US election monitoring group kicked out from Djibouti 3 weeks before vote

NAIROBI, Kenya — Djibouti’s government has kicked out an American election monitoring group less than a month before the nation’s presidential election, a vote opposition politicians are boycotting because they say the president is repressing dissent.

Djibouti is a tiny East African nation that hosts the only U.S. military base in Africa. Situated on the Gulf of Aden between Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Yemen, the city-state is a major shipping hub in a volatile region.

The country is nominally democratic, but events leading up to the April 8 presidential election appear to show a hardline approach by President Ismail Omar Guelleh at a time when democracy movements are upending administrations.

ismail-omar-guelleh
Ismail Omar Guelleh, President since 1999

Democracy International, a U.S. group that works on democracy and governance programs, was halfway through a two-year, $2.2 million U.S. government-funded contract when it was accused of assisting opposition politicians and barred from the country earlier this month.

The head of the group’s observation mission, Chris Hennemeyer, said the accusations are not true.

Djibouti saw an estimated 6,000 people turn out to an opposition political rally on Feb. 18. The rally turned violent when riot police moved in, and opposition politicians said dozens of people were wounded and five killed. A second rally planned for March 4 didn’t happen after security forces filled the streets.

Hennemeyer said many countries in the region are nervous during a time of popular protests, and that the February rally surprised Djiboutian leaders.

“They were not expecting such a large turnout, and I think those two factors — regional nervousness and the protest — were enough to lead at least some people in the government to conclude that this was not the kind of program that they wanted to support,” Hennemeyer said of the reasons Democracy International was kicked out.

Calls to Foreign Minister Mahmoud Ali Youssouf were not answered, and the government spokesman said he couldn’t immediately talk. But Youssouf told the Financial Times this week that Democracy International exhibited “concerning” behavior and that the U.S. could nominate another observer group. He said the EU, African Union and Arab League have been invited to send observers to the vote.

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