LET'S HEAR IT, but not too loud, for the Territory of the Afars and Issas - known, mercifully, as Djibouti, after its port. This is the Horn of Africa ministate whose mostly nomadic inhabitants voted Sunday for independence from France. It will shortly become Africa's 49th sovereign state. We realize it's a bit loutish, in this post-imperial day, to voice reservations about any colony's arrival at the splendors of nationhood. But this late-blooming state is not going to have an easy time.
Leave aside its desperate poverty. Neighboring Somalia, whose clients (the Issas) will dominate the new government, wants to swallow Djibouti. Neighboring Ethiopia, whose main access to the Red Sea is through its port, fears its arch foes in Somalia will do exactly that. The Saudis and Sudanese and, somewhere in the background, the Americans stand behind Somalia. The Russians and Libyans stand behind the Ethiopians. Djibouti, you could say, rhymes with trouble.
If there is an international sprinkler system to douse this fire in the making, it may be France. The French are performing no mean feat in Africa. They have done just about everything that "imperialists" are supposed to be strung up for: sold arms to South Africa, intervened to keep puppets in power - you name it. But they do not appear to most Africans so threatening as either great power. They wield their culture deftly. They have shown an attentiveness to development and a constancy in support of old friends, and this has given their friendship value at least to the ruling elites.
In the Territory of the Afars and Issas, France formerly supported the political groups aligned with Ethiopia. Recently, with Ethiopia in terrible trouble for reasons of its own, the French switched horses and hooked up with the groups aligned with Somalia. Quietly, Paris is leaving a couple thousand French soldiers as protection for the shaky new state.
Djibouti is a long way away. In another day, the United States might have itched to play a central role in arranging the balance of power in its region. Africa's Horn. But the itch has been tamed, or subdued. This represents maturity. A more dominant American presence in the Horn would not assure the stability that is the customary American goal in unsettled Third World places. A more discreet presence may not ensure stability either. But the United States does well to make a diplomatic virtue out of what may be only a political necessity, and to take a seat near the sidelines while others take to the field.