Afars and Issas of Djibouti

Alternative names: the Afars are known in Ethiopia as the Danakils
Location: the republic of Djibouti and neighbouring borders of Ethiopia and Somalia
Population: 460,000 (1986)
% of population: Issas about 50%, Afars 25%
Religion: Muslim
Language: the Issas are a Somali-speaking people

The Issas are a Somali people and the Afars belong to the same ethnic group as the neighbouring Ethiopian Danakils. About two-thirds of the population of Djibouti are settled; the rest roam across the borders of Ethiopia and Somalia in search of grazing land for their cattle and goats. Djibouti itself is of great strategic value, because of its proximity to the entrance to the Red Sea, and 12 years after independence France still has a military base in the area.

In 1862 France established a small naval base at Obock and in 1884 formally annexed the area and named it French Somaliland. In 1892 the capital was transferred from Obock to Djibouti. Following severe riots during a visit by General de Gaulle in 1966, a referendum on independence was held in March 1967. This produced a majority for French rule, although there were widespread allegations of electoral malpractices. French Somaliland was then renamed the Territoire Française des Afars et des Issas (TFAI), some say to emphasize the existence of two disparate population groups. The local chamber of Deputies was expanded and France was represented by a High Commissioner, retaining complete control of defence, foreign policy, security and finance.

There was growing opposition to French rule, fuelled by Somali interest in the Issas’ cause and perhaps in the hope of a Greater Somalia, and growing international pressures for decolonisation. Ethiopia too had an interest in Djibouti because of its port and railway which carry more than 60% of Ethiopia’s trade to and from the sea. Although the French expressed concern about possible conflicts between the Afars and the Issas, Djibouti gained its independence in 1977, with Hassan Gouled as Head of State. In October 1981, a one-party system was introduced and the Rassemblement Populaire pour le Progrès (RPP) became the sole legal party.

Djibouti has a President (elected for a six-year term by universal adult suffrage), a Prime Minister who heads a Cabinet, and a 65-member Chamber of Deputies (also elected by universal adult suffrage) — which reportedly reflects the balance between ethnic groups. In elections held on April 24 1987 over 90% re-elected Hassan Gouled to office for a third term. No opposition candidate was permitted to stand, although several former leaders of the Parti Populaire Djiboutien (PPD) (the opposition party which was nullified when the one-party system was introduced in 1981) were included on the list of the 65-member Chamber of Deputies.

Before independence the smaller Afar community had a greater share of political influence, but afterwards the reverse has been true. The Government under Hassan Gouled, an Issa, tends to represent the slightly larger Issa population, who together with the Somali related tribes are in the majority, although the Prime Minister, Barkat Gourad Hamadou is Afar and there are five Afars in the politburo. The President has removed Afars from most of the administration and army: there are only two Afar permanent secretaries, whereas there are 17 from the Mamassen clan of the Issas — the presidential family clan.

In October 1981, just after an opposition group tried to register as a political party Le Parti Populaire Djiboutien (PPD) the government amended the constitution in order to form a one-party state and consequently illegalize PPD. The government claimed that PPD was an ethnic pressure group, although its central committee was made up of six Afars, seven Issas and one Arab.

Djibouti’s President, Gouled, is now in his seventies and he has no clear successor. If he is succeeded by an Issa, then the other Issa clans will demand that the successor come from a clan other than the ruling Mamassen, and the Afars will in that case certainly expect the Prime Minister to remain an Afar. It is interesting to note that the presidential armoured squadron, the Difaac Madaxtoyaada Maamassan (the defender of Mamassen power), composed of 200 men, is 70% Mamassen.

There is an Ethiopian-backed Afar resistance movement, the Afar Liberation Front {Front Afar) (FA), which has been monitoring the treatment of Ethiopian Afar refugees in Djibouti and claims that indiscriminate arrests and imprisonment without trial are common for the Afar refugees. In 1986 Djibouti launched a formal repatriation programme for Ethiopian refugees, although Ethiopians had been deported from Djibouti since early summer 1981 and by September 1984 about 25,000 had been sent back. The FA say that Djibouti is using force to accomplish this repatriation, particularly where Afar refugees are concerned. In April 1987 Africa Confidential reported that a new special security unit had been set up composed of a hundred Issa from Ethiopia.

Other minority groups

Non-Issa Somalis — the Isaaqs (Issaks) with an estimated population of 40,000, and the Gadabourse of whom there are about 45,000, resent the Issa (Mamassen clan) power. In May 1988 the government detained 500 Isaaqs who were demonstrating in favour of the Somali National Movement (SNM), and in June they detained 300 more.

There are about 18,000 Arabs in Djibouti. Arabic is officially on a par with French as a national language, but French remains the main medium for business and political affairs and is the medium of instruction in schools. There also are about 12,000 Europeans who live a luxurious expatriate lifestyle.

(See also Eritreans; Oromo of Ethiopia)