NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Thousands of demonstrators gathered in the tiny East African nation of Djibouti on Friday to demand that the president step down after two terms, the latest in a series of rallies modeled after political demonstrations across Africa and the Middle East.
President Ismail Omar Guelleh has served two terms and faces an election in April, but critics lament changes he made to the constitution last year that scrubbed a two-term limit from the nation’s bylaws. Guelleh’s family has been in power for more than three decades.
Djibouti is a city-state of 750,000 people that lies across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. It hosts several military bases, including the only U.S. base in Africa.
Guelleh, who looks poised to win re-election, didn’t face any opponents in 2005. One potential challenger this year, Abdourahman Boreh, is supporting the series of anti-Guelleh demonstrations but lives overseas and is currently in London.
Boreh, 51, said that if he returned to Djibouti he would be thrown in prison and possibly tortured. He said Friday’s rally was attended by thousands and was peaceful in the early goings. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators earlier in February.
“In the wake of events like Tunisia and Egypt the president’s instinct will almost certainly lead him to violence to counter the rising confidence of the demonstrators,” Boreh said. “What we really want is a peaceful demonstration where the people can express their feelings for freedom, their feelings for a democratic transition of the government, because this government has been in power for the last 34 years. The people want change.”
No foreign journalists work in Djibouti, and few international organizations have a presence there. One international group in the country is Democracy International, which is working on a U.S.-funded project to monitor the April vote.
The head of the group’s observation mission, Chris Hennemeyer, said Djibouti is slowly and cautiously opening its political space but that it lacks alternative media outlets, civil society groups and mature political parties.
Hennemeyer said anyone in Djibouti expecting the popular groundswells that Egypt and Tunisia saw will be disappointed. He said a turnout in the low thousands at Friday’s rally would be “moderately significant” by Djiboutian standards.
“I think the government has a firm grasp on the levers of state and I don’t think that you will see a popular insurrection in Djibouti,” Hennemeyer said. “But I do think that people in government will pay close attention if the opposition is able to bring out large numbers of people.”
He said Djibouti deserved credit for allowing the protests to take place.
Djibouti’s first political rally broke out after the Muslim country’s Friday prayers on Jan. 28. Democracy International estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 people attended.
More demonstrations happened in early February, and police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a demonstration on Feb. 5, according to Human Rights Watch.
Then, the president of the Djiboutian League of Human Rights, was arrested on Feb. 9 after reporting on the arrests of students and members of opposition political parties following the demonstrations, according to Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch on Thursday wrote to Guelleh and said it was deeply concerned that Jean-Paul Noel Abdi has been charged with participating in an insurrection movement “even though there appears to be no evidence to corroborate the charges.”
Djibouti can be stiflingly hot, and activity grinds to a halt in the afternoons when men find shade and chew the stimulant khat. Per capita income is just $2,800 a year, and the unemployment rate is near 60 percent. The country lies at the nexus of Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
Hennemeyer said there are high-ranking government officials open to change.
“The government itself is not monolithic in Djibouti and a variety of opinions exist on whether political evolution is happening fast enough, and I think there are people who would like to see it accelerate,” he said.