Opposition leaders in Djibouti have rejected a government plea to postpone a rally scheduled Friday to protest against the rule of President Ismail Omar Guelleh. The demonstration is set to begin after Friday prayers in the mostly Muslim East African city-state.
Djibouti’s opposition parties are hoping to draw tens of thousands of supporters into the streets to demand President Guelleh’s ouster. The demonstration comes five weeks before an election in which Mr. Guelleh is seeking a third six-year term in office.
He recently engineered a change in the constitution to eliminate a provision that would have prevented him from seeking re-election.
An earlier rally February 18th, which drew several thousand protesters was marred by the deaths of two people. On the eve of Friday’s follow-up demonstration, Interior Minister Yacin Elmi Bouh issued a postponement order, citing what was called “the painful consequences of the last round."
But 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.
Djibouti is a tiny Horn of Africa nation in a volatile region, sandwiched between Eritrea and Somalia, just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. It is home to the only U.S. military base in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as a small French outpost.
President Guelleh’s ruling People’s Rally for Progress Party has held power for 34 years. He was first elected in 1999, replacing his uncle.
Protests in the capital have grown since unrest erupted in other countries in the region in January. Mohamed Daoud Chehem of the opposition National Democratic Party says the violence that resulted in two deaths at last month’s demonstration was initiated by police.
"We make only pacific [peaceful] demonstrators," Chehem said. "We are not violent. Our people are not violent. But the government side made a provocation to make violence."
Authorities deny the allegation that police provoked the violence, noting that one of the dead was a police officer.
The United Nations ranks Djibouti among the world’s poorest nations, with a large population of jobless youth. Unemployment is estimated about 60 percent, with per capita income of about $2800 a year.