civil upheavals in Somalia precipitated more refugee movement into the republic. Thus, the chronic conflicts of the troubled Horn of Africa encumbered the realization of Djibouti's national goals of unity, equality, and peace.

Catherine C. Cutbill

Additional Reading
Virginia Thompson and Richard Adloff, Djibouti and the Horn of Africa (1968), is the standard English-language text on the history of Djibouti, although it is now dated and lacks detail and depth of analysis; it can be supplemented by Robert Tholomier (Robert Saint Véran), Djibouti, Pawn of the Horn of Africa, abridged ed. (1981; originally published in French, 1977), covering the French Territory of the Afars and Issas from 1967 to 1977. Events since the 1950s have yet to be chronicled in a single source in English. W. Sheldon Clarke, “The Republic of Djibouti: An Introduction to Africa's Newest State and a Review of Related Literature and Sources,” A Current Bibliography on African Affairs, 10(1):3–31 (1977–78), provides a useful overview and a good, though dated, bibliography, with many French works. The following French sources are also recommended: Centre des Hautes Études sur l'Afrique et l'Asie Modernes, France, Océan Indien, Mer Rouge: études (1986), with an extensive background chapter on Djibouti; Philippe Oberlé and Pierre Hugot, Histoire de Djibouti: des origines à la République (1985), the most comprehensive history of Djibouti published to date; and Olivier Weber (ed.), Corne de l'Afrique (1987), with several articles devoted to history, culture, and contemporary Djibouti life and with discussions developing the regional context.Catherine C. Cutbill

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Universalium. 2010.

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