* Opposition figure says polls will not be free and fair
* Urges voters to boycott the presidential election
* President Guelleh has been in power since 1999
NAIROBI, March 11 (Reuters) - Opposition groups in the Horn of Africa nation of Djibouti will boycott its presidential election on April 8 due to widespread concerns the voting will be rigged, a self-exiled opposition leader said on Friday.
The opposition said it had chosen not to put forward its candidates by a March 8 deadline, leaving two names on the ballot paper — that of the incumbent, President Ismail Omar Guelleh, and Mohammed Warsama, the former president of the country’s Constitutional Court.
Self-exiled potential challenger Abdourahman Boreh, who had previously said he would not stand if Guelleh was a presidential candidate, said he had withdrawn from the contest. He said he feared the vote would not be free and fair and his supporters would face intimidation, and possibly violence.
Boreh cited last month’s protests which saw police fire live bullets and tear gas at anti-government protesters who sought to shake the authority of the 63-year-old Guelleh’s People’s Rally for Progress party, which has ruled the tiny country since independence from France in 1977.
“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,” he said in a statement issued by London-based firm MHP communications.
MHP said the leaders of the opposition National Democratic Party and the Union for a Democratic Alternative were briefly detained on Friday, information they said had come from Jean-Paul Noel Abdi, president of the Djiboutian League of Human Rights. The two parties are also boycotting the poll.
The former French colony, whose port is used by foreign navies patrolling busy shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden to fight piracy, counts Somalia among its neighbours.
Opposition supporters have been calling for the departure of Guelleh, in power since 1999, and the leader has been facing mounting opposition after he oversaw a change to the constitution that allows him to seek a third term in office.
Galvanised by the success of regional protest movements such as those that toppled the long-serving rulers of Egypt and Tunisia this year, anti-government demonstrators last month clashed with riot police who used teargas to disperse crowds demanding that the president steps down.
Three leading opposition politicians were detained.
Boreh said it would not be safe for his supporters to campaign openly for him following the government’s clashes with demonstrators, including the arrest of opposition figures.
“Having a president who lacks legitimacy domestically and internationally will have dangerous implications for the people of Djibouti. That’s why I am calling for a postponement of the election until we can be confident that it will be organised in a free and fair manner,” Boreh said. (Editing by James Macharia and Philippa Fletcher)