Djibouti lies at a major global crossroads where, some 100,000 years ago, early humans migrated from Africa to the Middle East. Livestock herding, which remains important to Djibouti’s people, was introduced to this region by nomads more than 10,000 years ago. The ancient region’s small ports, inhabited by the ancestors of the Afars, hosted merchants from Persia, Arabia, Ethiopia, and the Mediterranean. In the first centuries ad, a series of kingdoms dominated the region and its rich trade, paying tribute to the powerful inland kingdom of Aksum, in what is now Ethiopia. Arab traders brought Islam to the coastal ports by the 9th century and founded the Islamic sultanate of Adal at Zeila, a port to the southeast in what is now Somalia. Somali people moved into what is now southern Djibouti by the 14th century. By 1500 Adal ruled Djibouti. Starting in 1527 Ahmed al-Ghazi, the ruler of Adal, led Afar and Somali troops in a holy war against Christian Ethiopia. The Muslims won a major victory in 1529, destroying an entire Ethiopian army, and they went on to capture several Ethiopian provinces. However, in 1543 an Ethiopian force with Portuguese assistance defeated and killed Ahmed, and Adal collapsed. Subsequently, small Afar sultanates, including Obock and Tadjoura, emerged on the northern side of the Gulf of Tadjoura. These sultanates still survive, though the sultans have little formal power. During the second half of the 16th century, European merchants began a lucrative trade in Ethiopian coffee and perfumes with these Djiboutian sultanates.
France sought to challenge British dominance of the Indian Ocean trade by establishing a base at the strategic entrance to the Red Sea, so France signed a treaty with the sultan of Obock in 1862. Beginning in 1881 France set up a trading mission in Obock and concluded a series of treaties with other local rulers that recognized French control. In 1888 France established the colony of French Somaliland—encompassing what is now Djibouti—and chose the town of Djibouti as the colony’s capital in 1892 because it offered a good site for a rail link to Addis Ababa. The French completed the railroad in 1917, and the port of Djibouti grew rapidly. Large numbers of Somalis and Arabs migrated to the port to take advantage of the opportunities for employment and trade.
French rule met some resistance from Afar and Issa nomads, but the French mainly ignored the interior of the territory and focused their attention on the port. In 1946 France made French Somaliland an overseas territory with limited self-rule. Ethnic conflicts soon arose over representation in the territory’s legislature. The French adopted a policy of favoritism toward the Afars because the Somali population generally sought independence from France and possible unification with Somalia. In a 1967 referendum, Djiboutians voted to remain under French administration, and the colony’s name was changed to the French Territory of the Afars and Issas. Ten years later, however, increased nationalist sentiment and international pressure led France to hold another referendum, and this time Djiboutians overwhelmingly voted for independence. The Republic of Djibouti achieved full independence on June 27, 1977.
The people of Djibouti elected Hassan Gouled Aptidon, an Issa, as its first president. Gouled quickly monopolized power and established a single-party state in 1981. Gouled dominated the RPP—the sole party—and rewarded his supporters with patronage. The population of the capital city grew, and the subsequent lack of clean water, sanitation, and adequate employment caused growing dissatisfaction and tension. Afars and other dissidents organized resistance movements, but the government acted to suppress any opposition.
Beginning in 1991 an armed Afar rebellion destabilized Djibouti. By mid-1992 Afar rebels controlled two-thirds of Djibouti’s territory. Later that year the government, under pressure from France, held a referendum in which voters approved a new constitution permitting opposition parties. However, the constitution required opposition groups to gain government approval in order to compete in elections, and the government rejected the application of FRUD, the party of the Afar rebels. The government defeated the rebels in a 1993 military offensive. In late 1994 the two sides signed a peace agreement. However, over the next two years several factions split off from FRUD and vowed to continue armed resistance. Under the peace agreement, the government granted cabinet posts to two Afar leaders, incorporated former rebels into the military, and recognized FRUD as a legitimate political party. With its economy devastated by the war, Djibouti was forced to cut government spending to gain international financial assistance. Government austerity measures further worsened Djibouti’s chronic unemployment and poverty.
Gouled’s health began to deteriorate in 1995, and in early 1999 he announced that he would not run for another term. Ismail Omar Guelleh, an aide of Gouled’s who had built a power base within the RPP, won a solid victory in presidential elections in April 1999. The outbreak of border clashes between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1998 proved a boon to Djibouti, which became virtually the only outlet for Ethiopia’s external trade during the ensuing war. Growing port traffic improved the country’s economy, but persistent unemployment and ongoing attacks by Afar rebel factions continued to threaten Djibouti’s stability.