The barren and arid desert landscape that constitutes today’s Djibouti did not invite pre-colonial farming, and it was mainly nomads who populated the area. From Ethiopia (Abyssinia) and Eritrea came Afars, and from the Muslim Adal Kingdom in the south came the Issa, a Somali people.
From the other side of the Red Sea, the Islamic influence was great, and religion helped to unite the people. The Afars were organized into several different clans and sultanates, as they still are.
French Somali country
The French settled at Obock in 1859, and in 1884 the protectors of Obock and Tadjoura were merged into the colony of French Somaliland. This was important to France because in 1897 the British began to build the port of Aden on the other side of the Red Sea. After the construction of the railway to Ethiopia, Djibouti became an important shipping port for Ethiopian goods.
French Somaliland was granted the status of overseas territory after the Second World War, with its own National Assembly. In 1967, the name was changed to the French Afar and Issa territories, and in the same year a majority voted for continued French rule in a referendum. With support from Somalia, opposition party Ligue populaire africaine pour l’Indépendence (LPAI) pushed for independence. In a referendum in May 1977, there was a clear majority for independence.
The Republic of Djibouti became independent on June 27, 1977, with LPAI leader Hassan Gouled Aptidon as the country’s first president. In 1979, LPAI was followed by the Rassemblement populaire pour le progrès (RPP), and Gouled was elected president without a candidate. Djibouti was made a one-party state.
Political opposition was banned in the 1980s. The opposition that grew, therefore, had to operate either in exile or underground. A former prime minister, Aden Robleh Awalleh, fled to Ethiopia and established there the opposition group Mouvement national djiboutien pourinstauration de la demokratie (MNDID).
In 1989, violent clashes occurred between ethnic groups in the capital Djibouti Ville and in the Afar-dominated city of Tadjourah, with increasing tension in the Afar areas. Also the following year there were ethnic clashes in the capital.
At the beginning of the 1990s, opposition to Gouled’s regime was intensified, and in 1990 the Front Democratique pour la libération de Djibouti (FDLD) joined the MNDD in a joint front, the Union des Movements démocratiques (UMD). This was the first time two political groups based on each of the two ethnic groups Afar and Issa joined together for a common cause.
The conflict between the two ethnic groups, which came to the surface throughout the 1980s, developed during the first half of the 1990s into civil war, especially the Front pour la restoration de l’unité et de la democratie (FRUD), which consisted of three militant Afar groups, took up arms against Gouled’s regime in 1991. The following year, FRUD intensified its struggle and took control of several parts of the country, especially in the north, with the president calling for military aid from France, which placed soldiers in several places in country.
Gouled claimed the rebels were supported by Ethiopia, and the Djiboutian army increased from 2,500 to 25,000 men in the 1990s. In 1992, French troops were deployed to the north as a peace force, while FRUD went to a cease-fire; however, this was short-lived – and the armed conflict continued.
In 1991 it was decided to continue the one-party state. However, under the pressure of the civil war – and of France – Gouled initiated a democratization process in 1991. A multi-party constitution was passed in 1992, but limited the number of parties to four. FRUD was among the parties that were not approved, and the RPP government won all 65 seats in the National Assembly. Parts of the opposition boycott the election. Gouled won the first presidential election with more than one candidate in 1993 – after being re-elected without a candidate in 1987.
New battles erupted in 1993, including an extensive government offensive in northern and central Djibouti, when the FRUD headquarters were conquered. As a result of the fighting, 80,000 people were displaced from their homes.
In 1994, FRUD was split, and Ali Mohamed Daoud was appointed new leader. Former leader Ahmed Dini Ahmed formed a rival organization in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Negotiations between the government and FRUD came to an end in 1994, and after mediation from France, a peace agreement was signed in December 1994, which laid the foundation for establishing a coalition government and distributing power between the peoples groups and the regions.
FRUD members were granted amnesty and guerrilla members were included in the national defense. In return, FRUD undertook to give up the military fight. Some clashes still took place in 1995-96, but in 1996 FRUD was legalized as Djibouti’s fourth political party.
FRUD was split again, and only in 2000 a final peace agreement was signed. The following year, FRUD surrendered its weapons to the government for destruction. Also in the government party RPP there was a shelling when the RPP – Groupe pour la demokratie de la republic (RPP-GDR) – was created in 1996. Together with the National Democratic Party (PND) and the Front Uni de l’Opposition djiboutienne (FUOD) established RPP-GDR in 1996 opposition alliance Coordination de l’opposition djiboutienne.
At the 1997 parliamentary elections, a coalition between RPP and FRUD took all 65 seats. The coalition again met all the representatives after the 2003 elections. The opposition gathered in the Union pour une alternance démocratique (UAD). For the first time in the country’s history, female MPs were elected.
Hassan Gouled Aptidon, president since independence, resigned in 1999; his relative and close associate Ismail Omar Guelleh (RPP / FRUD) became the new president after the election that year. Political repression has continued in Djibouti even after the peace agreement with FRUD and under Guelleh, and several members of the opposition have been taken into custody. The same applies to FRUD members deported from Ethiopia. Trade union leaders and journalists have also been taken into custody, newspapers are closed and torture reported.