A key entryway to the Horn of Africa, Djibouti’s strategic location at the confluence of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, combined with its historic links to Europe, the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa and Asia, make it a unique crossroads for international culture and trade. A country of diverse traditions and landscapes, Djibouti is very much centred around the port city from which it derives its name.
Having long enjoyed relative security and stability – avoiding many of the conflicts that have beset its neighbours – Djibouti has gained a valuable reputation as a safe haven in an often-troubled region. Today, it stands as a key focus for world and regional powers alike, making it a natural investment destination and a growing centre of global trade.
GEOGRAPHY: Covering 23,200 sq km – an area the size of the US state of New Jersey – Djibouti is relatively small. Nonetheless, some 403 km of coastline give it a window onto the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, as well as the Bab Al Mandab strait that joins them. Inland lie eight mountain ranges with peaks at over 1000 metres. The highest of these, the Mousa Ali volcano, reaches 2028 metres above sea level, and is part of the Great Rift Valley, which extends from Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley to Mozambique. The Mousa Ali mountain range straddles Djibouti’s borders with both Eritrea and Ethiopia. The country also shares a land frontier with Somalia.
Away from the mountains, Djibouti is home to the flats of the Grand Bara Desert, along with a southern extension of the Eritrean coastal desert ecoregion. Much of the interior, meanwhile, is grass and shrub land, with the country pinched in the middle by the Gulf of Tadjoura, a 64-km-long inlet with the port city of Djibouti on its southern shore. At its western end, the gulf leads into Lake Ghoubet, with a short isthmus separating it from Lake Assal. At 155 metres below sea level, this lake is the lowest point in Africa. The country also shares Lake Abhe with Ethiopia.
CLIMATE: On a similar latitude to Senegal, southern India, Thailand and Venezuela, Djibouti is generally a hot country, experiencing average July highs of around 41°C in the capital. The hot season is May to September, when the khamsin, a hot wind from inland deserts, blows across the country.
The rainy season is January to March, although rainfall is very low: around 131 mm on the eastern seaboard. An arid climate stretches over most of the country, with a semi-arid designation covering the rest. Humidity levels are generally high on the coast, though much lower inland.
Djibouti can experience some significant temperature variations, depending on the season and the altitude. Temperatures in December in the country’s highland areas can reach freezing, with rainfall of around 200-300 mm in that month. Even in winter, however, most of the country sees average daily temperatures in the 20-30°C range, with the coolest city being Airolaf, in the north-western Tadjoura region. Situated at 1535 metres above sea level, January temperatures average 10-22°C. This region is also home to Djibouti’s only significant arboreal coverage, the 150-sq-km Day Forest National Park.
Climate change has affected the level of rainfall, with the Ministry of Environment predicting temperatures will increase and water resources will become scarcer. Flash floods from cyclonic disturbances in the Indian Ocean are also a climate risk.
NATURAL RESOURCES: While water resources remain an issue, Djibouti does have natural mineral deposits. Among them are deposits of clay, granite, limestone, gold, marble, gypsum, pumice, salt and diatomite. Recent times have also seen concerted efforts to explore for petroleum.
Djibouti’s location on the Great Rift Valley gives it major potential to harness geothermal energy, with some 20 sites for potential plants having already been identified. The country is also making plans to maximise its solar and wind potential, and has laid out targets to draw 100% of its electricity from renewable energy by 2020.
Djibouti’s climate limits its agricultural resources, with only around 1% of the land used for arable farming. The coastline gives it access to significant maritime resources, however, including coral reefs and fish stocks. Sustainably securing and developing these continues to be the focus of government fisheries and tourism projects.
POPULATION: The population of Djibouti stood around 900,000 in mid-2018. Average life expectancy at birth is 62.5 years, as per the World Bank, with a 66.6% literacy rate for males and 52.9% for females (see Health & Education chapter). Although there is certainly room for improvement, Djiboutian women in particular have come to play an increasingly important role in economic development, and the government has strived over the past decade to improve their socio-economic conditions through enhanced employment initiatives and education opportunities in support of economic prosperity.
Data from the Department of Government Statistics for 2016 show the median age at 20 years, with a rate of population growth at 2.8%. At the time, the city of Djibouti was by far the largest conurbation, being home to around 58% of the total population of the country. Three other cities had populations over 100,000: Dikhil, with 107,917; Ali Sabieh, with 105,491; and Tadjourah, with 105,194.
The majority of the population are Issa Somalis, from the Dir clan family, with other significant groupings including the Afar, who are traditionally located to the north of the Gulf of Tadjoura. There are also much smaller numbers of Yemeni Arabs, Ethiopians and Europeans, mainly French and Italian. Djibouti is thus a young country, highly concentrated in urban areas, with a rapidly expanding population.
LANGUAGE & RELIGION: While the country’s official languages are French and Arabic, the majority of inhabitants have Somali or Afar as their native tongue. Many Djiboutians are multilingual, with French the main language of instruction and political affairs and Somali more widely spoken in everyday life. Afar is mainly spoken in the regions to the north and west of the Gulf of Tadjoura, while a significant community speaking Yemeni Arabic exists in the capital, along with established European communities speaking French, Italian or Greek.
Some 94.1% of the population is Muslim, with nearly all belonging to the Sunni branch. Small Christian communities also exist, with around 3% of the population Orthodox, and 1.4% Catholic. The constitution declares Islam as the sole state religion, while also guaranteeing religious freedom and equality.
EARLY HISTORY: Inhabited since Neolithic times, Djibouti evolved into part of the land known to the Ancient Egyptians as Punt, which also incorporated Northern Somalia, Eritrea and the Red Sea coast of Somalia. Islam arrived in the region early, given close contacts with the Arabian Peninsula, with Djibouti becoming part of the Sultanate of Ifat from 1285 to 1415, then the Adal Sultanate from 1415 to 1577.
A period of Ottoman rule then ensued, with the region coming under their Egyptian Eyalet, or administrative region. In the 19th century, growing European influence became a concrete presence when France purchased the territory of Obock, on the north shore of the Gulf of Tadjoura, in 1862. From there, France expanded to the south side of the gulf, leading to the establishment of French Somaliland in 1883. From then on, the port of Djibouti developed rapidly, first as a coaling station and then as the railhead for trains from Ethiopia and the heart of Africa.
Following the Second World War, in 1946, French Somaliland became the French Overseas Territory of the Afars and Issas. On June 27, 1977 it became the independent Republic of Djibouti.
INDEPENDENCE: By adopting a neutral stance in international affairs, the new state managed to establish peaceful and friendly relations with its larger neighbours, Somalia and Ethiopia. During the initial years of independence, under the country’s first president, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, Djibouti also faced major domestic challenges. These included internal migration, which led to an explosion in the capital’s population and a subsequent shortage of jobs, services and infrastructure as the city found itself unable to keep up with the influx of people.
In 1992 a new constitution established limited multi-party politics. Gouled withdrew from politics in 1999 and was replaced by Ismaïl Omar Guelleh as president. A full multi-party system began operating in 2002, and 2003 legislative elections saw the former warring parties of the 1990s – the ruling Popular Assembly for Progress and the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy – join the Union for the Presidential Majority coalition with Guelleh made leader of the party and still president today.
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