Economy, Culture, and Social Structure of the Djibouti People

Introduction to Djibouti

Djibouti is located on the Red Sea coast in northeastern Africa and borders Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. The country was created by France during the African colonial craze of the late 19th century. In 1977, it became independent after being a protectorate and a colony for over a century. Djibouti had no state or national identity until 1859 when the French signed a treaty with the local king, Obock of Sultan Afar.

Culture and tradition of Africa

The two dominant ethnic groups (Issa Somali and Afar) oppose each other on significant occasions, but there emerges a sense of common identity and minimal nationalism reinforced by social and cultural similarities. The wealth brought by the port of Djibouti connects the inhabitants who share the idea of being a relatively stable island in an unstable region.


Djibouti is located in the hot, dry part of the Horn of Africa. It has an area of 8,960 square miles (23,200 square kilometers). The terrain is rocky and sandy, on top is a volcanic layer. In hot and humid climates, rainfall is very low. Most of the land is unsuitable for agriculture and only about 10% is used as pasture. Desert shrubs and acacia trees are the most prominent vegetation around. Only a few small areas can be found which comprise the perennial forest. The traditional way of life is nomadic and no state borders are allowed. A small channel of income is gained by fishing activities in the Red Sea.

Horticulture is only possible on a small scale. The Gulf of Tadjoura crosses the country and the Gulf of Aden. The terrain is primarily desert plains, with several intermediate mountains near the eastern border with Alta. There is an active volcano. Some streams flow into the sea or two salt lakes each season. In addition to the capital and metropolis of Jibuchiville, there are several small towns, such as Tadjoura, Obock, Dikhil, Ali Sabieh, and Yoboki.

Linguistic diversity

The main indigenous languages are Afar and Issa Somari, both Cushitic languages. French and Arabic are the official administrative languages. The French language is employed in education and administrative systems. Arabic is the commonly spoken language among Yemeni people as well as by other immigrants of Arabic origin.


Early history

Djibouti independence
by Volunteer Africa

Politics was dominated by the complex relationship between Issa Somali and Afar. Before the colonial era, they were nomads, merchants, and highly organized politically, but they did not have a founding tradition. Afar has a kingdom and four monarchs. When the French arrived, about 75% of the territory was inhabited by the Afar nomads.

Issa has a decentralized political organization based on clan loyalty, but the ruler of Zeira, the commercial hub of the Somali coast, has great influence over them. The number of Issa and Gadabuursi (third-largest group, Somalia) has increased steadily during the 20th century due to immigrants from Somalia. Isaac of Somalia (about 13% of the population) is also of Somali descent. Before independence, the French instead advertised Issa and distant. The politics of division contributed to the postcolonial conflict.
France establishes Djibouti as a colony, placing the structure of a centralized state over an idyllic rural society.

Modern history

More than two-thirds of the territory traditionally belonged to the Afar territory, and the remaining southern parts were administered by the Issa nomads. As a country, Djibouti derives its identity from its strategic location and economic importance. The political crisis erupted in 1991 with the armed uprising of the Front for the United and the Restoration of Democracy (FRUD).

It was a near-distant movement that had taken over much of the country. The crisis prompted the government to open up the political system in 1992 and hold multi-party elections. After the elections, following the military crackdown, the FRUD entered mainstream policy and implemented mitigation policies aimed at persuading them to renounce violence.

Racial relations

Although closely linked culturally and linguistically, Afar and Somali-speaking groups (particularly the Issa) are rivals in access to power and resources. This tension led to an outbreak of armed conflict in the 1990s. After a military campaign to suppress the uprising in Afar, the government opted for a policy of compromise without putting itself in danger of Issa’s government, thus avoiding the ” nationalization ”of this policy. There were also tensions between the settlers and the new arrivals (Gadabuursi, Isaac, refugees), which sometimes led to open conflicts.

Lifestyle & Economy

City Planning

Djibouti city planning
by Blackpast

Djibouti has no tradition of urban architecture. Indigenous buildings of the last century are located in the capitals of Laheita and Tadjoura in the Sultan, with mosques and quaint urban centers.

The city of Djibouti was designed by Grid Street Planning and a French planner with government agencies located close to the center. The city has grown rapidly and new residential areas have been added in unplanned ways.

There is a camel market in the suburbs. Urban cultures tend to combine the traditional socio-cultural characteristics of indigenous peoples to create new forms. In the countryside, the seasonal movements of the shepherds and the cross-border crossings of the shepherds in Afar, Issa, and Gadabuursi reveal the freedom of movement and the space necessary for the survival of men and livestock. These people have storage and furniture that can be easily packed and moved.

Food culture

Dairy products and meat are traditional foods as well as cereal dishes. In the city, the diet is influenced by Italian and other European dishes. A notable feature of the diet is the consumption of leaves in a sweet drug cart imported from Ethiopia. Carts are consumed by almost all men for leisure, preferably after lunch when government offices and work stop in the heat of noon.
Eating habits during the ceremony. Kurts are used in religious ceremonies to improve concentration, delay sleep, and reduce appetite.

Local economy

Djibouti is a poor but developing country that relies on a growing port and service sector. The economy is out of balance, with only rudimentary agriculture and a declining herding economy, but most people continue to raise their livestock and farm. Infrastructure and communications are underdeveloped, except around the port and the capital. Unemployment, poverty, and social unrest are widespread, especially in rural areas of Djibouti and working-class neighborhoods. Arab oil nations, as well as France, send subsidies to the local government for development projects and balance of payment support. The banking and insurance sectors are growing and the telecommunications sector is the best in the region. The currency used is dibutifran.

Most of the land is owned by the government, but urban land can be privately owned. Nomads manage their traditional rangelands through customary rights.


Djibouti is a free trade area. Port operations and related services outperform other commercial activities, but there is also a small tourism industry. The cost of the French army was considerable. Prostitution in Djibouti is a big company.
The industrial sector employs 35,000 people in large mineral water bottling factories, canning factories, construction facilities, pharmaceutical factories, slaughterhouses, salt mines, and oil refineries.


Transshipment trade through ports is the backbone of the economy, producing at least 75% of GDP. It has grown significantly since 1998 when Ethiopia decided to move all import and export operations to Djibouti. Djibouti produces only 5% of its food needs and is a huge food importer from Ethiopia (grains and other staples) and Somalia (meat and dairy). Only 5% of the total food needed by Djibouti is produced locally. Most of its needs are met by importing grains and relevant staples from Ethiopia. Dairy and meat products needed by the nation are imported from Somalia. Import costs are covered by the profitable service sector (ports) and revenue from smuggling transactions.

Social structure

Djibouti cultural gathering
by Senior Airman Nesha Humes – U.S. Air Force CJTF-HOA / Wikipedia

The social institutions of Issa and Gadabuursi were fairly equal, despite patriarchal biases. There was a broader position of power, such as the Ugaz, the leader of the ceremonial political clans. Egalitarianism is still rampant in the countryside, but many herders are poor due to drought, cattle plague, and conflict.
In the long run, traditional social classes are much more hierarchical. Afar was organized during the reign of the king and had a classification of “tribes” and clans.  There are two major clans of prestige distinguished in Afar, “Red” and “White”. They are locally known as Asahimara and Asdohimara, respectively. However, it should be noted that this division is not consistent across different regions of the nation.

Across the country, urbanization, the formation of modern states and political systems, as well as trade have created a social hierarchy of cities based on political power and wealth. The Afar and Somali groups are traditionally low-ranking caste groups. The modern economy has created a primitive class society, including the working class. Most of the workers are government officials and dock workers. A large population of prostitutes, who work in taverns and trade in prohibited goods. Yemen has traditionally formed a merchant class.

Class systems

With socio-economic differentiation between developing urban societies and mostly stagnant agricultural and rural societies, the differences in appearance and lifestyle between social groups are becoming increasingly apparent. Urban elites speak French, are well dressed, have good accommodation, drive their own cars, and often travel abroad for business, study, and entertainment. The poor in rural and urban areas live in unstable conditions with poor housing and no means of transportation. Most of the rural population speaks Afar or Hexasomal rather than the more famous French.

Gender roles in Djibouti people

Relative Gender Roles

If they are not shepherds or fishermen, men are widely employed in public services, horticulture, business operations, military, and port services. Women are active primarily in the informal sector, as low-level civil servants and in small businesses.

According to customs and the law, men have more rights and a higher status than women. Traditional Afar and Issa cultures and Islam tend to prefer a gender role model that dominates men in public life, business, and politics. Due to financial needs, conflicts and migration, many women have become the sole breadwinners.

Community, family, relatives

Membership in ancestors and families or ethnic groups remains important in ending a marriage and in family life, especially in the countryside where the rituals surrounding marriage and relatives are still largely preserved. In the distance, there is a tradition in favor of patriotic cross marriages. Issa and other Somalis are not so strict. There are several Afar Issa interracial marriages.

Domestic structure

The city’s national unity is a nuclear family, but extended family members often live together and support each other. The nomads of Issa, Afar, and Gadabuursi lived and moved with the extended clans, accompanied by members of their allies and their adoptions. Men make decisions about the movement of the herd and the family.

Inheritance follows Islamic law beliefs as modified by State law inspired by French civil law. Clan and subordinate genealogy remains important in the indigenous Issa and Afar communities and between Gadabuursi and Isaac in Somalia. Membership in these units is determined by marriage, financial connection, and mutual support and is based on customary law for dispute resolution and inheritance decisions.

Social lifestyle

Social structure in Djibouti
by Britannica

Parenting and education. Families and communities play an important role in the education and communication of culture and customs. Only a small number of children in rural areas, especially in Afar, can attend school. These are usually Quranian schools with low academic standards. Most children live with extended families engaged in economic activities (livestock).

Poor people in rural and urban areas speak only their native language. Children become sociable within their families and genealogical groups and grow up feeling attached to their loved ones and their community. However, in Somalia, children have more freedom than Afar, which has a strong disciplinary body, Fima. Formal education opportunities are limited to around a third of school-aged children, mainly in Djibouti city.

Local customs

Issa and Afar value showing personal independence and bravery, but don’t take risks. They stick to their cultural traditions, or at least to their reflections on them. Elderly people are treated with respect.
The dominant religion of Djibouti and Arabs is Islam (95% of the population). The 10,000 Europeans are nominally Christians (Catholics). Ethiopians are primarily Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, while Greeks and Armenians follow Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Islam is deeply rooted in Afar and Somali societies. The indigenous beliefs of Issa, Gadabursi, and Afar combine popular religions and customs with standard Islamic customs. Sufi orders are also important. Islam is not used for political purposes by any major political party.
Among Issa, Gadabursi, and Muslim Afar, Sheikh and Marabou occupy prominent places and play a role in many lifecycle events. There is a diocese of 9,000 Catholic parishes.


flag of Djibouti
by Wikipedia

Djibouti’s identity as a state is a compromise between the political and social aspirations of the two communities that have created social contracts that allow them to maintain their independence within the state. The coat of arms features two curved olive branches, on which a traditional round shield is painted on a vertical Somali spear with a red star, with two Afar daggers on the left and right. It symbolizes the idea of the coexistence of two dominant communities.

There are no Islamic sanctuaries except the tombs of saints and Marabou. Everyday life is directed towards the Islamic cycle of religious ceremonies and holidays. The religious lessons of Islam and Christianity include the belief in the immortality of the soul going to heaven or hell, depending on the value of the individual’s life. All the dead are buried and there is no form of cremation. In traditional Afar and Issa beliefs shaped by a series of patriarchal ideas, the soul of the deceased joins ancestors sometimes called by living descendants.

The flag is in a tricolor, with blue, white, and green fields, and a red star on the white field of the left triangle. President Ismail Omar Quelle, in power since 1999, approved economic integration with Ethiopia and hinted at his support for economic integration with Ethiopia. Subsequently, the country experienced political unrest and a vigorous armed rebellion but never had a long civil war. Compromise shaped its political life. In international and regional affairs, Djibouti tries to avoid becoming the neighbor’s pawn and to maintain an independent position.

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