An unusually broad international consensus about the fate of this last French colony in Africa seems to be saving the territory of the Afars and Isaas from immediate division and annexation immediate division and annexation by its neighbors as happened to the Spanish Sahara just 15 months ago.
All the big powers, including the Soviet Union and the United States, as well as the regional Arab ones, appear to have decided that an independent Republic of Djuboue, however economically weak and politically fragile, is preferable to the kind of unsatisfactory solution reached between Spain and the two northwestern African states, Morocco and Mauritania, over the Spanish Sahara.f
The partition of that phosphate-rich territory in February 1976 has sparked in Algerian-backed guerilla war by Saharan nationalists that has become a festering wound not only for Mauritania and Morocco but also for the Organization of African Unity, whose charter calls for strict respect of colonial boundaries.
Djubouti has all the potential for becoming another Spanish Sahara. It is sparsely inhabited (perhaps 215,000 people); the two main ethnic groups, the Afars and the Issas, are fighting cousins; and it has absolutely no national resources - unless the location of its large port on the Bab el Mandeb straits can be regarded as one.
Furthermore, Djibouti's two neighbors both have historic claims to the territory - as Morocco had to the Spanish Sahara - and one of them, Somalia, has not fully renounced its claim.
Indeed, the big question mark hanging over the future of Djimouti is whether Somalia will follow Morocco's example and attempt to take over the territory later through referendum calling for a federation between the two.
Nobody here, least of all the French, is willing to say for certain that this will not happen; but Djimouti appears to have a better chance now than before for surviving as Africa's Hong Kong - a capitalist enclave surrounded by poverty-sticken Marxist countries.
France has gained the full backing of the United States and, reportedly, of the Soviet Union as well as that of Saudi Arabia and Egypt to try to "stabilize" the situation here - meaning the establishment of an independence Republic of Djibouti under a continuing strong French influence.
French sources here say this message has been passed on from Moscow, Washington, Cairo and Riyadh to Paris through diplomatic channels, and it seems more than a coincidence that the Americans, Saudis and Egyptians opened consulates here even before Sunday's referendum on independence.
The Saudis have told the future leaders of the New Hampshire-sized republic that they will provide some financial and economic assistance to help the French make it a going economic concern - a difficult task that presently costs Paris about $140 million every year.
The main Saudi interest in Djibouti stems from its position at the southern end of the Red Sea and from their desire to see a friendly, non-Marxist state on this side of the narrow Bab el Mandeb straits. Saudi Arabia is buildinga new Red Sea port 300 miles north of Jeddah that eventually will handle 40 per cent of its oil exports, according to Saudi sources here.
Assuring free and safe passageway throught the straits and the Suez Canal has become a major Saudi foreign policy concern and helps explain their intense interest in what is taking place in Ethiopia.
The Saudis do not want to see Djibouti dominated by either of the pro-Soviet Marxist regimes in Ethiopia and Somalia and insists that it remain independent and stable. Precisely how much Saudi Arabia will be willing to become inc involved here to assure this goal remains to be seen.
The Soviets, for quite different reasons, also seem to have decided that an independent Djibouti best suits their interests - at least now. War between their allies, Somalia and Ethiopia, over this territory would inevitably turn one or the other against Moscow as the Soviets took sides.
The Soviets presumably would like to maintain their influence in Somalia as they consolidate their ties with the Marxist military government in Ethiopia. They would seem to have their hands full trying to keep the present Ethiopian regime in power despite numerous opposition groups and a strong separatist movement in the northern province of Eritrea.
France has told Djibouti's leaders that it will provide technical, financial and military assumed here that Djibouti will ask, while insisting that the French do not keep a military base here.
The United States seems to be acting as a kind of diplomatic buttress to French and Saudi policy here. It supports an independent Djibouti but is allowing France and Saudi Arabia to shoulder the main burden of what will probably be a joint Franco-Saudi American policy.
The two-week-old American consulate here has just one diplomat, Walter E. Clarke, and is in a single small room of the territory's best hotel, the Siesta, on the shore of the Red Sea. But even this most symbolic American presence seems to be deeply appreciated by the local French authorities.
Whatever Djibouti's ultimate fate, it is heading for independence on June 27 with more calm and unity than had been anticipated by local French or African diplomats.
As expected, the referendum was approved overwhelmingly, with only 199 persons casting red ballots indicating opposition.An unofficial total of 98.7 per cent of the electorate voted in favor of independence. The only surprise here was the high number of non-voters, nearly 23 per cent of those eligible.