Find the full issue of Horn of Africa Bulletin here


Djibouti and the Somali conflict: Permanence, evolution, and constraints associated with a commitment to a complex crisis

It is not by accident that Mr. Hassan Sheikh Ali Mahamoud, the first president to be elected inside Somalia since 1991, made his first official visit to Djibouti. On the one hand, this trip was significant, symbolically and politically, because it sent a signal to regional and international players regarding Djibouti’s singular role during the transition period and the special place occupied by Djibouti in the eyes of the new Somali authorities. On the other hand, this visit demonstrated the Somali leader’s deep gratitude to the Djibouti’s head of state, Ismail Omar Guelleh, who became the first foreign president to set foot in Somalia during the civil war period when he visited the country in August 2011.

This paper discusses Djibouti’s multifaceted involvement in the Somali crisis. The broadening of this commitment and the obstacles encountered will be discussed to better understand the role of Djibouti in Somalia.

Djibouti and the Somali crisis:  The reasons behind the commitment

The involvement of Djibouti in Somalia began prior to the collapse of the Somali state[1]. The Djiboutian authorities paid close attention to the crisis and sought to raise the international community’s awareness of the issue. The early involvement of Djibouti in the Somali crisis is partly explicable by the close socio-cultural links between the two countries. Furthermore, the role of Somalia in the Djiboutian independent movement during the colonial period also explains Djibouti’s decision to take part in the process of finding a solution to the conflict, despite the constraints[2].

In a fluid regional and international context, Djibouti hosted the first conference of national reconciliation from June to July 1991 following an initiative led by Italy and Egypt. The timing indicates the eagerness of the Djiboutian authorities to find a swift solution to the Somali crisis. In accordance with the African consensus on border integrity and in a bid to discourage the breakup of Somalia, the unilateral declaration of independence by the SNM (Somali National Movement) was rejected by Djiboutian authorities who tried to convince the new authority to participate in the dialogue for reconciliation[3]. The two agreements reached in Djibouti were vitiated by the competition between the two warlords (Aidïd and Ali Mahdi) in Mogadishu and the lack of support from the international community[4].

The renewed outbreak of violence coupled with the famine led to intense diplomatic activities by certain international organisations. The United Nations Security Council began to take closer interest in the Somali issue. Neither the arms embargo nor the deployment of peacekeeping operations (UNOSOM I, UNITAF, UNOSOM II) between 1992 and 1995 managed to end the conflict, let alone a political solution to the crisis. Pressure from the United States, and the non-adherence of the Somali players to the various peace initiatives eventually led the Security Council to withdraw peacekeeping forces, thereby giving the countries of the region the heavy responsibility to help Somalis to reconcile and find peace[5].

The dominant Djiboutian perspective holds that the lack of commitment from the member states of the Security Council, the ambivalent role of certain countries of the region and the ambiguous nature of Somali political players are the reasons behind the failure to find a permanent solution to the Somali conflict. From the Djiboutian perspective, the above interpretation was borne out, when President Guelleh laid the ground for an innovative solution to Somali crisis.

The Arta Initiative in a rapidly changing regional and international context.

The years preceding the hosting of the conference for peace and national reconciliation in the town of Arta were characterized by a number of attempts by various players to resolve the Somali crisis[6].  Taking advantage of the rotating presidency of Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the fact that Ethiopia was embroiled in a border conflict with Eritrea, the Djiboutian leader used this sub-regional organisation to find a solution to the Somali crisis[7].

Arta was characterised by several novel features. It included civil society at large (the private sector, women’s groups and community leaders). During the preparation of the conference, the initiative received media coverage and extensive publicity. This was a break from the tradition of holding secret conferences which had become a hallmark of reconciliation talks between Somalis. The Djiboutian government tried, albeit in vain, to involve Somaliland and Puntland in the peace process in Arta.

Having been able to bring together around its peace plan a greater number of Somalis than prior initiatives[8], the Arta conference was officially launched on May 2, 2000. The Arta process led to the drafting of a Transitional National Charter and the establishment of a Transitional National Assembly. The transitional assembly held its first meeting on August 13 2000 and elected Abdiqassim Salad the President of Transitional National Government (TNG) on the 26th August. He became the first Somali leader since 1991 to be at the helm of an internationally recognised government.

The Arta conference nevertheless faced opposition from some factions. With the connivance of Ethiopia, these groups came out in concerted opposition to the conference and its outcomes. Following the 11 September attacks, the Ethiopian regime were increasingly of the view that elements within the TNG were allied to Islamist extremism, which in turn discouraged the larger international community from rendering support to the transition process. Arguably, if responsibility for the failure of the TNG is partly explicable by the actions and agendas of foreign actors, the members and president of the TNG are partly responsible too, in their failure to exploit the interest and momentum generated by the Arta conference[9].

Since 2002, with the help of Ethiopia, another reconciliation process was launched in Kenya and led to the formation of a transitional government composed of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) and the Transitional Federal Parliament (TFP). However, the project’s legitimacy was questionable due to the perception by some sections of Somali opinion that the initiative was an Ethiopian “Trojan horse”[10]. The disagreements between the TFG and parts of the TFP and the rise of the Islamic Courts defeated the Mbagathi process. The covert US operations in Somalia and the Ethiopian intervention in 2006 against the Islamic Courts led to the stalling of the reconciliation process between Somali players (TFG and Islamic Courts) initiated by the Arab League, and the emergence of an Islamist insurgency. The government of Eritrea sponsored the formation, of the Alliance for the Re-Liberation of Somalia (ARS) in Asmara, which spearheaded the fight against the TFG and its Ethiopian allies.

The mediation process conducted in Djibouti by the United Nations in 2008 between the TFG and sections of the ARS led to the integration of some members of the ARS into an enlarged Parliament and the election of a new president, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed. The willingness of the Djiboutian authorities to contemplate working with elements in the ARS in May 2008 has to be understood in the context of the tense relations with the regime in Asmara[11].

The decision to commit troops to the African mission in Somalia and a shift on Somaliland.

Unlike some neighboring countries, Djibouti’s involvement in the resolution of the Somali conflict which had been exclusively political and non-military for many years assumed a new dimension with Djibouti’s decision to contribute troops to the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). This peacekeeping operation was beset with difficulties. The reluctance of African states to provide troops, the lack of adequate resources and the distrust exhibited by Somalis towards the presence of foreign troops led to a situation where the first Ugandan and Burundian troops suffered great losses.

While the Djiboutian authorities were envisioning participating in AMISOM, the key turning point was President Guelleh’s speech[12] before the Security Council. It was towards the end of 2011 and after having been trained by French and US soldiers, the first Djiboutian regiment composed of 950 soldiers was sent to Baladweyne, the capital city of the Hiraan region in central Somalia[13]. Despite the structural constraints[14], the military commitment of Djibouti is important symbolically. The UN’s reluctance to deploy peacekeeping forces to replace African soldiers and the presence of Ethiopian and Kenyan troops, distrusted by Somalis[15], renders Djiboutian participation in AMISOM critical to the mission’s legitimacy.

Upon their arrival, the Djiboutian troops managed to create a climate of trust with the local authorities and the population, which made it easier for them to initiate dialogue between the various Hawiye clans of the region, thereby enabling the marginalisation of Al-Shabab[16]. Members of several clan militias have been integrated into the Somali security forces after having been trained by the Djiboutian officers[17]. Furthermore, the decisive gains secured by the Djiboutian troops with the support of the Ethiopian contingent helped to weaken Al-Shabab in the region[18]. On the humanitarian front, areas previously controlled by Al-Shabab, were now within reach.

Another new aspect in Djibouti’s role in Somalia centers on the softening of Djibouti’s stance regarding Somaliland over the last few years. The Djiboutian authorities have adjusted to the new context of relations between Somalia and Somaliland in the aftermath of the London Conference of July 2012. For the first time, Somaliland took part in a conference on Somalia. At the end of the London Conference, the president of Somalia and his Somaliland counterpart agreed to future talks about the relations of the two entities. Having always opposed recognition of Somaliland in the absence of a resolution to the conflict in the rest of the country, the Djiboutian authorities have naturally been in favor of the idea of negotiations between the two entities on the issue of secession. It is within this framework that Djibouti hosted the third round of discussions between the Somali president and his Somaliland counterpart at the end of 2014.


Djibouti’s involvement in the resolution of the Somali crisis has evolved over the years. It is also undeniable that the Djiboutian authorities have demonstrated their willingness to play a more significant and decisive role in Somalia since President Guelleh came to power.

However, Djibouti’s efforts in Somalia and the outcomes have to be understood in the context of the structural constraints which have limited the impact of Djibouti in the Somalia crisis, such as its limited resources. An additional set of factors which have constrained the efforts of Djibouti revolve around the competing strategic interests of regional and non-regional states. Coupled with the peculiarities of the Somali crisis and the lack of interest of the international community, unless in rare instances (terrorism and piracy), it has led to a situation whereby the consequences rather than the root causes attract attention.  In turn, it limits the efficacy and impact of initiatives at the regional level.

Mohamed Omar Youssouf is a PhD candidate in International Law at CERDRADI (University of Bordeaux) Researcher in Law at the IEPES (Centre for Studies and Research in Djibouti). He can be reached at


[1] The conflict in the north of Somalia between SNM (Somali National Movement) and the regime of Siyad Barreh triggered the first waves of refugees’ in these regions towards Djibouti. There are 20,000 Somali refugees in Djibouti. (accessed May 15th 2015)

[2] Small country with less than one million inhabitants and with limited economic resources, Djiboutian authorities also had to contend with the emergence of an armed rebellion in the north of the country (Front pour la Restauration de l’Unité et de la Démocratie – FRUD).

[3]FONTRIER M., L’Etat démantelé (1991-1995). Annales de la Somalie, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2014, p. 93-94.

[4] Interpeace/Center For Research and Dialogue., A history of Mediation in Somalia since 1988, May 2009, p. 11. Available at: (accessed May 15th, 2015).

[5]Resolution 954 on Somalia of 4 November 1994 (S / RES / 954). UN Security Council.

[6] There were discussions in Nairobi to bring together some warlords (October 1996) and the Sodere process in Ethiopia (January 1997), then further discussions in Yemen (May 1997) and finally the Cairo conference (November 1997). Reading the UN SG reports covering this period reveals that competition between countries in the region (S/1997/135, S/1997/715, S/1998/882).

[7]Cf. Declaration of the 7th Summit of Heads of State and Government of IGAD, November 26th 1999. See Appendix 4 of Interpeace/Center For Research and Dialogue.,op cit., p. 85.

[8] Cf. § 7 of the UN Secretary General’s report on the situation in Somalia, 19 December 2000. (S/2000/1211).

[9]Interpeace/Center For Research and Dialogue.,op cit., p. 50.

[10] MARCHAL R. La Somalie : un nouveau front antiterroriste ? », Les Etudes du CERI, n° 135, Juin 2007, p. 7. May 26th 2015)

[11] It was on the day of the signing of ceasefire agreement that Eritrea decided to drag Djibouti into a border conflict. To find an analysis of the links between the border conflict between Eritrea and Djibouti, the Somali crisis and the lack of a permanent solution to the conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, see our presentation in Dakar at the Second Conference of the African Society of International Law in October 2013. Available at :

[12] The president declared before the Security Council that « With Mogadishu no longer controlled, a decision has to be taken, once and for all, in the absence of alternative solutions, to cleanse the Somali capital and its surroundings from militants in order to bring safety and law and order to the city… That will give the government an important and solid base to control the whole country ». Speech of 19 May 2010. (accessed May 27th 2015).

[13] Between March and May 2015, a second contingent of the same number of men joined the first in order to strengthen their brothers in arms already on the ground.

[14]With an army of barely ten thousand men, Djibouti is among the contributing countries of AMISOM, the one that has the smallest military capacity compared with Burundian employees (50,000), Ethiopia (138000) and Uganda (46000) . With some two thousand troops deployed in Somalia, is about 20% of the army which is in Somalia.

[15] It is also not insignificant that Ethiopian and Kenyan soldiers are deployed in areas on the border of Somalia with their countries (Sector 2 and 3 for Kenya and sector 3 and 4 for Ethiopia).

[16] Peace and Security Council, Africa Union, Report of The Chairperson of the Commission on the situation in Somalia, 13 juin 2013, PSC/PR/2.(CCCLXXIX), (accessed 25 mai 2015).

[17] Djiboutian officers provided training to nearly a thousand Somali soldiers and some hundreds of police officers who were integrated into the Somali security forces. May 26th 2015)

[18] These military gains in the field were obtained as part of Eagle and Indian Ocean operations undertaken by AMISOM in all its areas of activity from March and August 2014. Peace and Security Council, Africa Union, Report of The Chairperson of the Commission on the situation in Somalia, 16 october 2014, PSC/PR/2.(CDLXII), (accessed May 26th 2015)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.