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Union of Comoros

Union of Comoros

Type of Government

Comoros is governed as a federal republic with powers divided between independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches. After repeated coups and secessionist problems, a new constitution was adopted in 2001. Now each of the nation’s three constituent islands elects its own president to administer local affairs, while a union president is responsible for issues affecting the entire country, such as defense, foreign policy, and finance. The union presidency rotates among the three islands.

Background

Comoros is a chain of three islands in the Indian Ocean—Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Mohéli—between Mozambique and Madagascar. A fourth island, Mayotte, opted to stay under French jurisdiction in 1975, but Comoros continues to claim it. With some 838 square miles in area, Comoros is about half the size of the state of Delaware and is home to about seven hundred thousand people. It is one of the poorest countries in Africa. The capital city, Moroni, is located on Grande Comore, the largest island.

The population is overwhelmingly (98 percent) Sunni Muslim and traces its origins to Africa, Indonesia, Europe, and the Middle East. The 2001 constitution makes Islam the state religion and does not provide for freedom of religion. President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi (1958–) is an Islamic scholar, but he maintains that he does not plan to implement Islamic law.

Arab explorers brought Islam to the islands in the fifteenth century AD and created two sultanates to rule the islands. Portuguese explorers arrived in 1505, around the same time the Portuguese discovered Madagascar. Over the centuries, traders and sailors from Africa, the Persian Gulf, Indonesia, and Madagascar passed through the Comoros islands. French explorers landed in the islands in 1517 and often captured Comorans and sold them as slaves to work sugar plantations on other French territories. In 1843 the ruler of Mayotte transferred the island to France, and the leader of Mohéli signed a friendship treaty with France in 1865 but did not relinquish his island’s independence. With control of Mayotte secured, France established a protectorate over Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Mohéli in 1886. By 1908 France had assigned administrative authority for the Comoros to the governor general of Madagascar.

On May 9, 1946, the islands became a French overseas territory with representation in the French National Assembly. Faced with demands for independence from the Comoro National Liberation Movement, based in Tanzania, France agreed to local rule in 1961, expanded local autonomy further on January 3, 1968, and agreed to transition toward total independence by 1978. Before the latter date, however, a referendum on independence was held on December 22, 1974. Three islands overwhelmingly voted for independence, but residents of Mayotte wanted to remain under French rule. While France insisted that the four islands hold separate votes on a draft constitution, the Comoran parliament unilaterally passed a declaration of independence on July 6, 1975, expelled French diplomats, and nationalized French property. The Comoran declaration of independence included Mayotte, but on February 7, 1976, residents there voted to remain a French territory. France welcomed Mayotte’s association, but the United Nations has backed the Comoros claim to Mayotte.

Government Structure

The president is chief of state and appoints the Cabinet of Ministers. According to the 2001 constitution, every four years the union presidency rotates among the presidents of the three main islands, beginning with Grande Comore (2002), then Anjouan (2006) and Mohéli (2010). The entire population over the age of eighteen votes for the presidents, but only candidates from the designated island can run. Sambi of Anjouan was elected union president in May 2006, and the presidents of the other two islands serve as union vice presidents. The president has the power to appoint a prime minister, but the post has been vacant since the new constitution came into effect in 2002.

Legislative power is institutionalized in a unicameral (one-chamber) Assembly of the Union. The Assembly has thirty-three seats; fifteen members are selected by the individual islands and the remaining eighteen by universal voting. Members serve five-year terms.

The Comoran judicial system is based on a combination of Muslim and French law. At the top of the judicial system is the Supreme Court. The president appoints two members of the court, the Assembly of the Union selects another two members, the councils of the three islands each select one member, and the remaining members are former national presidents. The Constitutional Court oversees elections and has seven members: the union president, union vice presidents, the leader of parliament, and three members each appointed by the executive heads of the three islands.

Administratively, Comoros is organized as three islands (Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Mohéli) and four municipalities (Domoni, Fomboni, Moroni, and Moutsamoudou). Each island elects its own president and legislature.

Political Parties and Factions

Comoran political parties tend to be short-lived and be based around a particular issue, such as independence for an island, or a particular politician. President Ahmed Abdallah (1919–1989) led the Comoros Democratic Union from 1972 until 1982, when he outlawed all political parties and created the Comoran Union for Progress as the only legal party. The Comoran Union for Progress dominated politics throughout the 1980s, but in 1991 President Said Mohamed Djohar (1918–2006) abandoned it and multiparty elections began.

Leading parties as of 2007 included President Sambi’s Islamic National Front for Justice, Convention for the Renewal of Comoros (CRC) headed by previous Comoros leader Azali Assoumani (1959–), and the Movement for the Comoros Party. The Camp of the Autonomous Islands, which opposes the union president, holds the largest bloc of seats in the parliament.

Major Events

Since independence, the government of Comoros has endured coups, numerous coup attempts, and repeated secessionist strife. There were nineteen coups or attempted coups between 1975 and 2007, and in 1997 the islands of Anjouan and Mohéli declared their independence. For two decades, the real ruler of the country was a white French mercenary, Colonel Bob Denard (1929–), who formally headed the five-hundred-member presidential guard. Many observers believed Denard had the covert backing of France, which feared a Communist regime coming to power in the geographically strategic region.

Abdallah was president of the Comoran assembly when it declared independence, and he assumed control of the new executive branch on July 6, 1975. A coup led by Denard overthrew Abdallah on August 3, 1975, and Abdallah took refuge in France. Denard installed the former prime minister, Prince Said Mohammed Jaffar (1918–1993), as head of a new ruling Revolutionary Council. In January 1976 Ali Soilih (1937–1978) became president of the council. Soilih, in turn, was murdered by Denard’s mercenaries on May 13, 1978, and Denard reinstalled Abdallah as head of the military council.

Abdallah issued a new constitution on October 1, 1978, that renamed the country the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros and increased individual island autonomy. Abdallah, the only candidate, subsequently won the October 22, 1978, election for president with 99.9 percent of the vote. He was reelected in September 1984 with 99.4 percent of the vote and moved to eliminate the post of prime minister. In 1989 Abdallah appealed to France and South Africa to eject Denard from the country, but on November 26, 1989, Abdallah was assassinated by Denard’s Presidential Guard. As specified in the constitution, the head of the Supreme Court, at the time Said Mohamed Djohar, became acting president, and he succeeded in expelling Denard. Djohar subsequently won the 1990 presidential election and established a coalition government that survived three attempted coups.

Djohar’s rule began to falter in 1992 when his son-in-law, then finance minister, was accused of corruption at a time when the economy was rapidly deteriorating. Djohar’s allies won a slim plurality in the January 1992 parliamentary elections, but members could not agree on a cabinet and Djohar dissolved the parliament in June, calling for new elections in December. Parliament again objected to Djohar’s cabinet appointments, and a wave of demonstrations and strikes spread across the islands. Denard resurfaced and seized this opportunity to invade, arrest Djohar, and install Colonel Ayouba Combo as head of a new Transitional Military Committee. France responded by dispatching one thousand troops and arresting Denard. Opposition leaders Mohammed Taki and Said Ali Kemal ruled as co-interim presidents until Taki was elected president on March 16, 1996.

Soon after Taki took office, protests erupted in Anjouan and Mohéli, with residents demanding to secede from Comoros and rejoin France—even though France did not want them. In September 1997 Taki deployed the army to recapture the two islands, but it failed. Taki unexpectedly died in November 1998 under suspicious circumstances. Tadjiddine Ben Said Massounde (1933–2004) became acting president, only to be ousted in a coup on April 30, 1999.

The Organization for African Unity stepped in to broker an inter-island peace agreement, known as the Antananarivo agreement of April 2, 1999. However, the delegate representing Anjouan refused to sign the agreement, sparking attacks on Anjouans in Moroni. Azali Assoumani, then head of the Comoran armed forces, overthrew Massounde on April 30, 1999. On May 6 Assoumani took the titles of president, prime minister, and minister of defense. He then suspended the constitution, dissolved all elected legislatures, and formed a twelve-member Committee of the State to run the country.

Assoumani sponsored a confederal power-sharing arrangement to resolve the secessionist crisis. Known as the Fomboni Accord of February 17, 2001, the agreement was based on the Antananarivo framework and was enshrined in a new constitution in 2001. The document requires incumbent leaders to step aside if they are to stand for reelection, so Assoumani resigned on January 16, 2002, before the April 14 presidential election. Assoumani then ran in the election and won the vote, but over the next few years his popularity began to fade. Two candidates boycotted the 2002 election, and Assoumani’s CRC Party had a poor showing in the 2004 legislative elections. As his term of office neared an end and the presidency was due to rotate to a representative from Anjouan, Assoumani introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow him a second, consecutive term, but he soon abandoned the idea. Instead, he departed office on schedule, overseeing the first peaceful transition of power in the country’s history.

Twenty-First Century

The Comoran government’s main challenges are economic: securing additional investment and recouping funds lost due to corruption. With its turbulent political history, Comoros has had a difficult time raising foreign investment. Leaders must convince international lenders that the state is stable and their funds will be safe in the twenty-first century.

Le Vine, Victor T. Politics in Francophone Africa . Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2004.

Weinberg, Samantha. Last of the Pirates: The Search for Bob Denard . New York: Pantheon, 1994.

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