This June 27, the Republic of Djibouti celebrates the 45e anniversary of its independence. And that’s almost a feat. “Uncertain tomorrows”, chose to title Young Africa in its May 1977 issue, while The world openly questioned the viability of “the least attractive colony in France”. Few observers predicted at that time a future other than disastrous for this country as large as the Normandy region and devoid of any natural wealth other than its crushing sun and its geographical location. “A country so deserted that even the jackal made his will before crossing it,” recalled Ismaël Omar Guelleh (IOG), on June 25, when he inaugurated the Balbala Dam Memorial in front of the full Djiboutian government.
Djibouti: forty years, the age of all possibilities
A major event for the country which thus unveils the first place of memory dedicated to its short history. A way of definitively closing the colonial past, “not to rehash it, but not to forget it, in order to transmit it better”, explained the head of the Djibouti state, after the visit of the memorial, therefore dedicated to the electrified barbed wire belt built over 14.5 km, with watchtowers and minefields, to close off the Djibouti peninsula, its port and its “white” city.
Built on the site of a former gatehouse, between the town of Balbala and the border with Somalia, the two buildings of this memorial will eventually house a library, as well as the national archives devoted to the country’s colonial period. Erected the day after General de Gaulle’s visit in August 1966, received with signs and separatist banners, the dam was not dismantled that on the evening of June 27, 1977. Which corresponds to “the ten harshest and most violent years that our country has known before its independence”, recalled IOG, who took advantage of the day to decorate 23 people, victims or simple witnesses of this painful period. With this memorial on “the wall of shame”, the Head of State wants to restore all their pride to his compatriots and strengthen this “Djibouti-ness, based on the desire to live together”, put forward by IOG.
Djibouti – Ismaïl Omar Guelleh: “I will not allow the Constitution to be touched”
Because if the country has managed to thwart all the deadly prognoses that surrounded his birth, “he owes it to his children, heirs to the values of freedom and sovereignty dear to Djibouti”, considers the president who has not forgotten the strong demands powerful Ethiopian and Somali neighbors on his country. As early as 1966, Negus Haïlé Sélassié reminded President Charles de Gaulle, then on a visit to Addis Ababa, that Djibouti “would naturally return to Ethiopia”, while the Somali Coast Liberation Front (FLCS) dreamed of bring back its fifth branch to the star of the Somali flag. In February 1976, the Loyada hostage-taking perpetrated by FLCS militants resulted in the death of 2 of the 31 French children present on the bus, as well as that of the 7 members of the commando and a few Somali soldiers. It precipitates the departure of the French. A little before midnight on June 27, 1977, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing announces from his office at the Élysée “that in place of the former French Coast of the Somalis, which has become the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas, the independent and sovereign State will be born of the Republic of Djibouti”, thus confirming the decision adopted by 98.7% a few weeks earlier by the Djiboutian people during the referendum of May 8.
Shutting the door
On D-day, nothing is ready or almost. France leaves abruptly, as if upset, slamming the door, like the boss of the local ORTF who hands over the keys to the premises of the national radio to the last Djiboutian he meets on the airport tarmac, just before embarking for Paris. Of course, it bequeathed to the country a new capital, Djibouti-Ville, chosen in 1888 for its harbor but away from the main traditional caravan routes. It also leaves a port, then the third in France behind Marseille and Le Havre and which, on its own, justifies the French presence since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869; a railway line which, since 1917, connects it to the Ethiopian capital to constitute the economic lung of the territory; and a few kilometers of paved road that connect Djibouti to the resort of Arta, where French nationals like to go to cool off.
Ambitious Djibouti, a model for the continent?
Above all, France is leaving behind a contingent of 2,900 soldiers, following the defense agreements negotiated in recent weeks with the new authorities, which allows it to maintain its influence along a sea route through which 25% of of world trade and 15% of annual oil transit.
This French military presence also represents a “life insurance” for the young state, while Ethiopia and Somalia are massing their troops on the borders, in preparation for the Ogaden war, which will be declared less than a fortnight after the independence of Djibouti. Despite the threat, the Djiboutians only authorize the installation of this base on the condition that their currency continue to be pegged to the dollar, as has been the case since 1949, instead of entering the common basket. of the CFA franc as the former power wishes – they do not want the successive devaluations that the franc has experienced since the end of the Second World War.
The country is economically drained, and the war brewing in the sub-region will seriously contract the activity of the port and its railway. With no other income for many months than the fee paid by France for the presence of its troops, Djibouti completed its first budget in 1977, 85% of which was made up of international contributions.
The common front presented at least until 1978 by President Hassan Gouled Aptidon and his Prime Minister, Afar Ahmed Dini Ahmed, made it possible to avoid the ethnic conflict and the “Lebanization” of the country that many promised him, while throwing the foundations of a Djiboutian identity. It still remains to establish the very existence of the small Republic by finding on the external scene the support that will help it break its diplomatic isolation, while helping it to face up to its economic emergencies.
It is no coincidence that the date of June 27 was chosen. The “father of independence”, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, indeed wants to see his country become the 49e member of the Organization of the African Union (OAU) from the meeting of the institution scheduled three days later in Addis Ababa. Once membership has been validated, the Djiboutian president leaves for Cairo, headquarters of the Arab League, where he knows he can count on the support of Saudis wishing to establish themselves in the Horn. A few months later, Djibouti becomes the 21e member of the organization, the first non-Arab.
Island of stability
In a few months, the arrival of Egyptian pilots and Tunisian teachers allowed the reopening of port basins and schools. This Arab financial and technical support will prove flawless. It is Ryad which will settle the bill for the “unity road” linking Djibouti-Ville to Tadjourah, built in 1988 by Yugoslav engineers. Dubai, for its part, will definitely bring the port of Djibouti back into the modern maritime era by delivering the Doraleh container terminal turnkey at the end of the 2000s. This diplomatic activism driven by the first Djiboutian president is perpetuated by his successor in from 1999, Ismaël Omar Guelleh, his former chief of staff. The latter will make the most of a conjunction of international events that will follow one another to place his country at the center of all diplomatic and military attention. From the fight against piracy and international terrorism, to the economic emergence of a landlocked Ethiopian market, everyone seems to have a good reason to settle in the country.
Starting with China, which, for ten years, has invested more than ten billion dollars there to make it its maritime gateway to the continent. Definitively unified since 2001 and the signing of the peace agreement signed between the Afar and Issa communities after the civil war which devastated the country between 1991 and 1994, Djibouti appears today, paradoxically, as the only island of stability in a region in crisis. What attract investors from around the world and maintain the dream of the small Republic of becoming “the Singapore of Africa”. Hoping it doesn’t come true at the cost of on sovereignty.