Independent state, former French territory of NE Africa, on the Gulf of Aden, N of Somalia. An important French colonial possession, it formed the terminus for the railroad to Addis Ababa and occupied a strategic position on the strait between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, countering the British outpost of Aden. French interests in the area were established in 1862 when they purchased the port of Obock. The region became the protectorate of French Somaliland on May 20, 1896. It became a free port in 1949. After the Suez Canal was closed in 1967, Djibouti’s importance declined, but the port and town are now active again with the reopening of the canal. Djibouti became independent in 1977 with Hassan Gouled Aptidon as president. In 1979 the Afar and Issa ethnic groups tried to settle their differences through the formation of the People’s Progress Assembly (RPP). In 1981 Gouled made the RPP the only legal political party in the country.
In 1991 there was a rebellion of the Afars against the Issa-dominated government. In 1992, a new constitution was established allowing for some opposing political parties, but most boycotted the 1993 elections and Gouled was reelected. In 1994 most of the Issan rebels reached a peace with the government, but there was some fighting until 2001. Djibouti was the base of operations for French forces during the 1991 Gulf War, and the French remain a strong military and technical presence. In 1999 Ismail Omar Guelleh of the ruling party won the presidency. The United States established a military base in 2002. In 2003 Djibouti moved to expel some 100,000 illegal immigrants, mostly Ethiopians and Somalis, who had come to the country fleeing war and seeking work. In 2005 Guelleh was reelected unopposed as the opposition boycotted the elections.