Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Djibouti is a small republic situated just north-west of the Horn of Africa on the strait of Bab el-Mandeb, the gateway to the Red Sea. It borders Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia (the northern, self-proclaimed independent Republic of Somaliland). Barren of natural resources, its strategic location has secured a steady flow of foreign aid and port fees.
The Afar and Issa peoples living at the mouth of the Red Sea were among the first Africans to adopt Islam. Arising from its interests in the Sea, France began establishment of a protectorate in today’s Djibouti in the 1880s, and in 1892 the territory was named French Somaliland. During World War II the area was variously controlled by Vichy France and Allied Forces. In 1957 the colony was re-organized to allow greater self-rule. The people of French Somaliland voted in a 1958 referendum to become an overseas territory of France, and although sentiment for independence grew throughout the 1960s, that decision was confirmed by 60 per cent of voters in another referendum in 1967. That same year, Paris renamed the territory the ‘French Territory of Afars and Issas’. But anti-colonial sentiment grew, and following another referendum in 1977, the ‘Republic of Djibouti’ became independent.
Before independence the Afar community had a greater share of political influence, but afterwards the reverse was true. President Hassan Gouled Aptidon forced many Afar out of the government, administration and army in the 1970s. His authoritarian government became dominated by Issa loyalists, and in 1981 banned the opposition Parti Populaire, which it falsely claimed was an Afar ethnic pressure group. An Afar-based armed rebellion that called for a more equitable distribution of resources began in the north in late 1991 and soon gained control of much of the country. In 1992 Gouled introduced a multi-party constitution and in 1993 he won a fourth term in Djibouti’s first multi-party presidential election, although the election was boycotted by much of the opposition.
Civil strife continued. Dozens of villagers were reportedly killed in 1993 as civilians became the main targets of the army in its war against the Afar armed movement, the Front pour la Restauration de l’Unité et de la Democratie (FRUD). This followed the failure of a government offensive seeking to dislodge FRUD guerrillas from the Mabla Mountains. Although Prime Minister Barkot Goured was an Afar, he and two other Afar ministers were powerless to prevent extrajudicial killings, the rape of Afar women, torture and the internment of civilians. Traditional Afar leaders spoke out for the first time and protested.
By initially refusing to enter talks with FRUD, the Djibouti government lost financial aid from France and the political support of neighbouring countries. Economically pressed, a peace accord was signed in December 1994 that ended most of the fighting. A power-sharing deal brought FRUD into the government, although hard-liners continued to resist until 2000, one year after President Ismael Omar Guelleh was elected to succeed his uncle, Gouled. A final peace accord was signed in 2001.
Djibouti has experienced large influxes of refugees from Ethiopia and Somalia, who were thought to constitute around 15 per cent of the population. In September 2003 the government launched a crackdown to deport Somalis and Ethiopians. Some accused the United States government of applying pressure for the action out of fear that foreign radicals might target its military base, established in Djibouti in 2002.
Main languages: French (official), Arabic (official), Somali, Afar (Cushitic)
Main religions: Islam, syncretic Islam, Christianity
Main ethnic groups are Afar and non-Issa Somalis, comprising Isaaq and Gadabuursi, and sub-clans of the Dir.
The population is mainly divided between two groups, Afar of the north and dominant Issa (Ciise) and other Somali-speakers in the south and the capital. Both are Muslim and were traditionally pastoral nomads who roamed across large areas without regard for political boundaries. Afar belong to the same ethnic group as the neighbouring Ethiopian and Eritrean Danakil. They are disproportionately rural and nomadic people, and have been slower to enjoy economic gains.
Bordered by Ethiopia, Somalia (the northern, self-proclaimed independent Republic of Somaliland) and Eritrea, Djibouti has been adversely affected by regional tensions. It owes its raison d’être to foreign interests and its continued existence to foreign aid.
Running unopposed amid an opposition boycott, President Ismael Omar Guelleh was elected to a second term in office in 2005 with 100 per cent of the vote. The government runs the main newspaper, and receives favourable coverage from state radio and television. Facing intimidation, journalists routinely practice self-censorship.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Association pour la défense des droits de l’homme et des libertés (ADDHL)
Tel: +253-353-449, 355-009
Sources and further reading
Amnesty International, Djibouti: Torture and Political Imprisonment, London, Amnesty International, 1992.