The Republic of Djibouti gained its independence on June 27, 1977. It
is the successor to the French Territory of the Afars and Issas, which
was created in the first half of the 19th century as a result of French
interest in the Horn of Africa.
However, the history of Djibouti, recorded in poetry and songs of its
nomadic peoples, goes back thousands of years to a time when
Djiboutians traded hides and skins for the perfumes and spices of
ancient Egypt, India, and China. Through close contacts with the
Arabian peninsula for more than 1,000 years, the Somali and Afar
tribes in this region became the first on the African continent to adopt Islam.
It was Rochet d'Hericourt's exploration into Shoa (1839-42) that
marked the beginning of French interest in the African shores of the
Red Sea. Further exploration by Henri Lambert, French Consular
Agent at Aden, and Captain Fleuriot de Langle led to a treaty of
friendship and assistance between France and the sultans of Raheita,
Tadjoura, and Gobaad, from whom the French purchased the
anchorage of Obock (1862).
Growing French interest in the area took place against a backdrop of
British activity in Egypt and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. In
1884-85, France expanded its protectorate to include the shores of the
Gulf of Tadjoura and the Somaliland. Boundaries of the protectorate,
marked out in 1897 by France and Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia,
were affirmed further by agreements with Ethiopian Emperor Haile
Selassie I in 1945 and 1954.
The administrative capital was moved from Obock to Djibouti in 1896.
Djibouti, which has a good natural harbor and ready access to the
Ethiopian highlands, attracted trade caravans crossing East Africa as
well as Somali settlers from the south. The Franco-Ethiopian railway,
linking Djibouti to the heart of Ethiopia, was begun in 1897 and
reached Addis Ababa in June 1917, further facilitating the increase of trade.
During the Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia in the 1930s and
during World War II, constant border skirmishes occurred between
French and Italian forces. The area was ruled by the Vichy (French)
government from the fall of France until December 1942, when French
Somaliland forces broke a Vichy blockade to join the Free French and
the Allied forces. A local battalion from Djibouti participated in the
liberation of France in 1944.
On July 22, 1957, the colony was reorganized to give the people
considerable self-government. On the same day, a decree applying the
Overseas Reform Act (Loi Cadre) of June 23, 1956, established a
territorial assembly that elected eight of its members to an executive
council. Members of the executive council were responsible for one or
more of the territorial services and carried the title of minister. The
council advised the French-appointed governor general.
In a September 1958 constitutional referendum, French Somaliland
opted to join the French community as an overseas territory. This act
entitled the region to representation by one deputy and one senator in
the French Parliament, and one counselor in the French Union Assembly.
The first elections to the territorial assembly were held on November
23, 1958, under a system of proportional representation. In the next
assembly elections (1963), a new electoral law was enacted.
Representation was abolished in exchange for a system of straight
plurality vote based on lists submitted by political parties in seven
designated districts. Ali Aref Bourhan, allegedly of Turkish origin,
was selected to be the president of the executive council.
French President Charles de Gaulle's August 1966 visit to Djibouti was
marked by 2 days of public demonstrations by Somalis demanding
independence. On September 21, 1966, Louis Saget, appointed
governor general of the territory after the demonstrations, announced
the French Government's decision to hold a referendum to determine
whether the people would remain within the French Republic or
become independent. In March 1967, 60% chose to continue the
territory's association with France.
In July of that year, a directive from Paris formally changed the name
of the region to the French Territory of Afars and Issas. The directive
also reorganized the governmental structure of the territory, making the
senior French representative, formerly the governor general, a high
commissioner. In addition, the executive council was redesignated as
the council of government, with nine members.
In 1975, the French Government began to accommodate increasingly
insistent demands for independence. In June 1976, the territory's
citizenship law, which favored the Afar minority, was revised to reflect
more closely the weight of the Issa Somali. The electorate voted for
independence in a May 1977 referendum, and the Republic of Djibouti
was established on June 27, 1977.
source: U.S. State Department Background Notes 1996
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