African Studies Djibouti
Kenneth Menkhaus, Claire Metelits
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0177


Djibouti is one of the most understudied countries in Africa. Known for its small size (it is roughly equivalent to the size of Belgium), Djibouti has a population of approximately 818,000, 60 percent of whom live in the capital, Djibouti City. Its neighbors often overshadow this small country: crisis-ridden Somalia to the south, Horn of Africa powerhouse Ethiopia to the west, and insular Eritrea to the northwest. Djibouti has a particularly inhospitable environment with an average daily temperature hovering at approximately 34°C (93°F); the temperature has been known to rise to 55°C (131°F). As such, Djibouti lacks significant arable land and has little in the way of fresh water or natural resources. Not surprisingly the country experiences extended periods of severe drought and famine. The Issa and the Afar make up the two major ethnic groups in Djibouti. The Issa clan constitutes 50 to 60 percent of the population and is based largely in the capital. The Afar represent 35 to 40 percent of the population and are based in the north. In the late 19th century, representatives of both groups signed treaties with the French, and the land became the colony of French Somaliland. Djibouti saw the domination of a single party in the years following independence. Hassan Gouled Aptidon became the country’s first president in 1982 under a constitution that permitted the participation of a single party, the Issa-controlled People’s Rally for Progress (RPP). The country remained relatively stable until 1991 when the Afar-dominated Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy (FRUD) launched an insurgency in northern Djibouti. The FRUD cited years of political marginalization and inequality, as well as the government’s rejection of democratic power sharing as reasons for instigating the rebellion. In 1992, at the height of the civil war, a new constitution was approved that established Djibouti as a multiparty system and permitted the registration of four political parties. Aptidon stepped down from power in 1999 and was succeeded by his nephew, Ismael Omar Guelleh. Today, however, attention has turned to this small African country because of its strategic importance to nations fighting the war on terrorism—especially the United States, which maintains its largest African base in Djibouti.

General Overviews and Reference Works

Reference works on Djibouti are limited. Alwan and Mibrathu 2000 is the likely starting point for a chronology of historical events. Clarke 1977–1978 provides a dated bibliography. Historical introductions to Djibouti are also limited. One of the broader volumes is Chiré 2013 with its French-language introduction. Centre des Hautes Études sur l’Afrique et l’Asie Modernes 1986 is a notable piece that provides an extensive investigation of the country’s history. Oberlé and Hugot 1985 and Weber 1986 provide historical insight into the country as well.

  • Alwan, Daoud A., and Yohanis Mibrathu. Historical Dictionary of Djibouti. African Historical Dictionaries no. 82. Latham, MD: Scarecrow, 2000.

    Includes a chronology of key events up to 2000, with 120 pages of alphabetized short entries describing towns, personalities, businesses, and important aspects of Djiboutian culture, geography, and society. Also features an appendix with lists of members of government up to the year 2000, and a comprehensive thirty-page bibliography organized by topic.

  • Centre des Hautes Études sur l’Afrique et l’Asie Modernes. France Océan Indien, Mer Rouge: Etudes 51 (1986): 165.

    Provides an extensive background chapter on Djibouti.

  • Chiré, Amina Saïd, ed. Djibouti Contemporain. Paris: Karthala, 2013.

    An essential but not comprehensive introduction to Djibouti. Includes chapters on Djiboutian archaeology and history, law, urbanization, decentralization, regional relations, geopolitics, the seaport, biodiversity, the informal sector, popular culture, and literature. Domestic politics and other sensitive issues are given little attention.

  • Clarke, W. Sheldon. “The Republic of Djibouti: An Introduction to Africa’s Newest State and a Review of Related Literature and Sources.” A Current Bibliography on African Affairs 10.1 (1977–1978): 3–31.

    A useful though dated bibliography with several French works.

  • Oberlé, Philippe, and Pierre Hugot. Histoire de Djibouti: Des Origines à la République. Paris: Présence Africaine, 1985.

    A comprehensive history of Djibouti.

  • Weber, Olivier, ed. Corne de l’Afrique: Ethiopie, Somalie, Djibouti, Yémen. Paris: Autrement, 1986.

    Contains several articles focused on the history and culture of Djibouti as well as Djiboutian life during the 1980s, with further discussions on the region during this period.

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