Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Shake Djibouti

Add another country to those experiencing the wave of protests that started in Tunisia, and have swept across Egypt and much of the Mid-East/North Africa (MENA) region: Djibouti. The tiny nation perched on the Horn of Africa saw its own street protests erupt last Friday as an estimated 30,000 people turned out in the capital, Djibouti City, against the rule of President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh. While 30,000 might not sound like a huge turnout, keep in mind that Djibouti City only has 600,000 residents, so that would be like 350,000 turning out in New York City to protest against Mayor Michael Bloomberg; the Djibouti City rally turnout was also far larger than the opposition Union for a Democratic Alternative (UAD), which took the point in organizing the event, expected.

The protesters' complaints were what we're coming to expect: anger over the country's lack of development (the United Nations Development Program ranks Djibouti 148 out of 169 countries surveyed), low quality of life for the majority of the citizenry and an oppressive central government. The protests crystallized around Pres. Guelleh's apparently unconstitutional attempt to seek a third term in office, which began on January 1. Since then the UAD has tried to mobilize their supporters to protest against Guelleh, the UAD themselves have sat out the last two elections, which they said were rigged in favor of Guelleh.

Unfortunately the protests were not entirely peaceful. Late reports say that near the end of the rally the police began to fire indiscriminately into the crowd, wounding at least two people; the crowd responded by throwing rocks back at the police, killing one officer and badly injuring a second.

The protests in Djibouti have received practically no attention in the Western press, despite the fact that both the United States and France have military bases in the country – the US uses Djibouti as a central location for anti-piracy efforts against the Somali pirates plying the waters off the Horn of Africa, while the country is one of the home bases of the French Foreign Legion. Perhaps one reason why they've received little attention is that these protests can't be credited to Facebook since Djibouti has relatively few Internet users. According to reports, Friday's protests were largely organized using cellphones and SMS messages.
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