In the horn of Africa is Djibouti, a hardly-mentioned country of rich sea and landscapes, sorrows and conflicts, and a long history few know about predating its 37 years as an official republic. Here are 11 things you didn’t know about Djibouti.
Sources: mapsofworld.com, theguardian.com, newworldencyclopedia.org, en.wikipedia.org, africa.com, africaneconomicoutlook.com, en.wikipedia.org, washingtonpost.com
Djibouti is barely the size of Massachusetts with a population of less than 1 million people who are almost 100 percent Muslim and 1 percent Protestant and Roman Catholic. The currency is the franc, a testament to its colonial past, and French is the predominant language but Arabic is a major language here. Issa-Somali and Afar are the two main ethnic languages. Djibouti functions under a semi-presidential republic government system.
Djibouti was inhabited in the third century B.C. by the Able people, settlers from Arabia. Somalis and the Afars followed. Ninth century hide-traders introduced Islam — the religion of the nearby Arabian Peninsula — to the area. In the great Africa grab of the 19th century, France colonized and established the capital city of Djibouti in the newly-named French Somaliland. France took advantage of bountiful trade from the nearby Red Sea, Suez Canal and other countries such as Ethiopia, building the Franco-Ethiopian railway in 1897.
World War II saw tension between occupying forces of France in Djibouti and Italy in Ethiopia, while the British played tug-of-war with France over the land. Many African troops fighting for France also aided in the European country’s 1944 liberation from the Germans. In 1957, the colony was allowed significant domestic self government, and citizens voted to remain a French territory. The majority Issa ethnic group was determined to get independence, but was struck down in every voting process. The country was renamed the French Territory of Afar and Issa in 1967. Ten years later, the French conceded to increased calls for independence, and Djibouti was declared an independent nation on June 27, 1977. Hassan Gouled Aptidon was the first president.
Originally from the Issa clan in Northern Somalia, Aptidon was instrumental in the struggle for Djibouti’s liberation from France. He served as a territorial senator in the French National Assembly in the 1950s, and as Djibouti’s prime minister from May 1977 until his election as president that year. A controversial figure, he brought in members of the opposing minority Afars into the cabinet, but in 1981 introduced a one-party state government — the Rassemblement Populaire pour le Progrès (RPP). This allowed Aptidon to rule unopposed until 1992. This caused massive unrest among the two ethnic groups of Djibouti with dire consequences.
The Afar rebel group, Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD), represented a significant portion of the population disenfranchised in the government. It attacked military outposts in the northern part of the country starting in November 1991. On the bloodiest day of the civil war, government troops opened fire on a community of Afar in the capital city of Djibouti, killing 59 citizens. Through the war, hundreds died on both sides, more than 18,000 refugees fled to Somalia, and the economy suffered. French peacekeeping forces came in 1992, brokering a temproary ceasefire. Aptidon began to reform his party’s authoritarian hold on the country, and on Dec. 26, 1994, a peace agreement was reached.
Conflicts in the north over the border of Djibouti and Eritrea occurred in the summer of 2008. In Ras Doumeira, Djibouti’s most northeastern cape city, Eritrean soldiers reportedly crossed the border, occupying and digging trenches on the Djiboutian side. This led to a few days of clashes between the militaries, leaving 44 Djiboutian soldiers dead and 100 Eritrean soldier casualties. The U.N. passed Resolution 1862 pressing for withdrawals back to respective borders and an end to fighting.
A relatively barren country lacking in natural resources which its neighboring African countries enjoy, Djibouti’s economy has had its ebbs and flows. Port traffic from many ships doing the Gulf of Aden-Red Sea routes benefit Djibouti, as well as foreign direct investment (FDI). Yet the country still suffers. More than 48 percent of citizens are unemployed, bringing the poverty level in 2012 to 79 percent of the population. Annual gross domestic product has risen 3 percent, though the job sector continues to suffer.
In the central region of the country is Lake Assal — its name means “honey” in Arabic — one of the most sought-after lakes in all of Africa. The third-lowest land depression on the planet, this saline lake is also the lowest point in Africa at 155 meters below sea level, and holds 10 times the salt content of any ocean.
Cuisine from this small African country mixes it up culturally, integrating Ethiopian, Somali, French, Afar, and Yemeni influences. A major staple is the lahoh bread, in the same family as the porous injera Ethiopian bread, and used to scoop up stews and such. Djibouti does a big coastal fishing trade, and seafood is found in many dishes. Garoobey is a major and practical dish, containing milk-soaked porridge and spices.
Many people said this image captured by photographer John Stanmeyer was the photo of 2013. It’s an image of migrants standing on the beach in the capital city while passing through Djibouti to seek work in other places where the economy is better including Europe and Israel. The photo captured a moment of hopes adrift, and hopes for catching an otherworldly signal. What does it illuminate for you?
The only U.S. military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier is located in Djibouti. It shares more than 500 acres with the Djibouti-Ambouli International Airport. The base became fully operational after the September 11 attacks. It is considered a prime geographic location in the Horn of Africa, close to the Arabian Peninsula, to monitor extremism in the area.