issue 186 - August 1988
Djibouti was the French toe-hold on the Red Sea, a vital coaling-station for her ships passing through to the Indian Ocean. Although independent since 1977, the French influence lingers on. In the harbour the aircraft-carrier Clemenceau lies at anchor and sailors frequent the cafes. French aid supports the government's persistent budget deficit and a garrison of about 2,000 troops guarantees Djibouti's independence against its larger neighbours Somalia and Ethiopia.
The French presence is not popular but Djibouti is in no position to sever the links, for its economy is precarious.
The country is effectively a city state, with half the population living in the capital. Most of the land is semi-arid scrub and agriculture almost non-existent. As a result food has to be imported at great expense. There are no mineral resources.
The port on the Red Sea, the railway to the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, and associated services account for nearly half Djibouti's national income. This leaves the country at the mercy of its combative neighbours, Ethiopia and Somalia When the Ogaden war broke out in 1977 and the railway was closed for two years, Djibouti was nearly bankrupted.
Aside from the port and railway, Djibouti's other largest source of income comes, ironically, from the unwelcome French garrison. They spend their pay in the cafes and hotels, many of which double as brothels attracting not only French troops but visitors from the Gulf. The devoutly Muslim Djiboutians find this sexual activity offensive. What is more the French garrison has been steadily reduced since independence and can no longer support the services it fathered.
Many Djiboutians cannot find work, probably as many as 40 per cent. The large well-paid expatriate community means high prices for food, so most local people live at subsistence level or below.
Grinding poverty has exacerbated internal political feuding between the two main groups, the Afars and the Issas. More than half the population are Afars who dominate the Cabinet of the country's single party, the Popular Assembly for Progress. Yet they feel they are disadvantaged in comparison with the Issa Somalis of whom President Gouled is one.
President Gouled has little room to manoeuvre. He has to patronise rival clans within the Issa community to retain their support, pushing the demands of the Afar opposition way down his list of priorities.
As their protests have turned to violence he has resorted to force. Although French troops are bound by treaty not to intervene in local politics they must offer President Gouled some reassurance. He has opposed the French government's decisions to reduce the size of its force. The question is whether they intervene when President Gouled dies - he is now over 70 - and fill the vacuum left by the man who has ruled since independence.
Leader: President Hassan Gouled Aptidon
Economy: GNP per capita $480 (US $15,390) Monetary unit: Djibouti Franc, linked to CFA Franc (France's trading community)
People: 400,000 Estimated 16,000 refugees from Ethiopia and Somalia
Health: Infant mortality 152 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1,000)
Culture: Government claims that about the half the population is Afar (Danakil) and the remainder Somali with a small Arab population of 12,000. The Somalia are divided into the Issa clan who predominate, the Gadabursi and the Issaq. Large expatriate European community.
Language: Arabic is official language, but Somali, Afar and French are also widely spoken
Religion: Islam and traditional beliefs.
Sources: Economist Intelligence Unit and State of the World's Children 1988
Rural women have more social freedom than urban sisters.
Fairly free press but tight control of political opposition.
About 50 years