An archipelago of four spice-exporting islands between the northern coasts of Mozambique and Madagascar, the Comoros are divided. Three main islands, Ngazidja (Grande Comore), Mwali (Mohéli) and Nzwani (Anjouan) constitute a state with formal political independence; a fourth island, Mayotte (also Mahoré), is ruled as an overseas territory of France. The beaches of Comoros have strong potential to attract tourists, but a history of political violence has kept that potential from being fully realized.
France established colonial rule in Comoros beginning in 1841 on the island of Mayotte (Mahoré), expanding in 1886 to Ngazidja (Grande Comore) and Mwali (Mohéli), and finally in 1909 to Nzwani (Anjouan). The islands became an official colony of France in 1912.
In a 1974 referendum, residents of Mayotte (Mahoré) voted nearly two-to-one against independence from France, while on the other three islands some 96 per cent voted for independence. Mayotte stayed with France, though remains under claim by Comoros. Within weeks of independence in 1975, new president Ahmed Abdallah was overthrown in a coup involving French mercenary Bob Denard, acting with clandestine support from the French government. Denard – who died late 2007 – became a fixture in Comorian politics through his involvement in many of the subsequent coups and coup attempts in the island nation, often receiving the backing of the French and South African governments. Comoros wallowed in poverty as its government underwent incessant violent takeovers. However in 1995, French paratroopers intervened to prevent a coup involving Denard, leading to the election of a pro-French government.
Violence erupted in 1997 when the islands of Nzwani (Anjouan) and Mwali (Mohéli) declared independence and sought to join France. The people of Mwali, the smallest and least populous island, with a mere 5–6 per cent of the archipelago’s population, voiced concern at under-representation in the federal parliament and were bitter at their disproportionately small share in government budget allocations. France spurned the break-away islands, leaving a standoff between the Comorian government and rebel factions.
Led by South Africa, the African Union imposed sanctions on the Comorian government, pressing it to the negotiating table in 2000. South Africa guided the country through a process of constitutional reform.
Main languages: Comorian (official), Arabic (official), French (official)
Main religions: Sunni Islam (98%), Christianity (2%) (CIA WorldFactbook, 2006)
Comoros has a population of less than 800,000, but is one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
Peopled first by Melano-Polynesians in the sixth century and later by peoples from the African mainland, Madagascar, and Arabia, Comorians represent an amalgam of cultures. Today they are bound together by Islam. Literacy in the Comorian language is nearly universal, but Cormorian is spoken in ways distinctive to each island. Loyalties to an island’s culture strongly influence affiliation to one or another political party.
Mayotte (Mahoré) has attracted migrants from the Union of the Comoros, giving rise to resentment towards non-Mayotte Comorians and a crackdown on immigration by the French authorities. France has had greater cultural influence on Mayotte, and the island has a larger minority Catholic population than is the case in the Union of the Comoros.
After 18 coups since independence in 1975, Comoros adopted a new constitution in 2001 that gave it hope for a more stable future. Each island gained its own president and greater autonomy, and the three island presidents are vice presidents in the Comorian Union. The office of the president of the Union rotates among the three islands.
Comoros saw its first peaceful, democratic change in government in May 2006, in which a Sunni-Muslim cleric from the island of Nzwani (Anjouan), Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, won 58 per cent of the vote. Under the new constitution, a successor from the island of Mwali (Mohéli) is to be elected in 2010.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Association comorienne des droits de l’homme (ACDH)
Sources and further reading
Ottenheimer, M. and H., Historical Dictionary of the Comoro Islands, Metuchen, NJ, Scarecrow Press, 1994.