Djibouti, the tiny but strategically significant (it hosts French and American military bases) nation in the Horn of Africa, has seen protests inspired by those in North Africa. The protests stem from issues similar to those at work elsewhere. Like Egypt, Djibouti has had one-party rule for decades. Like other countries in the region, Djibouti has also had dynastic succession: President Ismail Omar Guelleh took over from his uncle in 1999 (who was in power from Djibouti’s independence in 1977 until the transition to Guelleh). Guelleh scored 100% of the vote during the last elections in 2005.
Guelleh originally said that this second six-year term would be his last, but changes he made to the constitution allow him to run again in an election that is only five weeks away. Protesters want Guelleh gone now. On February 18th, a demonstration in the country’s capital drew thousands of participants and elicited a crackdown that claimed two lives. Protesters have planned a sequel for today.
The government asked them to delay the demonstration, arguing that the last rally created an atmosphere of tension:
Interior Minister Yacin Elmi Bouh said last month’s clashes, which killed at least one protestor and one policeman — and the opposition’s failure to condemn the violence — had damaged what he called a spirit of partnership and trust between the government and opposition.
“In this difficult environment, with the painful consequences of the last round (of protests) still raw … I ask you to change the date of this protest to another time,” the minister said in a statement.
Opposition leaders refused to postpone the protest.
The demonstration is set to begin after Friday prayers in the mostly Muslim East African city-state.
In a telephone interview, Ismail Guedi Hared of the opposition Union for a Democratic Alternative said that at this late hour, it would be impossible to call off the rally.
“We know the government says no but we say yes because [they] only informed us tonight and we have no time to explain to our people and tomorrow at 2 o’clock we will be in the [streets] of Djibouti,” Guedi Hared said.
Giving the open expressions of distrust on both sides, I would not be surprised to see more repression during today’s protests. Government violence against protesters could provoke more protests, especially with the elections so close. We’ll see how the situation evolves, and I will try to update as we learn more about the situation.