Opposition parties in Djibouti are urging citizens to boycott Friday's presidential election, in which the incumbent, President Ismail Omar Guelleh, is the sole candidate. Opponents accuse the president's ruling party of brutally suppressing democracy in the tiny, but strategically important, Horn of African country.
Early last month, the government in Djibouti announced that President Guelleh would be the only candidate to stand in the April 8 presidential election in the former French colony.
A government spokesman explained that the electoral commission had given all potential candidates ample time to submit their papers. But no one had come forth to challenge the Djiboutian leader, who was first elected to office in 1999.
On Thursday, a spokesman for an opposition group called the Republican Alliance for Development, Mohammed Ali, told VOA that no one else registered to run for the country's highest office because opposition leaders could not get any guarantees that the election would be held freely and fairly.
Mr. Ali says the government has been cracking down on all political opponents, imprisoning some and silencing others through intimidation. He says all civil servants are required to support and campaign on behalf of President Guelleh. Those who refuse lose their jobs.
Mr. Ali says his group has joined the main opposition coalition, the Union of Democratic Alliance, and another opposition group, the Front for the Restoration of Unity and Democracy, in calling for a nationwide boycott of Friday's poll.
The groups say they were heartened by a recently released State Department human rights report, which accused the Djiboutian government of trying to, among other things, limit citizen's rights to change their government.
But political opponents also express dismay at what they say has been a total lack of effort on the part of the international community to pressure President Guelleh's ruling coalition into running an election campaign that can be held up to public scrutiny.
Without such pressure to hold the government accountable, opponents say they believe change through the ballot box will never be possible in Djibouti.
Widespread claims of vote rigging marred the last parliamentary elections held there two years ago, in which the ruling Union for Presidential Majority coalition won all 65 seats. The government denied any wrongdoing.
Djibouti, on the horn of Africa, has a population of only about 700,000 people. But it is strategically located at the southern end of the Red Sea, across from Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula.
The French maintain their largest overseas military base in Djibouti, and in 2002, the country became a hub for U.S.-led anti-terrorism efforts in the region.