Strategically situated, Djibouti commands Bab el Mandeb, the strait between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Largely a stony desert with isolated plateaus and highlands, it has a generally dry and hot climate. Lake Assal, the lowest point in Africa (509 ft/155 m below sea level), is in the center of the country. The population is about 60% Somali (of which the Issa constitute some 40%) and 35% Afar (of Ethiopian origin); both groups are Muslim. In addition, large numbers of refugees from Ethiopian civil wars settled in Djibouti from 1975 to 1991. There are also French, Italian, and Arab minorities. Two thirds of the people live in the capital city, and the rest are nomadic herders. Official languages are French and Arabic; Somali and Afar are both widely used.
Djibouti's economy is based on a number of service activities associated with its strategic location and its position as a free-trade zone. It is a major port for NE Africa, as well as an international transshipment and refueling center. Otherwise, the nation is largely economically underdeveloped and there is high unemployment. Nomadic pastoralism is a chief occupation; goats, sheep, and camels are raised. Fruits, vegetables, and dates are grown. With few natural resources (there are significant salt deposits), Djibouti's industry is mainly limited to food processing, construction, and shipbuilding and repair. The city of Djibouti is the terminus of the Addis Ababa-Djibouti RR; it and the port were modernized beginning in the late 1990s. The main exports are hides and skins, cattle, and coffee (transshipped from Ethiopia). Djibouti imports foods and beverages, transportation equipment, chemicals, and petroleum products. Its economic development depends largely on foreign investment and aid. The main trading partners are Somalia, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, India, and China.
Djibouti is governed under the constitution of 1992, which provides for a president as the head of state and a prime minister as the head of government. The president is popularly elected for a six-year term and is eligible for a second term; the prime minister is appointed by the president. The unicameral Chamber of Deputies consists of 65 members, who are popularly elected for five-year terms. Administratively, the country is divided into six districts.
France first obtained a foothold in the region in 1862. French interest centered around Djibouti, the French commercial rival to Aden. By 1896 it was organized as a colony and in 1946 it became a territory within the French Union. Membership in the French Community followed in 1958. The political status of the territory was determined by a referendum in 1967, in which the Afar population, until then the group that had the lesser voice in government, gained political ascendancy with French support. The Afars opted for a continuation of the connection with France, whereas the Somalis voted for independence and eventual union with Somalia.
France officially recognized Djibouti's independence in 1977. In the three years that followed, the Afar and Issa-Somali communities struggled to obtain control over the government. In 1979, efforts were made to unite the two ethnic groups through the formation of the People's Progress Assembly (RPP). In 1981, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, president since independence, established the RPP as the only legal political party in the country.
Despite its attempts at peacemaking, Djibouti has been adversely affected by warfare in and between neighboring Ethiopia and Somalia. Moreover, beginning in 1991, tensions between Afars and the Issa-dominated government resulted in an Afar rebellion. A reconciliation agreement was reached in 1994, but the last remaining rebel group signed a peace accord only in 2001. There also were border clashes with Eritrea during the mid-1990s. Djibouti was the base of operations for French forces during the Persian Gulf War, and the French remain a strong military and technical presence. The United States also established a military presence in the nation beginning in 2002.
In 1992 a constitution allowing for a limited multiparty state was approved by Djibouti's voters. In 1993, Gouled was reelected in the country's first multiparty elections, which were widely boycotted by the opposition. The 1999 presidential election was won by Ismail Omar Guelleh, the governing party candidate (and a nephew of Gouled). In 2003 the government sought to expel an estimated 100,000 illegal immigrants, largely Ethiopians and Somalis, from the country. The move was prompted by security and unemployment concerns. Guelleh was reelected in 2005, but the opposition refused to contest the election, believing that the government would rig the vote.
In June, 2008, fighting erupted briefly between Djibouti and Eritrea near the Bab el Mandeb; Djibouti had accused Eritrea of occupying Djiboutian territory there earlier in the year, and relations remained tense in subsequent months. In Jan., 2009, the UN Security Council demanded Eritrea to withdraw its forces from the disputed area, but Eritrea refused to comply; Djibouti had previously withdrawn.
I. M. Lewis, Peoples of the Horn of Africa (1969); H. G. Marcus, The Modern History of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa (1972); R. Tholomier, Djibouti: Pawn of the Horn of Africa (1981).
The PND was founded on 13 September 1992, and it boycotted the December 1992 parliamentary election. Seeking greater democracy, it then called for a transitional national unity government to be formed. Awaleh stood as the party's candidate in the May 1993 presidential election, receiving 12% of the vote and placing third.
On 27 October 1995, a PND protest was broken up by the police and many PND members, including Awaleh, were arrested. The party participated in the December 1997 parliamentary election, but failed to win any seats, obtaining 2.3% of the vote. The PND only presented candidates in Ali Sabieh Region in the 1997 election, and it performed well there, losing to the ruling coalition by only 500 votes.
The PND experienced internal division in the late 1990s. In May 1997, Awaleh suspended PND spokesman Farah Ali Wabert from the party, a move that reportedly exacerbated the situation. By November 1998, a rival leadership under Mahdi Ahmed Abdillahié controlled the PND headquarters, and in the same month, the PND headquarters was attacked with a grenade; there was no claim of responsibility for the attack. The factions apparently reconciled by 2002.
The PND subsequently joined the ruling coalition, the Union for a Presidential Majority (Union pour la Majorité Présidentielle, UMP). In the parliamentary election held on 10 January 2003, the party was included in the joint candidate lists of the UMP, which won 62.7 % of the popular vote and all seats. The PND subsequently supported Guelleh in the April 2005 presidential election, and it remained part of the UMP in the February 2008 parliamentary election.