Djibouti’s human rights leader arrested as calls grow for President Guelleh to step down
The spontaneous uprisings in Egypt, which culminated last week with the resignation of President Mubarak, have spread to Djibouti where thousands of anti-government protesters have taken to the streets to call for President Guelleh to step down.
Buoyed by the success of demonstrations across the region, increasing numbers of protesters have been gathering in the East African country to urge the President not to seek a third five-year term in office, at the presidential elections in April.
Further unrest is expected this week as the country prepares for two days of mass protests on February 18 and February 25.
However, opposition groups fear that the peaceful demonstrations could be met with police brutality, following clashes last week that saw the country’s security forces use tear gas and stones to disperse the crowds.
Fears for the safety of political activists are also growing following the arrest on Friday of Jean-Paul Noël-Abdi, President of the LDDH ( la Ligue Djiboutienne des Droits Humains), Djibouti’s leading human rights group. Farah Abadid Hildid, a member of the MRD (Mouvement pour le Renouveau démocratique et le Développement), who has been leading calls for President Guelleh’s resignation, has also been arrested.
Abdourahman Boreh , the leading Presidential challenger and former Chairman of Djibouti’s Ports and Free Zones Authority, warned the President today of the consequences of using brutality to stay in power.
He said “The international community is watching and must take action against Mr Guelleh if this illegal oppression continues. Public anger at the brutality of President Guelleh’s police state may lead to civil unrest with devastating consequences for the citizens, the refugees and the economy. In the interests of the Djibouti nation, Mr Guelleh must accept the will of the people, and the true terms of the constitution, and step down to allow a credible democratic process to take place.”
He added: “The unfolding events in Djibouti are of great concern to countries in the region too, due to its strategic role in guarding the narrow Red Sea straights that lead to the Suez Canal, and the importance of Djibouti’s ports as Ethiopia’s only secure access to the sea in an unstable region.”
Djibouti has endured one-party rule dominated by the RPP (Rassemblement Populaire pour le Progrès) for 34 years. President Guelleh was first elected to office in 1999, taking over from his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, who had ruled the country since its independence from France in 1977. Mr Guelleh was re-elected unopposed in 2005 and was due to step down before the 2011 elections, but he changed the 1992 constitution in March 2010 to allow himself to stand for more than two terms.
Mr Boreh said that after more than three decades living under an undemocratic regime the people of Djibouti were finally rising up to demand political change, despite political activists in the country facing imprisonment and detention.
Mr Boreh said: “For 34 years, the Djibouti people have been deprived of political freedom and forced to live under a corrupt regime that does not believe in democracy. Galvanised by the recent upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt, they are now finding the strength to tell the world that they have had enough.
“The people of Djibouti are desperate for free and fair elections, as this will finally give them the opportunity to decide the leadership they want for their country. That is why I’m calling on the President to step down to make way for a peaceful transition of power. However, without a guarantee that Djibouti will be allowed a true democratic process, I and other opposition candidates may be forced to boycott the presidential elections to make it clear to Mr Guelleh that Djibouti will no longer tolerate his corrupt regime.”
Anti-government groups in Djibouti such as the UDA coalition (Union pour l’Alternance Démocratique) and the Afar FRUD (Front pour la Restauration de l’Unité et la Démocratie) have already raised the prospect of a boycott following what they describe as a lack of progress in organising the election.
Mr Boreh’s warning follows a visit to Djibouti by representatives of Democracy International, a US-based pro-democracy group, who reported that “a more competitive environment” was needed to ensure free and fair elections.
In its report it called for opposition representatives to be appointed to a National Electoral Commission, which has “the necessary means and autonomy to function properly”. It also called for “timely access to the electoral list for both political parties and the general public”, and a ban on “inducements” on election day, to put an end to the Government distributing money and khat (a popular stimulant chewed across east Africa) to win people’s votes.
In a final attempt to secure free and fair elections, Mr Boreh has also written to the African Union Pan-African Parliament, urging them to send impartial observers to the elections.
“It is clear that the President of Djibouti has no intention of responding to the findings of this report and implementing its recommendations,” said Mr Boreh. “What is particularly unfortunate is that if we, the opposition, lose hope in a democratic transition of power, and are forced to boycott the elections, there is a real chance that this week’s demonstrations will descend into civil unrest, like we have seen in Egypt.”
Mr Boreh has published on his website a list of demands to ensure the elections are free and fair.