Djibouti - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate

Read about Djibouti: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



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.


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.

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.


The population of Djibouti was 516,055 in 2009, yielding a population density of 24 persons per sq km (61 per sq mi).The population is 85 percent (2005) 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 2006, the latest year for which figures are available, only 37.8 percent of primary school-aged children attended school. Only 20 percent of the teenage population attended secondary school. In 2000 only 51.4 percent of Djibouti’s adult population was literate. Pốle University, the country’s first university, opened in 2000.

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’s economy revolves around the capital city’s modern seaport, which serves not only Djibouti but landlocked Ethiopia and parts of Somalia as well. The country also relies heavily on economic aid from France and other countries. In 2007 Djibouti’s gross domestic product (GDP), the total value of goods and services produced within a country, was $830 million, or $996.90 per capita. Services accounted for about 79 percent of GDP, industry made up 17 percent, and agriculture about 4 percent. Estimates indicate that about three-quarters of the labor force works in agriculture. Djibouti’s dry and barren landscape supports little crop farming, but subsistence livestock herding is a significant economic activity. Although the population is mostly urban, many city dwellers periodically tend family livestock herds in rural areas. Estimates suggest that almost half the labor force lacks formal employment.

Lacking significant crop farming, Djibouti must import almost all of its food. Djibouti lacks major industries. The government is the main service sector employer, but port-related services, such as transport, communications, and warehousing, are more important economically. A rail link connects the port to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Djibouti has an international airport, and its telecommunication system is among the best in Africa. Most households, however, lack telephones, televisions, or computers.

The national currency is the Djibouti franc (177.72 Djibouti francs equal U.S.$1, rate fixed since 1973). The country has a strong banking sector. Djibouti’s main exports are animal hides and coffee, but its service activities—related to the port facilities and banking sector—provide most of its earnings. Its main imports are petroleum, food products, and manufactured goods. The country relies entirely on imported oil for its electrical power and other energy needs.


Djibouti is a republic with a strong central government and a democratic constitution, which was adopted in 1992. All adults aged 18 and over are eligible to vote. Principal executive power lies with the president, who is popularly elected for a six-year term and is limited to two terms. The president appoints a cabinet, headed by a prime minister, who is also appointed by the president. The legislature consists of a single house, the Chamber of Deputies, whose members are popularly elected to five-year terms. Codes based on French civil law are administered in a lower court and a court of appeals in the capital. Local courts administer a combination of customary and Islamic law. A supreme court rules on constitutional questions, and all judges are appointed by the president. Djibouti is divided into five cercles (administrative divisions). Military service is mandatory for men aged 18 to 25; the armed forces totaled 10,950 soldiers in 2006. Djibouti belongs to the United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU), and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa.

Djibouti had a one-party political system until the promulgation of the 1992 constitution, which allowed for the existence of a maximum of four political parties. A 2002 constitutional amendment removed the limit on the number of political parties. The main political party is the Rassemblement Populaire pour le Progrès (RPP; Popular Movement for Progress), whose mostly Issa leadership has relied on a system of patronage to rule Djibouti since independence. The Front pour la Restauration de l’Unité et de la Démocratie (FRUD; Front for the Renewal of Unity and Democracy) represents the Afar minority. The Parti National Démocratique (PND; Democratic National Party) and the Parti du Renouveau Démocratique (PRD; Democratic Renewal Party) are both small opposition parties favoring democratic reforms.


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.

Independence for Djibouti

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.

Afar Rebellion

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.

A peace agreement between the government and a radical Afar FRUD faction was signed in February 2000 in Paris. This brought to an end seven years of guerrilla fighting. In March the former prime minister and leader of the splinter group of FRUD, Ahmed Dini Ahmed, returned from his nine-year exile to lead the political opposition.

First Multiparty Elections

The January 2003 election was the first to be opened up to many political parties. The parties formed into two electoral coalitions: the Union for a Presidential Majority (UMP) and the Union for a Democratic Change (UAD). The UMP secured more than 62 percent of the vote. In April 2005 President Guelleh ran unopposed in presidential elections and was reelected.

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