Union of the Comoros (Al-Itti
al-Qumuriyy) is an island nation in the Indian Ocean, located off the eastern
coast of Africa on the northern end of the Mozambique Channel between northern
Madagascar and north-eastern Mozambique. Prior to 2002, it was known officially
as the Islamic Federal Republic of the Comoros. The country officially consists
of the four islands in the volcanic Comoros archipelago: Ngazidja (French:
Grande Comore), Mwali (French: Mohéli), Nzwani (French: Anjouan), and Mahoré
(French: Mayotte), as well as many smaller islands. However, the government of
the Union of the Comoros (or its predecessors since independence) has never
administered the island of Mayotte, which France considers an overseas
community and still administers. Since Mayotte was the only island in the
archipelago that voted against independence from France, and France has vetoed
United Nations Security Council resolutions that would affirm Comorian
sovereignty over the island, control was never passed to the Comoros.
On August 3, 1975, the late Bob Denard, with clandestine
support from Jacques Foccart and the French government, removed president Ahmed
Abdallah from office in an armed coup and replaced him with United National
Front of the Comoros (UNF) member Prince Said Mohammed Jaffar. Just a few
months later, in January 1976, Jaffar was ousted in favour of his Minister of
Defence Ali Soilih. At this time, the population of Mayotte voted against
independence from France in two separate referendums. The first, held in
December 1974, won 63.8% support for maintaining ties with France, while the
second, held in February 1976, confirmed that vote with an overwhelming 99.4%.
The three remaining islands, ruled by President Soilih, instituted a number of
socialist and isolationist policies that soon strained relations with France.
On May 13, 1978, Bob Denard returned to overthrow President Soilih and
re-instated Abdallah with the support of the French and South African
governments. During Soilih's brief rule, he had faced seven additional coup
attempts until he was finally forced from office and killed.
The islands of Anjouan and Mohéli declared their
independence from the Comoros in 1997, in an attempt to restore French rule.
France, however, rejected the islands' request, leading to bloody
confrontations between federal troops and rebels. Colonel Azali Assoumani, Army
Chief of Staff, seized power in a bloodless coup in April 1999, overthrowing
the Interim President Tadjiddine Ben Said Massounde citing weak leadership in
the face of the crisis. The BBC reported that Azali's takeover was the Comoros'
eighteenth coup d'etat since independence in 1975. A subsequent failed attempt
by Azali to consolidate power and re-establish control over the islands was the
subject of international criticism, and the African Union, under the auspices
of President Mbeki of South Africa, intervened, imposing sanctions on Anjouan
to help broker negotiations and effect reconciliation. This involved
introducing a new system of governmental autonomy for each island, plus a Union
government for the three islands. Azali stepped down in 2002 to run in the
democratic election of the President of the Comoro Union, which he won. Under
ongoing international pressure, as a military ruler who had originally come to
power by force and was not always democratic while in office, Azali led the
Union through constitutional changes that enabled new elections.
The elections in 2006 were won by Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed
Sambi, a Sunni Muslim Cleric from Anjouan, nick-named the
"Ayatollah" for his time spent studying Islam in Iran. Azali honoured
the election results, thus allowing the first-ever peaceful and democratic
exchange of power in the archipelagos' turbulent history.
Iranian-trained Sunni Muslim cleric Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed
Sambi, won the May 2006 presidential election with 58% of the vote. Mr
Sambi, a former MP, campaigned on promises to fight unemployment and corruption.
He has dismissed charges from his opponents that he is an Islamic extremist.
The presidency of the union rotates between the three
islands. The former incumbent, Azali Assoumani, represented Grande Comore. His
successor is from Anjouan. A president from Moheli is set to take office in
2010. The presidents of the three semi-autonomous islands are vice presidents
of the Union of Comoros. A 33-member national assembly sits on Grande Comore.
However, a standoff developed between the federal government and Anjouan in
June 2007, when Anjouan's leader, Mohamed Bacar, was re-elected in elections
held in defiance of a central government order.
Colonel Mohamed Bacar (born May 5, 1962 in Barakani,
Anjouan) was president of Anjouan, one of the three autonomous islands that
make up the Union of the Comoros. He is a former chief of police on Anjouan and
has studied extensively in France and the United States. He was part of a
military coup on Anjouan in August 2001, and soon became the head of the
country. He was elected by repressing the election and became the first
president of Anjouan in March 2002, in part due to his leading role in the
separatist movement. On 26 April 2007, the country's Federal Constitutional
Court proclaimed the presidency of Anjouan vacant, declaring Bacar's refusal to
leave office after his term ended on 14 April illegal. Two days later, Comorian
president Ahmed Abdallah Sambi made an agreement with the Africa Union to
force M. Bacar to vacate his office. Bacar then appointed M. DHOIHIROU Halidi
as interim president of Anjouan. In defiance of both the Union of Comoros
government and the African Union (AU), Mohamed Bacar, 45, on 14 June 2007
inaugurated himself for a second term as the president of Anjouan Island.
The Union government had withheld election material from Anjouan to try and
prevent the poll from taking place, but Bacar printed his own ballot papers,
went ahead with the vote on 10 June and claimed a landslide victory of 90
Currently there is great unrest in the Comores as Anjouan’s
leader refuses to leave office despite the advice of the Comores President and
the African Union. This week the Comores Government, representing Grand Comores
and Moheli, with the support of the French in Mayotte, have begun recruiting
‘volunteers’ in Southern Africa and preparing air capacity for the removal of
Bacar early in the New Year. The South African Government, whose President
Thabo Mbeki has been so active representing the African Union in the Comores,
is in a bit of a bind. The natural reservoir of ‘volunteers’ for the Comores
mission, as well as the cargo aircraft for their transport, is located in South
Africa and there has been a track record of successful intervention by South
Africa in Comores affairs. The new law passed in South Africa outlawing the
recruitment of such ‘volunteeers’, in pursuit of this mission is hampering an
important South African foreign policy ambition.
It is also a problem for the French. While they are in
favour of the ouster of Bacar their resources are thin on the ground. The major
movement of their extra-governmental capacity into Ndjamena in Chad over the
past three months, co-ordinated by the French paramilitary company ICS, has
dried up much of the resources, manpower and air capability of the French.
The 13th Parachute Dragoon Regiment, who do much of
‘extra-humanitarian work’ for the DGSE are heavily engaged in Chad and Djibouti
and, despite the proximity to Mayotte, are not available in force to
participate on their own. They, too, are looking to South Africa for assistance
but the new South African legislation is hobbling them.