Djibouti: History, Culture & Economy

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The history of Djibouti goes back thousands of years to a time when populations in the area traded hides and skins for the perfumes and spices of ancient Egypt, India and China. Through close contacts with the adjacentArabian Peninsula for more than 1,000 years, the Somali and Afar ethnic groups in the region became among the first populations on the continent to embrace Islam.

From 1862 to 1894, the land on the north side of the Gulf of Tadjoura was called Obock, and was ruled by Somali Sultans.France first gained a foothold in the region through various treaties signed between 1883 and 1887. In 1894, Léonce Lagarde established a permanent French administration in thecity of Djibouti and named the region French Somaliland (Côte française des Somalis). It lasted from 1896 until 1967, when it was renamed the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas.

In 1958, on the eve of neighboring Somalia’s independence in 1960, a referendum was held in Djibouti to decide whether or not to join the Somali Republic or to remain with France. The referendum turned out in favour of a continued association with France, partly due to a combined yes vote by the sizable Afar ethnic group and resident Europeans. There was also widespread vote rigging, with the French expelling thousands of Somalis before the referendum reached the polls. The majority of those who voted no were Somalis who were strongly in favour of joining a united Somalia as had been proposed by Mahmoud Harbi, Vice President of the Government Council. Harbi was killed in a plane crash two years later. Djibouti finally gained its independence from France in 1977 and Hassan Gouled Aptidon, a French-groomed Somali who campaigned for a yes vote in the referendum of 1958, eventually wound up as the nation’s first president (1977–1991).

Djibouti is a Somali, Afar and Muslim country, which regularly takes part in Islamic affairs. It is also a member of the Arab League, as well as the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD).

The economy of Djibouti is based on service activities connected with the country’s strategic location and status as a free trade zone in northeast Africa. Two-thirds of the inhabitants live in the capital city, the remainder being mostly nomadic herders. Scant rainfall limits crop production to fruits and vegetables, and most food must be imported.

In April 2005, the United Nations World Food Programme warned that 30,000 people in Djibouti face serious food shortages following three years of poor rains.

Djibouti provides services as both a transit port for the region and an international transshipment and refueling center. It has few natural resources and little industry. The nation is, therefore, heavily dependent on foreign assistance to help support its balance of payments and to finance development projects. Daniel R. Sutton, an American salt miner, is also overseeing some $70 million operation to industrialize the collection of Djibouti’s plentiful salt in the Region Lake Asal.

There are gold miners from India, geothermal experts from Iceland, Turkish hotel managers, Saudi oil engineers, French bankers and American military contractors. Investors from Dubai have leased the country’s port, in an effort to develop the area as a gateway to the region. Saudi investors are reportedly exploring the possibility of linking the Horn of Africa with the Arabian Peninsula via an 18-mile long oversea bridge referred to as the Bridge of the Horns. Tarek bin Laden, half brother of Osama bin Laden, has been linked to the project.

An unemployment rate of 40% to 50% continues to be a major problem. Inflation is not a concern, however, because of the fixed tie of the franc to the U.S. dollar. Per capita consumption dropped an estimated 35% over the last seven years because of recession, civil war, and a high population growth rate(including immigrants and refugees). Renewed fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea has been beneficial to Djibouti, the Port of Djibouti now serving as landlocked Ethiopia’s primary link to the sea. Faced with a multitude of economic difficulties, the government has fallen into arrears on long-term external debt and has been struggling to meet the stipulations of foreign aid donors.

Djiboutian attire reflects the region’s hot and arid climate. When not dressed in Westernized clothing such as jeans and t-shirts, men typically wear the macawiis, which is a sarong-like garment worn around the waist. Amongnomads, many wear a loosely wrapped white cotton robe called a tobe that goes down to about the knee, with the end thrown over the shoulder (much like a Roman toga).

The population consists of two major ethnic groups: the Somali and the Afar. The Somali ethnic component in Djibouti is mainly composed of the Issas, who form the majority, and the Gadabuursi. Both are subclans of the Dir. The Issas form part of the Madoobe Dir while the Gadabuursi are part of the Madaluug Dir. The remainder of the population consists of Europeans (mostly French and Italians), Arabs and Ethiopians. AlthoughFrench and Arabic are the official languages, Somali and Afar are widely spoken. The bulk of Djibouti’s people are urban residents; the remainder are pastoralists.

Notes from Wikipedia

A'Keiba Burrell
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