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Djibouti suspends US election mission

Djibouti has told the United States that an independent election observer mission is “illegal” and suspended its partnership with the US-funded mission.

The news came amid reports that the north-east African coastal state had arrested two opposition leaders on Friday.

Democracy International (DI), which has a $2.2m, eight-man team in the tiny strategic state, provides the only international technical assistance and observation group in the country, which has been ruled by the same dynasty since independence.

The increasing visibility of the Djibouti’s anti-democratic leanings is awkward for the US, which relies on the country for its only military base on the continent and last year doubled aid to the country, funding DI’s Djibouti operation. Many of its 3,000 troops are dedicated to fighting piracy and terrorism in neighbouring Somalia.

President Ismail Omar Guelleh, who took over from his uncle in 1999, last year scrapped a two-term constitutional limit to allow him to stand for re-election on April 8.

His regime has several times arrested opposition leaders, and moved swiftly to quell dissent following popular protests in the city-state that sought to draw on uprisings taking hold across north Africa. Facebook postings urged protesters to imitate revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.

Djibouti’s foreign ministry sent a diplomatic note to the US Embassy dated March 2 requesting the end of the partnership with DI, alleging it had participated in and supported a violent February 18 opposition rally in which at least one person was killed, accusations the group denies.

A January report from DI noted widespread voter apathy, adding that those surveyed said Djiboutian politicians distribute money and khat, a narcotic drug, to voters ahead of election day as an inducement for loyalty.

Sources say efforts to resolve the dispute with DI continue. “We have not closed up our operations, (but) we are not undertaking any active programming,” DI co-founder Glenn Cowan told the Financial Times, adding that the group still plans to observe the elections.

Subsequent efforts to organise protests have failed. Critics attribute this to heavy-handed tactics by the state, whose president once headed the secret services.

Human rights activist Jean-Paul Noël Abdi, himself detained for 11 days last month, told the Financial Times that two opposition leaders were arrested in broad daylight on Friday, by state forces in 20 vehicles. He said he did not know their whereabouts at the moment.

Calls and text messages to Djiboutian authorities went unanswered on Friday, an official day off. Opposition leaders had vowed earlier on Friday to boycott the elections, deliberately missing a nominations deadline. They said they believed polls would be rigged and dangerous.

“If I, or any other opposition candidate had stood, we would have only been adding to the perceived legitimacy of the election – a legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve,” said Abdourahman Boreh, a self-exiled businessman-turned-opposition politician. He said it would not be safe for his supporters to campaign.

A US government spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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