NAIROBI, Kenya – Voters in the tiny nation of Djibouti, which hosts the only U.S. military base in Africa, cast ballots for president Friday in an election boycotted by most opposition parties.
President Ismail Omar Guelleh faces one challenger and is expected to win a third term. Djibouti's presidency has been in the hands of the same family since the country won independence in 1977.
Djibouti, a former French colony in East Africa, is nominally democratic, but events before the election have shown a hardline approach at a time when democracy movements are upending administrations.
Riot police clashed with protesters in February and flooded the streets in March, when a second opposition rally had been planned. The government kicked out the U.S. vote monitoring group Democracy International. Opposition politicians have been detained and arrested before being freed.
Human Rights Watch said this month that Djibouti's government has "trampled" on the rights that make a vote free and fair.
"Peaceful protests elsewhere in the region are no justification for the government to deny citizens their basic rights," said Rona Peligal, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch said that 80 suspects were taken to court following the February opposition rally, and that after a judge dismissed 40 of the cases the country's justice minister removed the judge. A new judge convicted 25 defendants and sentenced them to prison.
Guelleh has served two terms already. His critics lament changes he made to the constitution last year that scrubbed a two-term limit from the nation's bylaws.
The U.S. has outsized influence in Djibouti, a country of only 800,000 people. On the outskirts of Djibouti city, across from its international airport, lies Camp Lemonnier, the only U.S. base in Africa. The base — which sits just miles (kilometers) from Somalia — is one of Djibouti's major employers.