How far Djibouti Came Since its Independence

The Republic of Djibouti celebrates its 46th years of independence from France on June 27th. For almost half a century, the country located in the Horn of Africa that General Charles de Gaulle once called the “confetti of the Empire” would be ruled by a single family. For 46 years, Djibouti remains away from Somalia, or doesn’t it? How far did it come since its Independence in 1977? But what do we know of the tiny territory that wants to punch above its weight?

A quick tour of Djibouti

In ancient time, Djibouti was part of the land of Punt that encompassed all of the northern Somali coast. The territory interacted with Pharaohs and supplied Egyptian much needed staples like frankincense, myrrh and native plants and wild animals mainly.

In the medieval time, its rule changed fate but mostly came under the ancient port city of Zeila’s authority. Djibouti – pronounced “Jibuti”, Jabuuti in Somali and Gabuuti in local Yemeni dialect – was for around a century been ruled by France. It was the only French colony in East Africa.

The tiny 23,000 km² territory – much smaller than the Hiran region and about half the Sool region of Somalia – draws its appeal from its strategic location at the mouth of the Red Sea. The French settled there to protect their holdings in the Suez Canal.

Djibouti Port
Doraleh Multi-purpose Port is an extension of Port of Djibouti. 2021

Many Somalis believe that Djibouti is a Somali territory. This is partly true because much of Djibouti territory, about 3/4 – some say 4/5 – is Afar territory. Afars are divided between Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea also called the Afar Triangle. There is also a small, enterprising Yemeni population that controls wholesale trade in the country.

The overall population of nearly one million is relatively young and half live in the capital, Djibouti. The territory is largely arid all year round and the rare spring rains flood the streets of the capital whose colonial-built sewers, neglected since independence, are clogged.

Djibouti has no known mineral resources. Its economy is based on services, trade and all economic activities are turned towards the Port of Djibouti which serves as a lifeline for landlocked Ethiopia. Along with a short civil war in the early 1990s and failed irredentism in northern Somalia in 1995, Djibouti has been branded as a “haven of peace”, a condition conducive to trade and tourism in a most troubled region.

Dynamics of local politics

Djibouti’s 65-seats parliament is divided since 1970s in allocating 28 seats to Afars, 27 to Issa clan, 4 Isaaq clan, 3 Gadabursi clan, 2 for Yemeni Arabs and 1 Darod clan. This inherited divide-and-rule scheme was perpetuated by the ruling clan after independence and any attempt to allocate seats in proportion to demographic reality or revamp the system which disadvantages many Djiboutians is discouraged.

Moreover, the rigid political system of the state does not recognize a large part of the population who does not identify with any of these groups. Intermarriage between the various ethnic groups, especially in the capital, has created a growing mixed population that is excluded from the system despite being born, raised and from a reputable family.

The pyramidal political system puts Ismail Omar Guelleh Batal as the ruling family. The Guelleh Batal are follow by their Issa Mamasan sub-clan, themselves followed by other Issas and then the rest. The Prime Minister post is reserved to an Afar who belong to the ruling party. However, the Prime Minister has no executive powers and is limited to chairing cabinet meetings, cutting ribbons at inaugurations and following the president.

President Ismael Omar has ruled unchallenged since he was elected president in 1999. In reality, IOG had been a pillar of power since 1977 as Director of the Djiboutian secret service, the very feared SDS, which he created in 1978 and as chief of staff under the presidency of Hassan Gouled Aptidon, his uncle.

The system he rules with an iron fist is a fertile ground for nepotism, cronyism and corruption, and many popular protests against his rule and mismanagement have been brutally suppressed. In this context, freedom of speech and dissidence have hard time. All the opposition figures have fled the country except one: the stubborn Dr. Abdirahman Barkhad God whom Mr. Guelleh described as a fanatic during his last interview for Jeune Afrique.

Meddling in Somalia

With the first lady ruling beside her ailing “Godfather-like” husband, the Isaq clan made a steady progress within the system in the last two decades. Many of them are in the economy and finance sector and remains as the backbone of the secessionists in Somaliland.

Moreover, since the Arta Conference in2000, Ismail Omar Guelleh despite ruling a tiny country, has a say in how Somali politics are conducted in Somalia. Opposition him like Farmajo did is a political suicide. Now President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud as we have seen with Irir Samale association must dance to the Djibouti’s tune. The recent appointment of his son-in-law Sadaq John, as Somalia’s ambassador to Djibouti, shows the extent of IOG’s stranglehold in Somalia.

Djibouti has been at odd with Somali leaders from the Darod clan and has worked hard to minimize their influence in Mogadishu. He was credited with conspiring with the Somali opposition to defeat Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo who got in his way to shape the region.

Djibouti’s role in Somalia came to fore recently for their support to Somaliland bombardment of Las Anod and IOG agreement with the Kenyan William Ruto, for keep their troops longer there. Djiboutian troops operating under AMISOM/ATMIS are based in Jalalaqsi and are generally confined to logistical support for Somali forces fighting Al-Shabab in the Hiran region.

Lesser known are the regime’s territorial expansion in Awdal, the distribution of Djiboutian passports to secessionists, the illegal arms supply to Al-Shabab and its role in the laundering of dirty money from Al-Shabab and previously that of the pirates of the sea.

Punching above its weigh

Increasingly at odds with France over its involvement in the 1990 Café de Paris attack and the assassination of a French magistrate, Bernard Borrel, who had come to investigate the deadly attack, IOG drifted towards the Americans. He then wholeheartedly embraced their “war on terror” giving them access to Camp Lemonnier and “Black sites” for the CIA illegal rendition program.

Since then, IOG has milked Djibouti’s strategic position by providing bases to countries as diverse as China, Japan, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, the United Kingdom, in addition to French and US bases. Russia and India are considering to have their own bases in Djibouti.

This windfall brings in about 170 million per year in rent, or about 10% of the nation’s budget, not counting the profit made from the sectors of the economy that revolve around it, such as the hotel industry, prostitution and other small businesses.

In short, Djibouti has made its way into world politics wanting to punch above its weight. The unbeatable IOG, although more cunning than all the junior leaders in the Horn of Africa, is increasingly pressured at home. Also President Isaias Afwerki, an unshakable old warrior emerging from his isolation now that he has made a friend with the Ethiopian Abiy Ahmed, is now preparing to arm the Afar opposition.