December 6, 2010 § 2 Comments

ComorosWho lives there?: Around 800,000 people in the three islands of  Ngazidja, Mohéli, and Anjouan. 200,000 more live on the fourth island of Mayotte but it voted against independence when the others voted yes and, despite repeated requests by Comoros and a UN resolution, it has remained a part of France ever since – its status having been confirmed by a number of referendums.

98% of the country ins Muslim. Comoran is the indigenous language and a different dialect is spoken on each of the four islands. In addition 50% of the population  – and 100% of Mayotte – are fluent in French (the language of instruction in school) and 90% are fluent in Arabic (the language of the mosques). In addition the Malay language: Shibushi is spoken by around a third of the population of  Mayotte

How does the system work? (the theory): Comoros has a very devolved power sharing structure and a labyrinthine bureaucracy in an attempt to prevent further coups or unilateral declarations of independence. This means that until recently up to 80% of the government’s budget was spent on electoral administration. As a result referendum was held and the system is now being simplified. We are currently about half way through that reform..

The Comoros islands a a whole have a president and a parliament. The president is elected under a unique system. Each island has the Presidency for four years at a time. Elections take place in two rounds by first past the post. In the first round only the nominating island votes. The top three then go through to a second round where everybody votes.

The legislative house is the unicameral Assembly of the Union. 24 seats are elected directly by two round first past the post, 9 are elected indirectly – three each – by the parliaments of the individual island. Terms last five years

Each island has its own parliament elected for five years by FPTP: Ngazidja’s has 20 members, Mohéli’s 10, and Anjouan’s 25. Each island used to have its own president and appoint its own ministers; it is moving towards a system where it has a governor and appoints “councillors” to council the ministers who will now be appointed centrally. The governor/president is elected directly by FPTP.

The change doesn’t really effect where power is held in theory, or how elections happen, but it means there should be considerable savings in bureaucracy through a reduction in duplication and a significant reduction in the number of politicians receiving considerable bureaucratic support and perks. In practice it may mean centralisation as the island’s government will receive less bureaucratic support than the centre.

How does the system work? (the practice): Comoros had been known as the coup coup islands for the number of coups which had happened here – 20 in the first 26 years after independence. Since the new constitution was brought in in 2001 there have been no coups as such, but there was the Anjouan incident – of which more in a moment – which only finished two years ago. Nevertheless elections are free and fair: Freedom House even goes so far as to call Comoros and Mauritania “the only two truly democratic countries in the Arab world”. The issue is that there are so many groups, particularly factions of the military, willing to bypass democracy and declare themselves this or that by virtue of gathering together fifty people with guns.

There has been controversy over the current elections with the supreme court stepping in to invalidate the results from several polling stations and in so doing reversing the results of the third and fourth placed candidates – and so changing who enters the runoff.

How did we get here?: It is not entirely clear when the islands were settled but it is thought before, but not long before, the sixth century AD. It was in the sixth century that they converted to Islam and became an important trading post on the aquatic crossroads between India, Africa and the middle east. Like most of the eastern coast of Africa the population have been a deeply integrated Arab-African mix ever since.

Madagascan pirates and slavers started raiding the islands with increased frequency in the 16th and 17th centuries and so it wasn’t entirely reluctantly that Comoros entered French protection in 1841. Compared to the disaster of the French colonial rule in much of Africa, the colonial experience of Comoros wasn’t too bad. However colonies having the flaws they do, there was still a push for independence which led to referendums in 1974. The three westernmost islands overwhelmingly voted yes but Mayotte voted no. Comoros has been determined to reclaim Mayotte ever since but Mayotte voted overwhelmingly against independence (and to become further integrated with France) again in referendums in 1976, 2001, 2003, and 2009.

Meanwhile Comoros became the coup capital of the world: 20 coups took place. At least four of the most violent were the work of Colonel Bob Denard – an eccentric former French paratrooper – and his mercenary army: Les Affreux. The level of French complicity with the work of Denard has never been established; however in 1989 French paratroopers certainly did intervene to save Denard from a popular lynching, and certainly intervened again in 1995 to prevent Denard from launching a fifth coup.

Bob Denard

Bob Denard

Meanwhile Comoros was governed by a secession of inaptly named strong men until 1997 when Anjouan and Mohéli got fed up with the failure of the centre (based in the capital Moroni on the island of Ngazidja) to govern, and unilaterally declared independence. They both then tried to rejoin France, however France rebuffed them and a bloody civil war followed between Ngazidja and the two smaller islands. This ended in 1999 with a  final coup in which Colonel Azali Assoumani – the Chief of the Army – seized power bloodlessly, reunified the islands (with the help of the African Union), implemented a new (the current) constitution, and successfully ran for election. He stood down as per the constitution in 2006, and the first peaceful transfer of power took place. Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, a moderate imam, won the election.

Meanwhile on Anjouan, Colonel Mohamed Bacar – the chief of police  – had seized power in 2001. He won elections he was believed to have rigged in 2004 and 2007. The Comoros government was initially reluctant to intervene with Anjouan’s autonomy. However as stories started to circulate that Bacar had tortured hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of his opponents, and was becoming increasingly dictatorial, they decided they needed to do something.

The Comoros Army invaded in early March 2008. Opinions differ as to what happened – some saying it was a reconnaissance mission featuring only ten men, others that it was a raid by 50 soldiers aimed at freeing political prisoners. Either way the attack failed, two soldiers were wounded and had to be left behind (they were later rescued in a second raid) and the remaining forces retreated. Comoros then asked the African Union for help and, at the end of March, 1,500 Sudanese, Tanzanian and Senegalese troops overran Anjouan and brought Bacar’s rule to an end. Bacar himself paddled to safety in a small canoe dressed as a woman. After reaching Mayotte he asked for asylum and was refused, however he escaped again to Reunion where he lives to this day.

The collapse of Bacar also brought down the main rival opponent to president Sambi. Ibrahim Halidi had come second to Sambi in the 2006 elections and had started to organise Comoros’ first real political parties. However he took a job as an advisor to Bacar – and after allegations of what Bacar had been up to came to light he went into hiding. With Halidi out of the way, Sambi’s grip on power increased and he set about a policy of increased centralisation and simplification of the governing structure. These actions led, for pretty much the first time, to Comoran politics (which had previously always been fairly non partisan) coalescing into two camps. Sambi’s supporters – who call themselves “Baobab” – support his push for centralisation, whilst his opponents – who currently simply refer to themselves as the opposition – favour increased decentralisation.

Sambi tried to extend his period in office to give himself more time to implement reforms. However when this was unsuccessful Baobab announced they would run candidates in the presidential election who express the intention of making Sambi vice-president and continuing his work .

Who’s in charge?: We are currently in between rounds of the presidential election. The first round happened in November and the second round will happen in February. As discussed the main split is between the centralising “Baobab” party and the decentralising “opposition”. This time round it is Mohéli’s turn to have the presidency and so the first round took place exclusively on Mohéli.

Baobab already passed it’s first test: it was feared that Baobab would split into two before it even established itself but in the end the second Baobab candidate (Mohamed Larifou Oukacha) did so badly that there was no split in support. Current vice-president and Baobab candidate Ikililou Dhoinine won the most votes in the first round with 28%.

That left two places in the runoff for the opposition: Former Mohéli governor Mohamed Said Fazul came second with 23% of the vote and is now seen as the formal “opposition” candidate. Controversially Abdou Djabir was awarded third place over Bianrifi Tarmidhi. Both got around 10% of the vote; Tarmidhi was originally awarded third place, but the courts stepped in and invalidated a crucial few hundred of his votes, pushing Djabir into third. He is not expected to do well in the second round but may split Fazul’s vote.

Parliamentary elections were last held in 2009. Most voters seemed to vote for centralists in the centre and decentralisers in the individual island administrations. Each of the islands parliaments were split between supporters of the union president (which was then Sambi) and supporters of the specific island’s president/governor. Whilst I have not been able to find exact breakdowns I do know that in each case the individual island leader’s supporters have a majority. As such the nine candidates elected by them to the union parliament were all supporters of the individual island leaders and thus supporters of the opposition.

As for the directly elected seats – they were overwhelmingly won by Baobab. Baobab won 15 seats and independents allied to Baobab won 3. The opposition only won 5. However this landslide was largely a result of the voting system – two round first past the post. Only 2 seats were won on the first round, both by Baobab.

comoros parties

The army are the main other power, although the African Union and France also hold a lot of sway. The army is rarely homogeneous and coups often come from junior officers, not always from the top.

What does it look like?: The Comoros has its own unique ecoregion – known as the Comoros forest. Like Madagascar this is a mix of lowland forest, highland forest, and mangrove swamp, but it has its own unique flora and fauna including the mongoose lemur:

mongoose lemur

The rest of Comoros looks like much of the rest of the Indian Ocean coast.

What are the issues?: Keeping the country from falling back into coup and counter-coup is the main focus but opinions differ as to how this is best to be achieved – the main dividing line being between centralisers and decentralisers. The status of Mayotte and relations with France also exercise some.

A good source of impartial information is: There is a free press but shortwave radio is the dominant medium. Al Watan is about the only news outlet with a website. I’ve found brilliant stuff on the Comoros from IRIN which is the UN’s global news outlet.

A good book is: Bob Denard was the inspiration for The Dogs Of War which is also a Christopher Walken movie. A more factual account is given in Last of the Pirates: Search for Bob Denard.

Apart from that there is almost nothing written about Comoros: Executive Report on Strategies in Comoros is a £430 report on the nation for designed for strategists from major companies, and Comoros Moon: Spy Shorts is a sub James Bond American spy bonkfest set in Comoros. That is about it.

When are the next elections?: Legislative elections will be in 2014 as will be the next presidential election. The current Presidential election isn’t over. The second round will be in February.


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