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

March 1996
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 
Education:  Literacy--42%.
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 
formally employed.


Type:  Republic.
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 
for Djiboutians.
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 
since 1973.
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 
Olhaye Oudine

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 
adequate facilities.

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 
storm-related damage.


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