It is understood that the French government has agreed to give up control of its last remaining colonial possession, the east African Territory of the Afars and Issas.
It is understood that the French government has agreed to give up control of its last remaining colonial possession, the east African Territory of the Afars and Issas. The Territory's Premier, Mr. Ali Aref Bourhan told Ethiopian leaders recently that no date has yet been set for told Ethiopian leaders recently that no date has yet been set for independence, although talks are expected to begin between the French government and representatives of the colony before the end of the year.
The immediate prospect of a complete French withdrawal highlights the problems of the Territory ... both internally and externally.
The French government's apparent decision to regard Mr. Ali Aref as the legitimate representative of the Territory's people has already produced outspoken opposition from the rival African People's League for the Independence of "French Somaliland" -- an burlier name for the Territory. More extreme opposition has come from the Front for the Liberation of the Somali Coast -- backed by both neighbouring Somalia and the organisation of African Unity. Mr. Ali Aref recently narrowly escaped death when two unidentified assailants threw a hand grenade at his car.
Mr. Ali Aref's party won all 40 seats to the Territory's assembly in the last elections, just over two years ago. But there have been widespread accusations of electoral malpractice and fraud. With a shifting and indistinct population of between 250,000 and 500.000, the French government itself faces considerable difficulties in determining the opinion of the people on the future of their land.
The population is split into two tribal groups the Afars and issas. Up to now, power and influence has generally been wielded by the Afars ... to the detriment of their rivals. It has been estimated that up to 70 per cent of the Issas are unemployed ... although this figure is difficult to verify because of the nomadic nature of a large percentage of the population.
Economically, the Territory is weak. Its main town, Djibouti, was formerly an important staging post along the French trade route with Indochina. Independence in southeast Asia and the closure of the Suez Canal combined to reduce the port's significance ... and the lack of recent development has enabled other Red Sea ports to surpass Djibouti in facilities. But it still remains important to Ethiopia as the principal "Ethiopian" port -- for most of the Ethiopian coastline and ports are in the hands of the breakaway Eritrean movement.
In addition, the enclave is comprised mainly of barren rock and soil Almost all the food required in the 23,000 square kilometre (14,200 square mile) Territory has to be imported. Its mineral resources are considered to be almost negligible, and its main income, at the moment, appears to come from exports and imports for neighbouring Ethiopia.
Mr. Ali Aref has said he expects considerable French aid following independence. This policy has been strongly opposed by the rival political factions within the country ... who would prefer France to leave the Territory altogether.
On top of the strident domestic problems, there hangs a shadow over the colony's independent future. Both Ethiopia and Somalia have in the past laid territorial claim to the colony. Ethiopia -- which has lately expressed support for the policies of Mr. Ali Aref -- voted against a resolution of the United nations Trusteeship Committee on Saturday (6 December) on the grounds that the resolution did not specifically call on Somalia to abandon all claims to the colony.
The withdrawal of French troops from the Territory would leave a defence vacuum the colony's government would find hard to fill ...yet another problem facing a newly independent state.