Identification. Djibouti is in northeast Africa, on the Red Sea coast, bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. The country was created by France in the late nineteenth century during the colonial scramble for Africa. In 1977, it became independent after having been a protectorate and colony for more than a century. Djibouti had no identity as a state or national unit before 1859, when the French concluded a treaty with the local Afar sultan of Obock.
The two dominant ethnic groups—the Issa-Somali and the Afar—have opposed each other on critical occasions, but a minimal shared identity and national consciousness have emerged, buttressed by social and cultural similarities between originally nomadic-pastoral populations that speak related languages, adhere to Islam, and share a way of life. The wealth brought by Djibouti's seaports unite the inhabitants, who share the idea of being an island of relative stability in a volatile region. While the nation has experienced political turbulence and active armed rebellion, there has never been a prolonged civil war. Compromise has shaped its political life. In international and regional affairs, Djibouti tries to avoid being a pawn of the neighboring countries and maintains an independent position.
Location and Geography. Djibouti lies in a hot, arid area of the Horn of Africa. Its area is 8,960 square miles (23,200 square kilometers). The soil is rocky and sandy and lies on volcanic layers. In the hot and humid climate, rainfall is very low. Most of the soil is not suitable for agriculture, and only about 10 percent is used as pasture. The vegetation consists mainly of desert shrubs and acacia trees. There are only a few patches of perennial forest. The traditional mode of life was nomadic pastoralism, in which state borders were not recognized. Fishing in the Red Sea provides a limited source of income; horticulture is possible only on a small scale.
The Bay of Tadjoura cuts into the country from the Gulf of Aden. The terrain is mainly a desertlike plain with some intermediate mountain ranges near Arta and the eastern border. There is one active volcano. There are seasonal streams that flow toward the sea or into the two salt lakes. Apart from Djibouti City, the capital and large urban center, there are a few small towns: Tadjoura, Obock, Dikhil, Ali Sabieh, and Yoboki.
Demography. The population in 1999 was estimated at about 640,000. It is ethnically diverse, and there are significant numbers of expatriates, including Europeans (mainly French) and Arabs (mainly Yemenis). There is a sizable community of Ethiopians and refugees from Eritrea and Somalia. More than half the population lives in Djibouti City.
Linguistic Affiliation. The main indigenous languages are Afar and Issa-Somali, both of which belong to the Cushitic language group. The official national languages are French, which is used in education and administration, and Arabic, which is spoken by Yemeni and other Arab immigrants.
Symbolism. The coat of arms shows two bent olive branches within which a traditional round shield is pictured over a vertical Somali spear topped with a red star and flanked by two Afar daggers to the left and right. It symbolizes the ideal of coexistence of the two dominant communities. The flag is a tricolor with blue, white, and green fields and a red star on the triangular white field on the left.
Emergence of the Nation. Politics has been dominated by the complex relations between the Issa-Somali and the Afar. Before the colonial era, they were nomadic pastoralists and traders and were politically highly organized but had no state-forming
Before independence, the French alternatively promoted the Issa and the Afar; that divisive policy contributed to postcolonial conflicts.
France created Djibouti as a colony and super-imposed a centralist state structure on local pastoral societies. More than two-thirds of the territory traditionally belonged to Afar sultanates, and the remaining southern slice was controlled by Issa nomadic herders. Djibouti as a nation derives its identity from its strategic location and the economic importance of the port. A political crisis occurred with the 1991 armed rebellion of the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD), a largely Afar movement that conquered a major part of the country. This crisis pressured the government into opening the political system and holding multiparty elections in 1992. After the elections, a military crackdown was followed by an accommodative policy in which the FRUD was persuaded to join mainstream politics and abandon violence.
National Identity. Djibouti's identity as a nation is a compromise between the political and social aspirations of two communities that have created a social contract within the context of the state that allows them to maintain their independence.
The new President, Ismail Omar Guelleh, who has been in office since 1999, supports economic integration with Ethiopia and has hinted at favoring economic federation with that country.
Ethnic Relations. Though closely related culturally and linguistically, the Afar and the Somali-speaking groups (especially the Issa) have been rivals for power and access to resources. This tension exploded into open armed conflict in the 1990s. After a military campaign to quell the Afar revolt, the government opted for a policy of compromise without endangering Issa dominance, and a full-scale "ethnicization" of politics was averted. There is also tension between the settled population and newcomers (Gadabursi, Isaak, and refugees), which occasionally turns into open conflict.
Djibouti has no tradition of urban architecture. The indigenous architecture of earlier centuries is found in the capitals of the sultanates of Raheita and Tadjoura, with their old mosques and town centers. Djibouti City was designed by French town planners with a grid street plan and government institutions placed close to each other in the center. The town grew fast, with new neighborhoods added in a less planned fashion. There is a camel market on the outskirts.
In the urban culture, traditional social and cultural features of the indigenous populations tend to fuse and create new forms. In the countryside, the herders' seasonal migrations and transborder crossings of Afar, Issa, and Gadabursi pastoralists show the mobility and free use of space necessary for the survival of humans and herds. These people have huts and furniture that can be easily packed and moved.
Food in Daily Life. Dairy products and meat from the herds are the traditional foods, along with grain dishes. In the cities, the diet is influenced by Italian and other European foods. A notable feature of the diet is the consumption of the light narcotic leaf qat, which is imported from Ethiopia. Qat is consumed recreationally by virtually all men, preferably after lunch, when government offices and work come to a standstill in the midday heat.
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Qat is used in religious services, allegedly because it enhances concentration, delays sleep, and mutes the appetite.
Basic Economy. Djibouti is a poor but developing country that is dependent on the expanding port and services sector. The economy is unbalanced, with only rudimentary agriculture and a declining livestock economy, but most people still maintain herds and work in agriculture. Infrastructure and communications, except around the port and in the capital, are underdeveloped. Unemployment, poverty, and social insecurity are rampant, especially in the countryside and the working-class neighborhoods in Djibouti City. The government receives subsidies from Arab oil countries and France for balance of payments support and development projects. There is a growing banking and insurance sector, and the telecommunications sector is the best in the region. The currency used is the Djibouti franc.
Land Tenure and Property. Although the government holds most of the land, urban land can be owned privately. Nomadic pastoralists control their traditional pasture areas through customary rights.
Commercial Activities. Djibouti is a free-trade zone. Port activity and related services dwarf other commercial activities, but there is also a small tourist industry. The expenditures of the French army are substantial. Prostitution in Djibouti City is a big business.
Major Industries. The industrial sector employs thirty-five thousand people in a large mineral water bottling plant, leather tanning, construction, a pharmaceuticals factory, abattoirs, salt mining, and a petroleum refinery.
Trade. The transshipment trade through the port is the mainstay of the economy and creates at least 75 percent of the gross domestic product. It has greatly expanded since 1998, when Ethiopia decided to shift all of its import-export activities to Djibouti. Djibouti produces only 5 percent of its own food needs, making it a huge food importer from Ethiopia (grain and other staples) and Somalia (meat and dairy products). The costs of imports are covered by the profitable service sector (the port) and proceeds from contraband trade.
Classes and Castes. Issa and Gadabursi social organization was fairly egalitarian, although it has a patriarchal bias. There are positions of wider authority, such as that of the ugaz, a ritual-political clan leader. In the countryside, egalitarianism is still the norm, but there are many impoverished pastoralists as a result of drought, cattle disease, and conflict.
Among the Afar, traditional social stratification was much more hierarchical. The Afar were organized in sultanates and had "tribal" and clan rankings. The Afar distinguish between the more prestigious "red" clans (the Asahimara) and the "white" clans (the Asdohimara), although this division did not coincide with political authority in all regions. In the country as a whole, urbanization, modern state formation and political institutions, and trade have created an urban social stratification based on political power and wealth.
Among the Afar and Somali groups there traditionally are castelike artisan groups that traditionally were held in low esteem. The modern economy gave rise to an incipient class society, including in it the working class. Most workers are state civil servants and port laborers. A relatively large stratum of the population engages in prostitution, works in bars, and trades in contraband. Yemenis traditionally form the trader class.
Symbols of Social Stratification. In line with the socio-economic differentiation into a developing urban society and a largely stagnant agro-pastoral rural society, differences in appearance and life style between social groups are increasingly visible. The urban elites speak French, are well-dressed, have good housing, drive their own cars, and travel abroad frequently for business, education, or leisure. The rural and urban poor have substandard
Government. Since independence in 1977, there has been a presidential-republican system of government. There is a Chamber of Deputies with sixty-five members that is elected by universal suffrage. Real power lies with the president and his inner circle. The president is also commander in chief of the armed forces. The prime minister, who is always an Afar, is relatively powerless. The country effectively remained an authoritarian one-party state until 1992, when the Afar struggle for more power became a quest for inclusive democracy.
Leadership and Political Officials. Political life since independence has been dominated by a restricted elite of Issa and Afar politicians. In recent years younger politicians have emerged, but they are linked to the same elite. The 1992 constitution limits the number of political parties to four.
There are complex formal and informal rules for the division of power across the various ethnic communities: The president is an Issa; the prime minister is an Afar; and in the Cabinet of Ministers, one seat each is reserved for the Arabs, Isaak, and Gadabursi, while the Afar have one seat more than the Issa. The head of the supreme court is always an Issa.
Social Problems and Control. Unemployment, the decline of pastoral society, a lack of education, and poverty are the major social problems. Prostitution has caused major health problems, including the spread of AIDS. The refugee population strains the national budget and service facilities. In rural areas, communities deal with local political issues and disputes through the use of customary law.
Military Activity. Djibouti has an army of ninety-four hundred men, along with a small navy and air force. Men serve on the basis of conscription. There is a police force of twelve hundred and a national security force of three thousand. In the mid-1990s, the national army grew to a force of twenty thousand to contain the armed revolt led by FRUD. The national security force keeps a tight grip on domestic security. One faction of the FRUD is still active in the Afar part of the country. Djibouti is the base of a large French overseas military force consisting of three thousand men, with one Foreign Legion battalion that helps control the strategic Red Sea entrance
The Djibouti government is not in a financial position to support extended social and welfare programs. There are state pensions for retired civil servants, but no unemployment benefits or social security provisions, except on a private basis via insurance. There are some vocational training institutes, orphanages and food aid institutions run by Islamic and Christian charities, but they do not cover the needs of the population. Several local nongovernmental organizations are active in addressing problems of urban and rural development. Refugees from Ethiopia and Somalia are cared for partly by the government and by United Nations programs.
With the economy being dominated by the state, the role of nongovernmental organizations and associations is limited. The most important organizations are the trade unions, which have some autonomy.
Division of Labor by Gender. If they are not livestock herders or fishermen, men work largely in the civil service, horticulture, corporate business, the military, and the port services. Women are active as lower civil servants and petty traders, mostly in the informal sector.
The Relative Status of Women and Men. By custom and law men have more rights and higher status than women. Traditional Afar and Issa culture as well as Islam tend to support a pattern of gender roles that give men predominance in public life, business, and politics. Economic necessity, conflict, and migration have made many women the sole household head.
Marriage. Descent and family and ethnic group membership remain important in the conclusion of marriages and in family life, especially in the countryside, where rituals around marriage and kinship are still widely observed. Afar have a traditional preference for patrilateral cross-cousin marriage; the Issa and other Somalis are less strict. There is some Afar-Issa intermarriage.
Domestic Unit. The domestic unit in the city is the nuclear family, although members of extended families often live together and provide mutual support. Pastoralists among the Issa, Afar, and Gadabursi live and move together in extended kin groups, accompanied by allies and adopted members. Men make decisions involving the movement of herds and families.
Inheritance. Inheritance follows the tenets of Islamic law, modified by state law inspired by French civil codes.
Kin Groups. In the indigenous Issa and Afar communities, and among the Gadabursi and Isaak Somali, the clan and the lower-level lineage remain important. Membership in these units is identified for marriage purposes, economic networking and mutual assistance, and recourse to customary law for dispute settlement and decisions about inheritance.
Child Rearing and Education. The family and local community play a crucial role in education and the transmission of culture and morals. Only a minority of children in the countryside, especially in the Afar area, attend schools; often these are Koranic schools with low academic standards. Most children remain in the extended family to assist in economic activities (herding). More than half the population is illiterate. The rural and poor urban populations speak only their indigenous languages. Children are socialized within the family and lineage group and are reared to feel an attachment to kin and community. Among the Somali, children are given more freedom than they are among the Afar, among whom the fima, a disciplinary institution, is strong. Exposure to formal schooling is limited to roughly one-third of school-age children, chiefly in Djibouti City.
Higher Education. There are no universities. Many high school graduates go to France to pursue higher education.
The Issa and Afar value the expression of personal independence and courage, but not recklessness. They feel attached to their cultural tradition, or at least to their idea of it. Older people are treated respectfully.
Religious Beliefs. The dominant religion of Djiboutians and Arabs is Islam (95 percent of the population). The ten thousand Europeans are nominally Christians (Catholic). Ethiopians are mostly Ethiopian Orthodox Christian, and Greeks and Armenians are Eastern Orthodox Christian. Islamic beliefs are deeply rooted in Afar and Somali society. Indigenous Issa, Gadabursi, and Afar beliefs combine folk religion and custom with normative Islamic practices. Sufi orders are also prominent. Islam is not used for political purposes by any major party.
Religious Practitioners. Among the Islamic Issa, Gadabursi, and Afar, sheikhs and marabouts occupy a prominent position and play a role in many lifecycle events. There is one diocese for the nine thousand Catholics.
Rituals and Holy Places. There are no Islamic holy places except the tombs of saints and marabouts. Daily life is oriented to the Islamic cycle of religious rituals and holidays.
Death and the Afterlife. Islamic and Christian religious precepts include the belief in the immortality of the soul, ascending to heaven, or descending to hell, according to the merits of an individual's life. All deceased are buried—there is no cremation. In traditional Afar and Issa beliefs, shaped by the continuity of patrilineal ideology, the soul of a deceased rejoins the ancestors, who are occasionally appealed to by the living descendants.
Health care is precarious. In Djibouti City, it is available, although not easily accessible to the poor. In rural areas, there are clinics in the major villages, but the nomadic peoples are dependent on traditional remedies.
Independence Day on 27 June is the most important national holiday and unites all Djiboutians in celebration of their national identity. New Year's Day is celebrated on 1 January and Labor Day on 1 May; 11 November, 25 December (Christmas Day), and 31 December (New Year's Eve) are other public holidays.
Academic life is lacking, because there are not any universities or a significant intellectual scene. Artists (painters, sculptors, designers) cater to foreign demand. The few literary authors publish in French.
Support for the Arts. The government has few financial or institutional resources to support the arts, but in the capital there is a "people's palace," a national museum, and a national center for the promotion of culture and the arts, where performances and festivals are held. The National Tourism Office has a section to promote interest in the traditional crafts of the country. Connaissance de Djibouti is a study association whose members are interested in retrieving knowledge of the cultures and customs of Djibouti's peoples. Djibouti maintains a cultural exchange and education agreement with France.
Literature. While there is little creative written literature (poetry, novels, drama) to speak of, oral poetry and rhetoric are well developed in Afar and Somali pastoral societies. The Afar are familiar with the ginnili, a kind of warrior-poet and diviner, and have a rich oral tradition of folk stories. Among the Somali, poetic talent and verbal skills expressed in songs and epic stories are also highly developed. In recent years there has been a growing number of politicians and intellectuals who write memoirs or reflections on Djibouti society and its problems, but virtually all of them publish in France.
Graphic Arts. Some painters and sculptors in Djibouti town galleries cater largely to French and other foreign visitors.
Performance Arts. There are no major theaters or playwrights in Djibouti, although there are drama performances in the capital's center for culture and art.
Research is done by foreign institutions and individuals, often in partnership with Djibouti scientists educated abroad. There is a French-supported research institute, the Institut Supérieur des Etudes et des Recherches Scientifiques et Techniques. Research on Djibouti society is not well developed.
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—J ON G. A BBINK