Djibouti - Political background

Formerly a French colony and overseas territory, Djibouti became independent in 1977, following a referendum in which an overwhelming majority (98.9%) voted to sever ties with France. During the colonial period, French administrators favored the Afar minority over the Issa majority, laying the foundation for postindependence ethnic distrust and conflict.

Following independence, the Issa supported the Lingue Populaire Africaine pour l'independence (LPAI), which was later renamed Rassemblement Populaire pour le Progress (Popular Rally for Progress, RPP). Its leader was Hassan Gouled Aptidon. The RPP and Aptidon dominated postindependence Djiboutian politics. Initially, Aptidon sought to create a balanced government consisting of both Afars and Issas by naming Afars to the cabinet, but his efforts failed to halt rising ethnic tensions. In December 1977, Prime Minister Dini and four other Afar cabinet members resigned. By 1981, Djibouti became a one-party state with only RPP-approved candidates standing for legislative elections in 1982 and 1987. By the mid-1980s, ethnic tensions between the Afars and the Issas increased, resulting in violence by 1989. In 1991, the Front Pour la Restauration de l'Unite et de la Democratie (Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy, FRUD) began a full-scale guerrilla war against the government. Many Afar leaders were arrested, detained, and tortured during the first part of the 1990s.

With mounting international criticism and the loss of French support due to severe human rights violations, Aptidon agreed to political change. Multiparty elections followed a constitutional referendum in December 1992, despite widespread electoral fraud and opposition boycott. The FRUD boycott ensured total victory for Aptidon's party. Meanwhile, by the mid-1990s, factional rivalry split FRUD, and some members entered into negotiations with the government and subsequently agreed to a power sharing arrangement. In December 1997, legislative elections resulted in RPP-FRUD capturing all 65 seats. Aptidon decided to retire due to old age and mounting health problems, paving the way for presidential elections in 1999.

The current constitution, approved in a September 1992 referendum, states that executive power is vested in the president, elected by universal adult suffrage for six-year terms. The prime minister, appointed by the president, presides over the cabinet, known as the Council of Ministers. The national legislature, the Chamber of Deputies, consists of 65 members elected to five-year terms by universal suffrage and through a party-list proportional representation system. Djibouti is divided into five administrative districts called cercles.

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