By JASON STRAZIUSO
Soldiers and police filled the streets of Djibouti on Friday to prevent a planned demonstration against the president by opposition parties, officials said.
Djibouti – a tiny East African nation that hosts a U.S. military base – saw thousands turn out at an anti-government demonstration two weeks ago. Protesters said they planned to hold another rally Friday, but that the government denied them permission and sent security forces into the street.
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.
Souleiman Farah Lodon, vice chairman of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Renewal "MRD", said from Djibouti that security forces blocked the route to the city’s main stadium, where the rally had been planned. He said the area was "completely covered" by security forces.
A potential presidential challenger, Abdourahman Boreh, who lives overseas and is currently in London, said demonstrators are not ready to confront the police and army with force, but that they may do so in the future.
"They have come out with a lot of force, the Djiboutian army, the gendarmerie and the police," Boreh said. "They wouldn’t let the people circulate. This is really showing the character of this government."
A letter addressed to the opposition by Djibouti’s minister of interior, Yacin Elmi Bouh, said the demonstrators were required to change the date of their rally because of protesters’ violent response during a Feb. 18 demonstration in which authorities used batons and tear gas to break up the gathering.
"The violent reactions of the protesters surprised everyone," Bouh wrote in his letter denying approval.
Boreh said the protesters only reacted to the aggression of security forces. He said the opposition planned to have a peaceful protest. About 6,000 people turned out at the last demonstration, according to Democracy International, a U.S.-funded group that is monitoring the April presidential poll.
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’s family has been in power in Djibouti for more than three decades. Guelleh, who looks poised to win re-election, ran unopposed in 2005.
No foreign journalists work in Djibouti, and few international organizations have a presence there.
The country 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.