U.S. Department of State
Background Notes: Djibouti, March 1996
Bureau of African Affairs
Prepared and released by the Bureau of African Affairs,
Office of East African Affairs
Official Name: Republic of Djibouti
Area: 23,200 sq. km. (9,000 sq. mi.); about the size of New
Cities: Capital--Djibouti. Other cities--Dikhil, Ali-Sabieh, Obock,
Terrain: Coastal desert.
Climate: Torrid and dry.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Djiboutian(s).
Population (est.): 560,000.
Annual growth rate: 4.5%.
Ethnic groups: Somalis (Issaks, Issas, and Gadaboursis), Ethiopian
(Issas and Afars), Arab, French, and Italian.
Religions: Muslim 94%, Christian 6%.
Languages: French and Arabic (official); Somali and Afar widely
Health: Infant mortality rate--114/1,000. Life expectancy--50 yrs.
Work force: Small number of semi-skilled laborers at port, 3,000
railway workers organized. The majority of the population is not
Constitution: Ratified September 1992 by referendum.
Independence: June 27, 1977.
Branches: Executive--president. Legislative--65-member parliament,
cabinet, prime minister. Judicial--based on French civil law system,
traditional practices, and Islamic law.
Administrative subdivisions: 5 cercles (districts)--Ali-Sabieh, Dikhil,
Djibouti, Obock, and Tadjoura.
Political parties: People's Rally for Progress (RPP) established in 1981;
New Democratic Party (PRD) and the National Democratic Party
(PND) were both established in 1992; and the Front For The
Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD) established in 1996.
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
National holiday: June 27.
Flag: A white triangle, with a five-pointed red star within, extending
on the staff side. The remaining area has a light blue zone above a
light green zone.
GNP (1994 est.): $450 million.
Adjusted per capita income: $10,000 per capita for expatriates, $700
Natural resources: Minerals (salt, perlite, gypsum, limestone) and
energy resources (geothermal and solar).
Agriculture (less than 3% of GDP): Products--livestock, fishing, and
limited commercial crops, including fruits and vegetables.
Industry: Types--banking and insurance (40% of GDP), public
administration (34% of GDP), construction and public works,
manufacturing, commerce, and agriculture.
Trade (1994 est.): Imports $240.9 million, consists of basic
commodities, pharmaceutical drugs, durable and non-durable goods;
exports, $19.3 million, consists of everyday personal effects, household
effects, hides and skins, and coffee.
Major markets -- France, Ethiopia, Somalia and Arabian peninsula
Official exchange rate: Pegged at 177.721 Djibouti francs = U.S.$1
Able-bodied unemployed population: 50%.
More than half of the Republic of Djibouti's 560,000 inhabitants live in
the capital city. The indigenous population is divided between the
majority Somalis (predominantly of the Issa tribe, with minority Issak
and Gadaboursi representation) and the Afars (Danakils). All are
Cushitic-speaking peoples, and nearly all are Muslim. Among the
15,000 foreigners residing in Djibouti, the French are the most
numerous. Among the French are 3,400 troops.
The Republic of Djibouti gained its independence on June 27, 1977. It
is the successor to the French Territory of the Afars and Issas, which
was created in the first half of the 19th century as a result of French
interest in the Horn of Africa.
However, the history of Djibouti, recorded in poetry and songs of its
nomadic peoples, goes back thousands of years to a time when
Djiboutians traded hides and skins for the perfumes and spices of
ancient Egypt, India, and China. Through close contacts with the
Arabian peninsula for more than 1,000 years, the Somali and Afar
tribes in this region became the first on the African continent to adopt
It was Rochet d'Hericourt's exploration into Shoa (1839-42) that
marked the beginning of French interest in the African shores of the
Red Sea. Further exploration by Henri Lambert, French Consular
Agent at Aden, and Captain Fleuriot de Langle led to a treaty of
friendship and assistance between France and the sultans of Raheita,
Tadjoura, and Gobaad, from whom the French purchased the
anchorage of Obock (1862).
Growing French interest in the area took place against a backdrop of
British activity in Egypt and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. In
1884-85, France expanded its protectorate to include the shores of the
Gulf of Tadjoura and the Somaliland. Boundaries of the protectorate,
marked out in 1897 by France and Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia,
were affirmed further by agreements with Ethiopian Emperor Haile
Selassie I in 1945 and 1954.
The administrative capital was moved from Obock to Djibouti in 1896.
Djibouti, which has a good natural harbor and ready access to the
Ethiopian highlands, attracted trade caravans crossing East Africa as
well as Somali settlers from the south. The Franco-Ethiopian railway,
linking Djibouti to the heart of Ethiopia, was begun in 1897 and
reached Addis Ababa in June 1917, further facilitating the increase of
During the Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia in the 1930s and
during World War II, constant border skirmishes occurred between
French and Italian forces. The area was ruled by the Vichy (French)
government from the fall of France until December 1942, when French
Somaliland forces broke a Vichy blockade to join the Free French and
the Allied forces. A local battalion from Djibouti participated in the
liberation of France in 1944.
On July 22, 1957, the colony was reorganized to give the people
considerable self-government. On the same day, a decree applying the
Overseas Reform Act (Loi Cadre) of June 23, 1956, established a
territorial assembly that elected eight of its members to an executive
council. Members of the executive council were responsible for one or
more of the territorial services and carried the title of minister. The
council advised the French-appointed governor general.
In a September 1958 constitutional referendum, French Somaliland
opted to join the French community as an overseas territory. This act
entitled the region to representation by one deputy and one senator in
the French Parliament, and one counselor in the French Union
The first elections to the territorial assembly were held on November
23, 1958, under a system of proportional representation. In the next
assembly elections (1963), a new electoral law was enacted.
Representation was abolished in exchange for a system of straight
plurality vote based on lists submitted by political parties in seven
designated districts. Ali Aref Bourhan, allegedly of Turkish origin,
was selected to be the president of the executive council.
French President Charles de Gaulle's August 1966 visit to Djibouti was
marked by 2 days of public demonstrations by Somalis demanding
independence. On September 21, 1966, Louis Saget, appointed
governor general of the territory after the demonstrations, announced
the French Government's decision to hold a referendum to determine
whether the people would remain within the French Republic or
become independent. In March 1967, 60% chose to continue the
territory's association with France.
In July of that year, a directive from Paris formally changed the name
of the region to the French Territory of Afars and Issas. The directive
also reorganized the governmental structure of the territory, making the
senior French representative, formerly the governor general, a high
commissioner. In addition, the executive council was redesignated as
the council of government, with nine members.
In 1975, the French Government began to accommodate increasingly
insistent demands for independence. In June 1976, the territory's
citizenship law, which favored the Afar minority, was revised to reflect
more closely the weight of the Issa Somali. The electorate voted for
independence in a May 1977 referendum, and the Republic of Djibouti
was established on June 27, 1977.
In 1981, Hassen Gouled Aptidon was elected as President of Djibouti.
He was re-elected, unopposed, to a second 6-year term in April 1987
and to a third 6-year term in May 1993 multiparty elections. The
electorate approved the current constitution in September 1992. Many
laws and decrees from before independence remain in effect.
In early 1992, the government decided to permit multiple party politics
and agreed to the registration of four political parties. By the time of
the national assembly elections in December 1992, only three had
qualified. They are the Rassemblement Populaire Pour le Progres
(People's Rally for Progress) (RPP) which was the only legal party
from 1981 until 1992, the Parti du Renouveau Democratique (The
Party for Democratic Renewal) (PRD), and the Parti National
Democratique (National Democratic Party) (PND). Only the RPP and
the PRD contested the national assembly elections, and the PND
withdrew, claiming that there were too many unanswered questions on
the conduct of the elections and too many opportunities for government
fraud. The RPP won all 65 seats in the national assembly, with a
turnout of less than 50% of the electorate on a winner-take-all basis.
Currently, political power is shared by a Somali president and an Afar
prime minister, with cabinet posts roughly divided. However, it is the
Issas who presently dominate the government, civil service, and the
ruling party, a situation that has bred resentment and political
competition between the Somali Issas and the Afars.
In early November 1991, civil war erupted in Djibouti between the
government and a predominantly Afar rebel group (Front for the
Restoration of Unity and Democracy). The conflict concluded with a
peace accord in December 1994. The Afars won few concessions, the
most noteworthy of which was the appointment of two additional Afars
to cabinet posts.
Djibouti has its own armed forces, including a small army, which has
grown significantly since the start of the civil war. The country's
security also is assured by the continued presence of some 3,400
French troops, which includes a unit of the French Foreign Legion of
about 800 men.
The right to own property is respected in Djibouti, as are freedom of
religion and organized labor.
Although women in Djibouti enjoy a higher public status than in many
other Islamic countries, women's rights and family planning are not
high priorities. Few women hold senior positions. However, a
women's organization (Union Nationale Aicha Bogoreh) is active.
Principal Government Officials
President-- Hassan Gouled Aptidon
Prime Minister -- Barkat Gourad Hamadou
Foreign Affairs and Cooperation-- Mohamed Moussa Chehem
Ambassador to the United Nations and the United States -- Robleh
Djibouti's mission to the UN is located at 866 UN Plaza, Suite 4011,
New York, NY 10017 (tel. 212-753-3163). Djibouti's embassy in
Washington is located at Suite 515, 1156 15th Street, NW,
Washington, DC 20005 (tel. 202- 331-0270) (fax 202-331-0302).
Djibouti's fledgling economy depends on a large foreign expatriate
community, the maritime and commercial activities of the Port of
Djibouti, its airport, and the operation of the Addis Ababa-Djibouti
railroad. During the civil war (1991-1994), there was a significant
diversion of government budgetary resources from developmental and
social services to military needs. France is insisting that future aid be
conditional on an overhaul of Djibouti's dilapidated state finances in
conjunction with the International Monetary Fund. Agriculture and
industry are little developed, in part due to the harsh climate, high
production costs, unskilled labor, and limited natural resources. Only a
few mineral deposits exist in the country, and the arid soil is
unproductive--89% is desert wasteland, 10% is pasture, and 1% is
forested. Services and commerce provide most of the gross domestic
Djibouti's most important economic asset is its strategic location on the
shipping routes between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean --
the republic lies on the west side of the Bab-el-Mandeb, which
connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Its port remains an
important container shipment and transshipment point on the shipping
lanes transiting the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. It also functions as a
bunkering port and a small French naval facility. The decision by the
Saudi Arabian Government to improve its own port facilities in Jeddah
and Ethiopia's decision to promote its port at Assab recently have
decreased the volume of economic activity for the Port of Djibouti.
The Addis Ababa-Djibouti railroad is the only line serving central and
southeastern Ethiopia. The single-track railway -- a prime source of
employment -- occupies a prominent place in Ethiopia's internal
distribution system for domestic commodities such as cement, cotton
textiles, sugar, cereals and charcoal.
Principal exports from the region transiting Djibouti are coffee, salt,
hides, dried beans, cereals, other agricultural products, wax and salt.
Djibouti itself has few exports, and the majority of its imports come
from France. Most imports are consumed in Djibouti, and the
remainder goes to Ethiopia and northwestern Somalia. Djibouti's
unfavorable balance of trade is offset partially by invisible earnings
such as transit taxes and harbor dues. In 1995, U.S. exports to Djibouti
totaled $8/5 million while U.S. imports from Djibouti were less than
The city of Djibouti has the only paved airport in the republic. Djibouti
has one of the most liberal economic regimes in Africa, with almost
unrestricted banking and commerce sectors.
Military and economic agreements with France provide continued
security and economic assistance. Links with Arab states and east
Asian states, Japan and China in particular, are also welcome.
Because Djibouti is greatly affected by events that occur in Somalia
and Ethiopia, and vice versa, relations are delicate. With the fall of the
Siad Barre and Mengistu Governments in Somalia and Ethiopia in
1991, Djibouti found itself faced with national security threats due to
neighboring instability and a massive influx of refugees estimated at
100,000. In 1991, Djibouti hoped to play a key role in the transition
process toward peace in Somalia by hosting the Somali National
Reconciliation Conference, and the republic's role in assisting
Ethiopia's redevelopment will likely increase in the near future. As a
result of such regional conflicts, ties to other states and organizations
more removed from tensions of the Horn of Africa are particularly
In April 1977, the United States established a Consulate General in
Djibouti and at independence several months later raised its status to
Embassy. The first U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Djibouti
arrived in October 1980. The United States provides less than
$500,000 in economic support funds and military aid annually.
Djibouti has permitted the U.S. Navy access to its sea- and airports.
The importance of that access to the U.S. has grown, with an increased
U.S. naval presence in the Indian Ocean. The Djiboutian Government
has generally been supportive of U.S. and Western interests, as was
demonstrated during the Gulf crisis of 1990-1991.
Principal U.S. Officials
Ambassador -- Martin L. Cheshes
Deputy Chief of Mission -- Terri Robl
Political and Consular Officer -- Joel Maybury
Administrative Officer -- Rowena Cross-Najafi
The U.S. Embassy in Djibouti is located at Villa Plateau du Serpent,
Blvd. Marechal Joffre (Boite Postal 185), Djibouti (tel. 253 35-39-95;
fax 253 35-39-40).
Customs: Visas must be obtained, prior to arrival, from either a
Djiboutian or a French embassy. U.S. currency can be exchanged in
Health: Djibouti is free of many of Africa's diseases. Malaria,
however, is prevalent. Infected wounds are difficult to cure. A yellow
fever immunization is required for entry, and malaria suppressants are
Be careful of food and drink. Drink boiled water or bottled mineral
water, available in all local hotels and restaurants.
Djibouti has few doctors, and the one civilian hospital has less than
Transportation: Local taxis and buses in Djibouti City are plentiful.
Most roads in the republic are merely tracks, often passable only with
four- wheel drive. Paved roads link Djibouti City with the northern
provincial capital of Tadjoura and with the Assab-Addis Ababa
Highway in Ethiopia, but be on the lookout for police roadblocks and
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