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 Islam.
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 trade.
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 Assembly.
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 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.
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 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 $50,000.
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.
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 valued.
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.
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)