Djibouti: Pawn Of The Horn Of Africa, by Robert Tholomier
Djibouti, once known as French Somaliland (as opposed to British, Italian, and Ethiopian Somaliland), is a small nation with a strategic location opposite of the port of Aden near the base of the Red Sea. Although it has always been a small region, whether when controlled by the French as a strategic point in order to connect French possessions in the Indian Ocean with metropolitan France, or as a poor independent state which has become a key part of American efforts at keeping the Middle East more or less under some state approaching control, Djibouti, under whatever name, has in its small area a microcosm of the larger problems that afflict the Horn of Africa and many other parts of that troubled continent. For one, the nation as a whole has value only for one thing, and that is its location surrounding a pleasant bay, lacking natural resources or an educated and skilled populace. And even with its small size, Djibouti has within it a stark ethnic divide between its two constituent peoples, the Afars, a people with connections to that region of Eritrea and Ethiopia, and the Issas, a clan of the Somali people who inhabit parts of the Ogaden region of Ethiopia as well as form the core population of the unrecognized state of Somaliland (formerly British Somaliland). Obviously, this results in problems, which form the contents of the book.
This book is a relatively short one of about 150 pages or so, originally written in French and then translated into English. The book begins with a biographical note and an introduction before the author talks about Djibouti being a difficult fusion between the Afars and Issas (1). This is followed by a discussion of the government apparatus, which was largely consistent over the entire course of France’s rule over the area (2). This is followed by a look at the internal policy of the French regime, which included attempts to defuse internal divides between the constituent peoples as well as attempts to increase the education level of the people (3). This is followed by some viewpoints on Djibouti’s independence (4), which lagged far beyond many other areas of Africa, as well as a look at Djibouti’s location astride Africa and Asia (5), which has always drawn external interest. This is followed by a chapter on the economy of Djibouti (6), based mainly on trade, lacking natural resources or a large population or any degree of industrial production, as well as a conclusion (7), and a postscript that looks at the period after the original writing of the book (8). The book then ends with a bibliography, glossary, index, list of acronyms, and index.
While the contents of this book can be praised for being very detailed, the detail at the same time can be a bit frustrating, because while it is clear that Djibouti has many of the problems of legitimacy that afflict postcolonial African nations in general, it is by no means obvious how these problems can be fixed. Again, it must be emphasized that Djibouti’s sole quality of interest to the outside world consists in its location as an eponymous port and its destitute immediate hinterlands. It is this phenomenon that has accounted for such interest as the French, British, Soviets, and Americans have shown in the area as a place to exercise some degree of control and influence from in the surrounding region, and it is this which has provided (after the publication date of this book) leverage in its dealings with larger and more powerful neighbors like the landlocked Ethiopia. Still, if a nation as small as Djibouti is cannot manage to have its borders delineated in a reasonable fashion, what hope is there that there can be lasting peace and fair dealings in larger countries with still more intractable international divisions based on the fallibility of human negotiators?