Djibouti’s government said it believes rallies by political parties are a pre-requisite for free and fair elections and that a violent demonstration last week by opponents of the state was hijacked by “trouble-makers.”
One policeman died and nine other people were injured in the Feb. 18 protests by opponents of President Ismail Guelleh, Foreign Minister Mahmoud Ali Yousef said by phone from the capital city, Djibouti, yesterday. Opposition parties are meeting this week to decide when to hold their next demonstration.
“The situation got out of hand” on Feb. 18, Yousef said. “There were people who had nothing do with politics and had the primary intention of creating chaos.”
Anti-government protests have spread from Algeria to Yemen since January after popular uprisings ousted the presidents of Egypt and Tunisia. In Djibouti, Guelleh’s People’s Rally for Progress party has ruled since independence in 1977. The 63- year-old leader, first elected in 1999, amended the constitution in March 2010 to allow him to extend his rule by two more six- year terms.
Djibouti’s government encourages opposition parties to take part in activities including rallies in the run-up to a presidential vote scheduled for April, as long as they act “within the law,” Yousef said.
Trouble began on Feb. 18 after a peaceful protest at Hassan Guled Stadium didn’t finish at dusk as agreed with local authorities, he said.
“It is very difficult to control trouble-making elements after dark,” he said. “When it was going dark they started to break cars, throw stones, beating people. Then police and the security forces tried to contain them using tear gas.”
Opponents of Guelleh want to force him to resign so that a transitional government can be installed to oversee the elections, according to Mohamed Daoud Chehem, head of the Djibouti Party for Development. The electoral commission’s loyalty to the ruling party is one of the main obstacles to a fair vote, he said in a phone interview yesterday from Djibouti City, the capital.
A planned decision on the date for the next protest has been delayed as the opposition seeks information on detained activists, Chehem said. The number of people involved in last week’s demonstration was as many as 600, Yousef said. The opposition National Democratic Party said as many as 20,000 people took part, with as many as four losing their lives.
The U.S. has had a military base in Djibouti since 2001, while former colonial power France has 3,000 troops stationed in the country, which is smaller than the U.S. state of Massachusetts. The republic borders the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and is seen as a strategic location in the U.S.-led fight against terrorism and piracy.
An investigation is under way to determine whether opposition leaders will be prosecuted for the violence at least week’s protest, Yousef said.
“If you organize a demonstration, you have some accountability,” he said.
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