The powerful Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum, which lasted until around AD 700, encompassed present-day Djibouti. Then came Islam and the Arab traders. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 let loose a stampede of European colonisers into East Africa, and the French took control of Djibouti. In 1977, the country gained its independence. Since then, it has tried to present a neutral political face in the Horn of Africa.
From Aksum to Islam
Around the 1st century AD, Djibouti made up part of the powerful Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum, which included modern-day Eritrea and even stretched across the Red Sea to parts of southern Arabia. It was during the Aksumite era, in the 4th century AD, that Christianity first appeared in the region.
As the empire of Aksum gradually fell into decline, a new influence arose that would forever supersede the Christian religion in Djibouti: Islam. It was introduced to the region around AD 825 by Arab traders from Southern Arabia.
In the second half of the 19th century, European powers competed to grab new settler colonies in Africa. The French, seeking to counter the British presence in Yemen on the other side of the Bab al-Mandab Strait, made agreements with the Afar sultans of Obock and Tadjoura that gave them the right to settle. In 1888 construction of Djibouti City began on the southern shore of the Gulf of Tadjoura. French Somaliland (present-day Djibouti) began to take shape.
France and the emperor of Ethiopia then signed a pact designating Djibouti as the ‘official outlet of Ethiopian commerce’. This led to the construction of the Addis Ababa–Djibouti City railway, which was of vital commercial importance until recently.
Throwing off the French Yoke
As early as 1949 there were a number of anticolonial demonstrations that were led by the Issa Somalis, who were in favour of the reunification of the territories of Italian, British and French Somaliland. Meanwhile, the Afars were in favour of continued French colonial rule.
Major riots ensued, especially after the 1967 referendum, which produced a vote in favour of continued French rule – a vote achieved partly as a result of the arrest of opposition leaders and the massive expulsion of ethnic Somalis. After the referendum, the colony’s name was changed from French Somaliland to the French Territory of the Afars and Issas.
In June 1977 the colony finally won its sovereignty from France. The country became the Republic of Djibouti.
Small Country, Adroit Leaders
Despite continuous clan rivalries between the two main ethnic groups, Afars and Issas, who have been jostling for power since the 1970s, Djibouti has learnt to exploit its strategic position.
When the Gulf War broke out in 1990, the country’s president, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, while appearing to oppose the military build-up in the Gulf, simultaneously allowed France to increase its military presence in the country, as well as granting the Americans and Italians access to the naval port. And he skilfully managed to retain the support of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for the modernisation of Djibouti port. During the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia in the 1990s, Djibouti port proved to be strategic when Ethiopia diverted its foreign trade through it (which it still does).
During the Second Gulf War in 2003, Djibouti continued to play an ambivalent role, allowing a US presence in the country – to the great displeasure of France.
In 2006 the first phase of the Doraleh Project, which consists of a large-capacity oil terminal about 8km east of the current seaport, was completed. Thanks to this megaproject, partly financed by Dubai Port International, Djibouti aims to be the ‘Dubai of East Africa’.
Djibouti maintains good relations with Ethiopia and Somaliland, which are considered as ‘partners’. However, it clashed with Eritrea, its northern neighbour, in June 2008. Since then, the borders between the two countries have remained closed.