Following a few days of provisional government, the two men who had
financed the coup, former president Ahmed Abdallah (himself the victim
of the 1975 coup) and former vice president Mohamed Ahmed, returned to
Moroni from exile in Paris and installed themselves as joint presidents.
Soon after, Abdallah was named sole executive.
The continued presence of the mercenaries impeded Abdallah's early
efforts to stabilize Comoros. Denard seemed interested in remaining in
Comoros, and he and his friends were given financially rewarding
appointments with the new government. In reaction to Denard's
involvement with Abdallah, the OAU revoked Comoros' OAU membership,
Madagascar severed diplomatic relations, and the United Nations (UN)
threatened economic sanctions against the regime. France also exerted
pressure for Denard to leave, and in late September--temporarily, as it
developed--he departed the islands.
Abdallah consolidated power, beginning with the writing of a new
constitution. The document combined federalism and centralism. It
granted each island its own legislature and control over taxes levied on
individuals and businesses resident on the island (perhaps with an eye
to rapprochement with Mahoré), while reserving strong executive powers
for the president. It also restored Islam as the state religion, while
acknowledging the rights of those who did not observe the Muslim faith.
The new constitution was approved by 99 percent of Comoran voters on
October 1, 1978. The Comorans also elected Abdallah to a six-year term
as president of what was now known as the Federal Islamic Republic of
Although Abdallah had been president when Comoros broke away from
France in 1975, he now moved to establish a relationship much more to
France's liking. Upon Denard's departure, he gave a French military
mission responsibility for training Comoros' defense force. He also
signed an agreement with France to allow its navy full use of Comoran
Making the most of Comoros' new presidential system, Abdallah induced
the nation's National Assembly to enact a twelve-year ban on political
parties, a move that guaranteed his reelection in 1984. In 1979 his
government arrested Soilih regime members who had not already left or
been killed during the 1978 coup. Four former ministers of the Soilih
government disappeared and allegedly were murdered, and about 300 other
Soilih supporters were imprisoned without trial. For the next three
years, occasional trials were held, in many cases only after France had
insisted on due process for the prisoners.
Although the restoration of good relations with France represented a
sharp break with the policies of the previous regime, Abdallah built on
Soilih's efforts to find new sources of diplomatic and economic support.
Thanks in large part to aid from the European Community (EC) and the Arab states, the regime began to upgrade roads,
telecommunications, and port facilities. The government also accepted
international aid for programs to increase the cultivation of cash crops
and food for domestic consumption. Abdallah endeavored to maintain the
relations established by Soilih with China, Nigeria, and Tanzania, and
to expand Comoros' contacts in the Islamic world with visits to Libya
and the Persian Gulf states.
Despite international assistance, economic development was slow.
Although some Comorans blamed the French, who had yet to restore
technical assistance to pre-1975 levels, others suspected that Abdallah,
who owned a large import-export firm, was enriching himself from
development efforts with the assistance of Denard, who continued to
Opposition to the Abdallah regime began to appear as early as 1979,
with the formation of an exile-dominated group that became known as the
United National Front of Comorans--Union of Comorans (Front National Uni
des Komoriens--Union des Komoriens--FNUK-- Unikom). In 1980 the Comoran
ambassador to France, Said Ali Kemal, resigned his position to form
another opposition group, the National Committee for Public Safety
(Comité National de Salut Public). A failed coup in February 1981, led
by a former official of the Soilih regime, resulted in arrests of about
In regard to Mahoré, Abdallah offered little more than verbal
resistance to a 1979 decision of the French government to postpone
action on the status of the island until 1984. At the same time, he kept
the door open to Mahoré by writing a large measure of autonomy for the
component islands of the republic into the 1978 constitution and by
appointing a Mahorais as his government's minister of finance. Having
established an administration that, in comparison with the Soilih years,
seemed tolerable to his domestic and international constituencies,
Abdallah proceeded to entrench himself. He did this through domestic and
international policies that would profoundly compromise Comoros'
independence and create the chronic crisis that continued to
characterize Comoran politics and government in 1994.
The Undermining of the Political Process
In February 1982, Comoros became a one-party state. The government
designated Abdallah's newly formed Comoran Union for Progress (Union
Comorienne pour le Progrès--UCP) as the republic's sole political
party. Although unaffiliated individuals could run for local and
national office, the only party that could organize on behalf of
candidates henceforth would be the UCP. In March 1982 elections, all but
one of Abdallah's handpicked UCP candidates won. UCP candidates likewise
dominated the May 1983 National Assembly elections, and opposition
candidates attempting to stand for election in balloting for the three
islands' legislative councils in July were removed from the lists by the
Ministry of Interior. Abdallah himself was elected to a second six-year
term as head of state in September 1984, winning more than 99 percent of
the vote as the sole candidate. During the National Assembly elections
of March 22, 1987, the Abdallah regime arrested 400 poll watchers from
opposition groups. A state radio announcement that one non-UCP delegate
had been elected was retracted the next day.
Abdallah also kept opponents from competing with him in the arena of
legitimate politics by reshuffling his government and amending the 1978
constitution. As part of what one observer wryly called the process of
"remov[ing] his most avid successors from temptation,"
Abdallah pushed through a constitutional amendment in 1985 that
abolished the post of prime minister, a move that made the president
both head of state and head of the elected government. The amendment
also diminished the status of Ali Mroudjae, the erstwhile prime minister
and a likely future candidate for president. Another 1985 amendment took
away many of the powers of the president of the National Assembly,
including his right to become interim head of state in the event of the
incumbent's death. The amendment transferred the right of succession to
the president of the Supreme Court, an appointee of the head of state.
Feeling the effect of this second amendment was assembly president
Mohamed Taki, another man generally regarded as presidential timber.
Mroudjae's subsequent career in the Abdallah government illustrated
the way in which Abdallah used frequent reshufflings of his cabinet to
eliminate potential challengers. Mroudjae's next job was to share duties
as minister of state with four other people; he was removed from the
government altogether in another reshuffle four months later.
Looking to the end of his second (and, according to the constitution,
final) term as head of state, Abdallah created a commission in 1988 to
recommend changes to the constitution. These changes, among other
things, would permit him to run yet again in 1990. A referendum on
revisions to the constitution was scheduled for November 4, 1989.
A weak, divided, and opportunistic opposition facilitated Abdallah's
efforts to undermine the political process. The character of Comoran
politics ensured that opposition would be sustained by an unwieldy group
of strong personalities. As the personal stock of these would-be leaders
rose and fell, coalitions coalesced and just as quickly fell apart in a
process that engendered distrust and cynicism. The ban on opposition
political organizations at home--brutally upheld, when necessary, by the
Presidential Guard (Garde Presidentelle--GP) and the Comoran
military--further undercut efforts to organize against the head of
state. The French government's displeasure at intrigues of Comoran
exiles in Paris also complicated opposition efforts.
Given the absence of an ideological basis for resisting the regime,
it was also not surprising that some opposition leaders were willing to
ally themselves with the head of state if such a move appeared likely to
advance them personally. For example, Mouzaoir Abdallah, leader of the
opposition Union for a Democratic Republic in Comoros (Union pour une République
Démocratique aux Comores--URDC), appeared with the president at
independence day celebrations in July 1988 amid rumors that the URDC
chief was being considered for a reconstituted prime minister's office.
In September 1988 another opposition leader, Said Hachim, agreed to join
the commission considering revisions to the constitution.
The credibility of Abdallah's opponents was also damaged by the
efforts of one opposition leader, former ambassador to France Said Ali
Kemal, to recruit mercenaries to help overthrow the Abdallah government.
Arrested in Australia in late 1983, six of the mercenaries gave
testimony discrediting Kemal.
Abdallah complemented his political maneuvers by employing a GP
officered by many of the same mercenaries who had helped him take power
in 1978. Denard led this force, and also became heavily involved in
Comoran business activities, sometimes acting in partnership with
President Abdallah or as a front for South African business interests,
which played a growing role in the Comoran economy during the Abdallah
Although Denard had made a ceremonial departure from Comoros
following the 1978 coup, by the early 1980s he was again openly active
in the islands. The GP, whose numbers were reported to range from 300 to
700 members, primarily indigenous Comorans, were led by about thirty
French and Belgian mercenaries, mostly comrades of Denard's in the
post-World War II conflicts that accompanied the decolonization of
Africa and Asia. Answerable only to the president, the GP operated
outside the chain of command of the French-trained 1,000-member Comoran
Armed Forces, a situation that caused resentment among the regular
military, Comoran citizens, and other African states.
The GP's primary missions were to protect the president and to deter
attempts to overthrow his government. During the July 1983 elections to
the three islands' legislative councils, the GP beat and arrested
demonstrators protesting the republic's singleparty system. During
elections to the National Assembly in March 1987, the GP--which had
become known as les affreux, "the
frighteners"--replaced several hundred dissident poll watchers who
had been arrested by the army. On March 8, 1985, one of the most serious
attempts to overthrow the Abdallah government began as a mutiny by about
thirty Comoran troops of the GP against their European officers. The
disaffected guards had formed ties to the Democratic Front (Front Démocratique--FD),
one of the more nationalistic of the republic's many banned political
parties. The mutiny was quickly squelched; three of the rebellious
guards were killed, and the rest were taken prisoners.
President Abdallah used the uprising as an opportunity to round up
dissidents, primarily FD members, whose leadership denied involvement in
the coup attempt. Later in 1985, seventyseven received convictions;
seventeen, including the FD's secretary general, Mustapha Said Cheikh,
were sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor. Most of the prisoners
were released in 1986 following Amnesty International charges of illegal
arrests, torture, and other abuses. France had also exerted pressure by
temporarily withholding new aid projects and purchases of Comoran
Perhaps the most notorious action of the GP on behalf of the Abdallah
government occurred in November 1987. After an apparent attempt by
dissidents to free some political prisoners, an event quickly labeled a
coup attempt by the Abdallah regime, the GP arrested fourteen alleged
plotters and tortured seven of them to death. Officials of the Comoran
government apparently were not allowed to participate in the prisoners'
interrogation. President Abdallah was on a state visit to Egypt at the
With Abdallah's acquiescence and occasional participation, Denard and
the other GP officers used their connections to the head of state to
make themselves important players in the Comoran economy. Denard was a
part owner of Établissements Abdallah et Fils, Comoros' largest
import-export firm, whose primary owner was President Abdallah. Denard
also owned and operated a highly profitable commercial shuttle between
South Africa and Comoros, and owned Sogecom, a private security firm
with contracts to protect South African hotels being built in the
The GP officers, sympathetic to South Africa's apartheid government,
established themselves as a conduit of South African investment and
influence in Comoros. An official South African trade representative
conceded that a number of his country's investment projects, including a
525-hectare experimental farm, housing, road construction, and a medical
evacuation program, were brokered and managed by guard officers at the
The GP also arranged for South African commercial aircraft to fly in
the Middle East and parts of Africa under the aegis of the Comoran
national airline, in contravention of international sanctions against
South Africa. Furthermore, the GP provided for South African use of
Comoran territory as a base for intelligence gathering in the Mozambique
Channel and as a staging area for the shipment of arms to rightist
rebels in Mozambique. The GP was widely understood to be funded by South
Africa, at the rate of about US$3 million per year.
Comoros as Client State: The Economics of Abdallah
President Abdallah generally put his personal interests ahead of
national interests in making economic policy. The result was the
creation of a client state whose meager and unpredictable cash crop
earnings were supplemented with increasing infusions of foreign aid.
Throughout the 1980s, export earnings from Comoros' four main cash
crops--vanilla, ylang-ylang, cloves, and copra--experienced a wrenching
sequence of booms and collapses because of weather and market factors,
or else steadily dwindled. The regime's principal form of response was
to apply the president's considerable diplomatic skills to developing an
extensive network of governments and international organizations willing
to extend loans and donate aid. The main suppliers were France, South
Africa, the EC, the conservative Arab states, the World Bank and related
organs, and regional financial institutions such as the Arab Bank for
Economic Development in Africa and the African Development Bank. Some
assistance went to projects of indisputable value, such as efforts to
create independent news media and improve telephone communications with
the outside world. Much of the aid, however, was questionable--for
example, loans and grants to help the republic meet the payroll for its
oversized civil service. Other more plausible projects, such as the
protracted development of a seaport at the town of Mutsamudu,
construction of paved ring roads linking each island's coastal
settlements, and the building of power stations, nonetheless tended to
be instances of placing the cart before the horse. That is,
capital-intensive improvements to infrastructure had not been
coordinated with local development projects; hence, little, if any,
domestic commerce existed to benefit from road networks, electrical
power, and world-class port facilities. The importation of huge
quantities of building materials and construction equipment provided
immediate benefits to importexport firms in the islands, of which Établissements
Abdallah et Fils was the largest. In the meantime, the projects were of
little immediate use to Comorans and were likely to go underused for
years to come.
Throughout the Abdallah period, rice imports drained as much as 50
percent of Comoran export earnings. Projects to increase food
self-sufficiency, as one observer noted, "fail[ed] to respond to
the largesse" provided by international sponsors such as the
European Development Fund and the International Fund for Agricultural
Development. The president joined with vanilla growers in resisting
international pressure to divert vanillaproducing land to the
cultivation of corn and rice for domestic consumption. He also declined
to heed World Bank advice to impose tariffs and domestic taxes on
imported rice. Abdallah's importexport firm was heavily involved in
vanilla exports, as well as in the importation of Far Eastern rice at
three times its price at the source.
Abdallah's firm, whose co-owners included Denard and Kalfane and
Company, a Pakistani concern, also profited from managing the
importation of materials used by South African firms in developing
tourist hotels. Little of the material used in building these resorts
was of Comoran origin. Also, once completed, the resorts would be almost
entirely owned and managed by non-Comorans. Although tourism, mainly by
South Africans who were unwelcome in other African resorts, was widely
considered the only promising new industry in Comoros, Abdallah guided
its development so that resorts benefited few Comorans other than
himself and his associates.
Under Abdallah's tutelage, the Comoran economy finished the 1980s
much as it had started the decade--poor, underdeveloped, and dependent
on export earnings from cash crops of unpredictable and generally
declining value. The critical difference, with enormous implications for
the republic's capacity to have some say in its own destiny, was its new
status as a nation abjectly in debt. By 1988, the last full year of the
Abdallah regime, 80 percent of annual public expenditures were funded by
The Demise of Abdallah, 1989
Only weeks before the violent end of the Abdallah regime in late
1989, one observer noted that "Comoros is still run like a village,
with a handful of tough men in charge and supported by foreign
aid." As Comorans prepared for a November 4, 1989, referendum on
constitutional changes that would enable President Abdallah to run for a
third term in 1990, human rights remained in precarious condition, and
the only avenue of economic advancement for most islanders--the civil
service--faced cutbacks at the urging of the World Bank and the
International Monetary Fund (IMF). Even those who would keep their
government jobs, however, were not guaranteed economic security. As
often occurred whenever export earnings slid, civil servants had not
been paid since mid-summer.
The official result of the referendum was a 92.5 percent majority in
favor of the amendments proposed by Abdallah, which now created
"the conditions for a life presidency," warned one opposition
leader. Balloting was marked by the now customary manipulation by the
government. Opposition groups reported that polling places lacked
private voting booths, government officials blocked the entry of
opposition poll watchers, and the army and police removed ballot boxes
before voting ended. Reaction to these abuses was unusually angry. In
Njazidja voters smashed ballot boxes rather than have them carted away
by the army; the governor's office was set on fire in Nzwani, and a bomb
was found outside the home of the minister of finance in Moroni. More
than 100 people were arrested following the election, and in subsequent
weeks the international media described a deteriorating situation in the
islands; the head of state claimed that France "authorizes
terrorism in the Comoros," and leaders of the banned opposition in
bold public statements questioned the legitimacy of the referendum.
President Abdallah was shot to death on the night of November 26-27,
reportedly while asleep in his residence, the Beit el Salama (House of
Peace). At first his death was seen as a logical outcome of the tense
political situation following what was, in effect, his self-appointment
as head of state for life. The recently dismissed head of the Comoran
military was duly blamed for the murder.
Evidence emerged subsequently that Abdallah's assassination resulted
from the late president's proposed actions with regard to the GP. In
September 1989, Abdallah had engaged a French military consultant, who
determined that the GP should be absorbed into the regular army.
Following consultations among Abdallah, the French government, and South
Africa's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a decision was made to expel
Denard and his fellow officers of the GP by the end of 1989. Denard and
his second in command were seen walking with Abdallah only hours before
he died. Although the mercenary initially blamed the assassination on
the Comoran army, he later conceded that he was in Abdallah's office
when the president was killed, but called the shooting "an accident
due to the general state of mayhem" in the Beit al Salama.
Two days later, on November 29, the real reasons for the
assassination emerged when Denard and the GP seized control of the
government in a coup. Twenty-seven police officers were killed, hundreds
of people were arrested, and all journalists were confined to their
hotels. The mercenaries disarmed the regular army, ousted provisional
president Haribon Chebani, who as chief of the Supreme Court had
succeeded Abdallah, and installed Mohamed Said Djohar, who just three
days earlier had become chief of the Supreme Court, as Comoros' third
president in less than a week.
The immediate reaction of the republic's two main supporters, France
and South Africa, was to isolate Denard. South Africa, admitting years
of funding of the GP, cut off all aid. France began a military build-up
on Mahoré and likewise suspended aid. On December 7, anti-Denard
demonstrations by about 1,000 students and workers were violently broken
up by the protests. By then the islands' school system had shut down,
and the civil service had gone on strike. Faced with an untenable
situation, Denard surrendered to French forces without a fight on
December 15. Along with about two dozen comrades, he was flown to
Pretoria and put under house arrest. The French government later
announced that Denard would remain in detention in South Africa pending
the outcome of a French judicial inquiry into Abdallah's death. In
February 1993 he returned to France, where he was initially arrested,
tried, and exonerated of involvement in the death of Abdallah.
Comoros - The Issue of Mahoré
One of the touchiest issues in the negotiations between Comoros and
France over independence in the early 1970s had been whether the 1974
referendum would be considered for the Comoros archipelago as a whole or
on an island-by-island basis. Opposition to independence on Mahoré was
organized by the Mayotte Popular Movement (Mouvement Populaire
Mahorais--MPM), an organization that had been founded in the 1960s by
Zeina M'Dere, a spokeswoman for Mahoré shopkeepers, mostly women, who
had been affected economically when the colonial capital was moved from
the Mahoré town of Dzaoudzi to Moroni on Njazidja in 1962.
The reasons behind Mahoré's 65 percent vote against independence
were several. First, the people of Mahoré considered themselves
culturally, religiously, and linguistically distinct from those of the
other three islands; they felt that their long association with France
(since 1841) had given their island a distinct Creole character like
that of Reunion or Seychelles. Second, given Mahoré's smaller
population, greater natural resources, and higher standard of living,
the Mahorais thought that their island would be economically viable
within a French union and ought not to be brought down to the level of
the other three poorer islands. Third, most Mahorais apparently felt
that Mahoré's future within a Comoran state would not be a comfortable
one, given a perception of neglect that had begun with the much resented
transfer of the capital.
In France and among conservatives on Reunion, the 1974 vote on Mahoré
in favor of continued association with France was greeted with great
enthusiasm. Comoran leaders, in contrast, accused the MPM and its
leader, Marcel Henri, of fabricating the illusion of Mahorais
"uniqueness" to preserve the power of Mahoré's non-Muslim,
Creole elite. The issue poisoned Comoran relations with France,
particularly because the Indian Ocean lobby, whose leaders included
Reunion's deputy to the French National Assembly, Michel Debré, pushed
for a "Mayotte française" (French Mayotte). Apparently
leaning toward the interpretation that the December 1974 referendum was
an island-by-island plebiscite, the French legislature voted in June
1975 to postpone independence for six months and hold a second
referendum. The Abdallah government responded by declaring independence
unilaterally on July 6, 1975, for all Comoro Islands, including Mahoré.
France reacted by cutting off financial aid, which provided 41 percent
of the national budget. Fearing a Comoran attempt to assert control of
Mahoré forcibly, France sent members of the Foreign Legion from Reunion
and a fleet of three vessels to patrol the waters around the island on
July 6-7. On November 12, 1975, the UN General Assembly passed a
resolution giving Comoros UN membership and recognized its claims to
Mahoré, which France opposed.
French policy toward Mahoré had been, in the words of one observer,
"to cultivate a more or less honest majority for reunification
among the uncooperative Mahorais," particularly after the
forthrightly anti-French regime of Ali Soilih ended in 1978. By
contrast, the Mahorais' objective appeared to be full departmental
status such as that of Reunion, where residents enjoyed full rights as
French citizens. In a 1976 referendum, the Mahorais expressed
dissatisfaction with their status as an overseas territory. France then
created a new classification for Mahoré--territorial community (collectivité
territoriale)--under which Mahoré was administered by a prefect
appointed by the French government. Local government consisted of a
popularly elected seventeen-member General Council. The island was
entitled to send elected representatives to Paris, one each to the
National Assembly and the Senate. The French franc served as the
currency of the island. This status still applied in 1993.
After it appeared that Mahoré would not be tempted by the federalist
design of Ahmed Abdallah's 1978 constitution to join the Republic of the
Comoros, the National Assembly in Paris decided in 1979 to prolong the
existence of the collectivité territoriale until a 1984
plebiscite, resolving meanwhile to study the situation and consult with
the islanders. In late 1984, with an overwhelming vote to remain
associated with France in the offing, the French government postponed
the plebiscite indefinitely. By late 1993, it had still not been held,
the Mahorais apparently still eager to remain part of France and as
disinclined as ever to reunite with the three troubled islands to their
Although many politically conservative French relished the Mahorais'
popular vow that nous resterons français pour rester libre
("we will remain French to remain free"), the Mahoré
situation caused some discomfort for France internationally. Every year,
resolutions calling on France to relinquish Mahoré to Comoros passed
with near unanimity in the UN, and the OAU likewise issued annual
condemnations. Although Comoran official distaste for the situation
became more muted in the 1980s and 1990s, the Comoran government
continued to draw French attention to the issue. In May 1990, newly
elected president Said Mohamed Djohar called for peaceful dialogue and
French review of Mahoré's status. But feeling obligated not to change
the Mahorais' status against their will, the French could do little.
Anti-Comoran riots and demonstrations, and the formation of an
anti-immigrant paramilitary group on Mahoré in response to the presence
of illegal Comoran immigrants, were also sources of embarrassment to
The economy of Mahoré in some ways resembles that of Comoros. Rice,
cassava, and corn are cultivated for domestic consumption; ylang-ylang
and vanilla are the primary exports. The main imports, whose value far
outstripped that of exports, are foodstuffs, machinery and appliances,
transport equipment, and metals. Construction, primarily of
French-funded public works, is the only industrial activity.
A five-year development plan (1986-91) focused on large-scale public
projects, principally construction of a deepwater port at Longoni and an
airport at the capital, Dzaoudzi. The plan and its two main projects
were later extended through 1993. Despite Mahoré's great natural
beauty, tourism was inhibited by a dearth of hotel rooms and the
island's isolated location.
Under French administration, Mahoré had generally enjoyed domestic
peace and stability, although tensions appeared to be rising by the
early 1990s. In the summer of 1991, the relocation of people from their
homes to allow the expansion of the airport met with vociferous
protests, mostly by young people. The protests soon grew into violent
demonstrations against the local government's administration of the
island. Paramilitary attacks on Comoran immigrants occurred in June
1992, and a February 1993 general strike for higher wages ended in
rioting. Security forces from Reunion and France were called in to
Comoros - PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT
The Comoros archipelago consists of four main islands aligned along a
northwest-southeast axis at the north end of the Mozambique Channel,
between Mozambique and the island of Madagascar. Still widely known by their French names, the islands officially
have been called by their Swahili names by the Comoran government. They
are Njazidja (Grande Comore), Mwali (Mohéli), Nzwani (Anjouan), and
Mahoré (Mayotte). The islands' distance from each other--Njazidja is
some 200 kilometers from Mahoré, forty kilometers from Mwali, and
eighty kilometers from Nzwani--along with a lack of good harbor
facilities, make transportation and communication difficult. The islands
have a total land area of 2,236 square kilometers (including Mahoré),
and claim territorial waters of 320 kilometers.
Njazidja is the largest island, sixty-seven kilometers long and
twenty-seven kilometers wide, with a total area of 1,146 square
kilometers. The most recently formed of the four islands in the
archipelago, it is also of volcanic origin. Two volcanoes form the
island's most prominent topographic features: La Grille in the north,
with an elevation of 1,000 meters, is extinct and largely eroded;
Kartala in the south, rising to a height of 2,361 meters, last erupted
in 1977. A plateau averaging 600 to 700 meters high connects the two
mountains. Because Njazidja is geologically a relatively new island, its
soil is thin and rocky and cannot hold water. As a result, water from
the island's heavy rainfall must be stored in catchment tanks. There are
no coral reefs along the coast, and the island lacks a good harbor for
ships. One of the largest remnants of Comoros' once-extensive rain
forests is on the slopes of Kartala. The national capital has been at
Moroni since 1962.
Nzwani, triangular shaped and forty kilometers from apex to base, has
an area of 424 square kilometers. Three mountain chains--Sima,
Nioumakele, and Jimilime--emanate from a central peak, Mtingui (1,575
meters), giving the island its distinctive shape. Older than Njazidja,
Nzwani has deeper soil cover, but overcultivation has caused serious
erosion. A coral reef lies close to shore; the island's capital of
Mutsamudu is also its main port.
Mwali is thirty kilometers long and twelve kilometers wide, with an
area of 290 square kilometers. It is the smallest of the four islands
and has a central mountain chain reaching 860 meters at its highest.
Like Njazidja, it retains stands of rain forest. Mwali's capital is
Mahoré, geologically the oldest of the four islands, is thirty-nine
kilometers long and twenty-two kilometers wide, totaling 375 square
kilometers, and its highest points are between 500 and 600 meters above
sea level. Because of greater weathering of the volcanic rock, the soil
is relatively rich in some areas. A well-developed coral reef that
encircles much of the island ensures protection for ships and a habitat
for fish. Dzaoudzi, capital of Comoros until 1962 and now Mahoré's
administrative center, is situated on a rocky outcropping off the east
shore of the main island. Dzaoudzi is linked by a causeway to le
Pamanzi, which at ten kilometers in area is the largest of several
islets adjacent to Mahoré. Islets are also scattered in the coastal
waters of Njazidja, Nzwani, and Mwali.
Comoran waters are the habitat of the coelacanth, a rare fish with
limblike fins and a cartilaginous skeleton, the fossil remains of which
date as far back as 400 million years and which was once thought to have
become extinct about 70 million years ago. A live specimen was caught in
1938 off southern Africa; other coelacanths have since been found in the
vicinity of the Comoro Islands.
Several mammals are unique to the islands themselves. The macao, a
lemur found only on Mahoré, is protected by French law and by local
tradition. Another, Livingstone's fruit bat, although plentiful when
discovered by explorer David Livingstone in 1863, has been reduced to a
population of about 120, entirely on Nzwani. The world's largest bat,
the jet-black Livingstone fruit bat has a wingspan of nearly two meters.
A British preservation group sent an expedition to Comoros in 1992 to
bring some of the bats to Britain to establish a breeding population.
Humboldt's flycatcher is perhaps the best known of the birds native to
Partly in response to international pressures, Comorans in the 1990s
have become more concerned about the environment. Steps are being taken
not only to preserve the rare fauna, but also to counteract degradation
of the environment, especially on densely populated Nzwani.
Specifically, to minimize the cutting down of trees for fuel, kerosene
is being subsidized, and efforts are being made to replace the loss of
the forest cover caused by ylang-ylang distillation for perfume. The
Community Development Support Fund, sponsored by the International
Development Association (IDA) and the Comoran government, is working to
improve water supply on the islands as well.
The climate is marine tropical, with two seasons: hot and humid from
November to April, the result of the northeastern monsoon, and a cooler,
drier season the rest of the year. Average monthly temperatures range
from 23° C to 28° C along the coasts. Although the average annual
precipitation is 2,000 millimeters, water is a scarce commodity in many
parts of Comoros. Mwali and Mahoré possess streams and other natural
sources of water, but Njazidja and Nzwani, whose mountainous landscapes
retain water poorly, are almost devoid of naturally occurring running
water. Cyclones, occurring during the hot and wet season, can cause
extensive damage, especially in coastal areas. On the average, at least
twice each decade houses, farms, and harbor facilities are devastated by
these great storms.
Comoros - SOCIETY AND CULTURE
During the colonial period, the French and local leading citizens
established plantations to grow cash crops for export. Even after
independence, French companies, such as Société Bambao and Établissements
Grimaldi--and other concerns, such as Kalfane and Company and later,
President Abdallah's Établissements Abdallah et Fils--dominated the
Comoran economy. These firms diverted most of their profits overseas,
investing little in the infrastructure of the islands beyond what was
needed for profitable management of the plantations, or what could
benefit these businesses' associates or related concerns. A serious
consequence of this approach has been the languishing of the food-crop
agricultural sector and the resultant dependence on overseas food
imports, particularly rice. In 1993 Comoros remained hostage to
fluctuating prices on the international market for such crops as
vanilla, ylang-ylang, and cloves.
Comoros is one of the world's poorest countries; its per capita gross
national product (GNP) was estimated at US$400 in 1994, following the
January devaluation of the Comoran franc. Although GNP increased in real
terms at an average annual rate of 3.1 percent during the 1980s, rapid
population growth effaced these gains and caused an average annual
decrease in per capita GNP of 0.6 percent. Gross domestic product (GDP)
grew in real terms by 4.2 percent per year from 1980 to 1985, 1.8
percent from 1985 to 1988, and 1.5 percent in 1990. In 1991, because of
its balance of payments difficulties, Comoros became eligible for the
IDA's Special Program of Assistance for debt-distressed countries of
The economy is based on private ownership, frequently by foreign
investors. Nationalization, even during the Soilih years, has been
limited. Soilih did expropriate the facilities of a foreign oil company,
but only after the government of Madagascar took over the company's
plants in that country. The Abdallah government, despite its openness to
foreign participation in the economy, nationalized the Société Bambao
and another Frenchcapitalized firm, the Comoran Meat Company (Société
Comorienne des Viandes--Socovia), which specialized in sales of meat and
other foods in the islands. The nationalization was short-lived,
however, because Socovia and other government-held enterprises were
either liquidated or privatized as part of economic restructuring
efforts in 1992.
Following the Abdallah regime's rapprochement with France in 1978,
the Comoran economy became increasingly dependent on infusions of French
aid, along with assistance from other governments and international
organizations. By 1990, the year Comoros concluded negotiations with the
IMF for an economic restructuring program, the republic's total external
public debt was US$162.4 million, an amount equal to about
three-quarters of GNP. The government delayed implementing the
structural adjustment plan and was directed by the World Bank and the
IMF to do so by September 1992. The plan recommendations entailed
discharging about 2,800 of 9,000 civil servants, among other unpopular
measures. The IMF granted Comoros a new credit for US$1.9 million in
March 1994 under the Structural Adjustment Facility. For the period
1994-96, Comoros sought an economic growth rate of 4 percent as well as
an inflation rate of 4 percent for 1995-96. The growth rate for 1994,
however, was estimated only at 0.7 percent and the inflation rate at 15
percent. Meanwhile, in a move designed to encourage private enterprise
and reduce unemployment, in May 1993 the UN Development Programme had
given Comoros a credit of US$2 million for programs in these areas. In
January 1994, the European Development Fund (EDF) granted 1.3 million
European Currency Units (ECUs) to Comoros to develop small businesses.
Comoros also received 5.7 million French francs from the French Aid and
Cooperation Fund for agriculture and rural development.
The results of foreign aid to Comoros have been mixed at best. The
purposes of the aid ranged from helping the government cover its payroll
for such huge, seemingly endless projects as expanding the seaport at
Moroni and developing a new port at Mutsamuda on Nzwani. Neither project
had shown much promise by early 1994. Meanwhile, the islands have been
unable to develop local resources or create the infrastructure needed
for economic development. The few successes included the creation of
national news media and limited improvements in public health,
education, and telecommunications. Developmental assistance from the
United States, which totaled US$700,000 in fiscal year (FY) 1991, was
administered by CARE, the nongovernmental organization, and focused
primarily on reforestation, soil conservation, and sustainable
The overall effect of the republic's dependence on aid has been
perennial trade deficits accompanied by chronic budget deficits. In 1992
total exports had a value of US$21 million, and total imports were
valued at US$50 million. In 1991 receipts totaled about US$34.7 million
(CF9.7 trillion; CF--Comoran franc) whereas expenditures totaled about
US$93.8 million (CF26.2 trillion). The shortfall, which equaled about
170 percent of receipts, was financed by international grants and loans,
by draws upon existing lines of credit, and by debt rescheduling.
In 1991 France received 55 percent of Comoran exports, followed by
the United States (19 percent) and Germany (16 percent). The main export
products were vanilla, ylang-ylang, and cloves. The republic's primary
suppliers were France (56 percent of imports), the Belgium-Luxembourg
economic union (11 percent), and Japan (5 percent). Imports consisted of
basic foodstuffs (rice and meat), petroleum, and construction materials.
Comoros has officially participated in the African Franc Zone
(Communauté Financière Africaine-- CFA) since 1979. The CFA franc was devalued by 50 percent on
January 12, 1994, causing the exchange rate to become 100 CFA francs for
one French franc. Subsequently, the Comoran franc was devalued so that
instead of being directly aligned with the CFA franc, seventyfive
Comoran francs equaled one French franc.
The banking system consists of the Central Bank of Comoros (Banque
Centrale des Comores) established in 1981; the Bank for Industry and
Commerce (Banque pour l'Industrie et le Commerce-- BIC), a commercial
bank established in 1990 that had six branches in 1993 and was a
subsidiary of the National Bank of Paris-- International (Banque
Nationale de Paris--Internationale); BIC Afribank, a BIC subsidiary; and
the Development Bank of Comoros (Banque de Développement des Comores),
established in 1982, which provided support for small and midsize
development projects. Most of the shares in the Development Bank of
Comoros were held by the Comoran government and the central bank; the
rest were held by the European Investment Bank and the Central Bank for
Economic Cooperation (Caisse Centrale de Coopération Économique--CCCE),
a development agency of the French government. All of these banks had
headquarters in Moroni.
A national labor organization, the Union of Comoran Workers (Union
des Travailleurs des Comores), also had headquarters in Moroni. Strikes
and worker demonstrations often occurred in response to political
crises, economic restructuring mandated by international financial
organizations, and the failure of the government--occasionally for
months at a time--to pay civil servants.
Comoros - Agriculture, Livestock, and Fishing
In the immediate aftermath of the Abdallah assassination and
subsequent events of late 1989, a limited amount of political healing
occurred in Comoros. Denard and his fellow mercenaries were expelled,
although the fate of their vast financial holdings in the islands
remained unclear. With the South African government temporarily out of
the picture, French officials now oversaw the police and the army, and
the remnants of the GP were under the watchful eye of French
paratroopers. Among those released in a general amnesty for political
prisoners was Mustapha Said Cheikh, leader of the opposition FD who had
been imprisoned for four years for alleged involvement in the
unsuccessful March 1985 coup. He was quickly proposed as a possible
presidential candidate. Also suggested was Mohamed Taki, one-time
National Assembly president whose power had been diminished by
Abdallah's constitutional maneuvers; he had subsequently gone into exile
in France, where his entourage reportedly included two mercenary
bodyguards. Also announcing for the presidency was Said Ali Kemal, who
had been living in quiet exile in Paris since being exposed as the
sponsor of Australian mercenaries who had plotted to overthrow the
Abdallah government in 1983. In late December 1989, members of the
formerly banned opposition, along with President Djohar, decided to form
a provisional "national unity" government and to hold a
multiparty presidential election in 1990.
In an awkward but somehow effective campaign to keep himself in
power, Djohar spent much of the early 1990s playing a political shell
game with the opposition. He moved election dates backward and forward
and sanctioned irregularities, giving his opponents little choice but to
condemn the balloting as invalid. Djohar began this strategy within
weeks of his installation as interim president, rescheduling the
presidential election set for January 14, 1990 to February 18. Djohar's
decision was met with demonstrations and violence that marked an abrupt
end to the post-Abdallah period of national unity, hardly three weeks
after Bob Denard had been expelled from the country. The February 18
balloting broke down shortly after the polls opened. The government was
accused of widespread fraud, including issuing multiple voting cards to
some voters and opening the polls to voters who looked well below the
minimum age of eighteen.
Elections were rescheduled for March 4, 1990 with a runoff on March
11; Djohar was the official victor, claiming 55 percent of the vote over
runner-up Mohamed Taki's 45 percent. Djohar had run under the banner of
the Union Comorienne pour le Progrès (Udzima- -Comoran Union for
Progress), basically a recycled version of Ahmed Abdallah's old UCP,
whereas Taki had represented the National Union for Comoran Democracy
(Union Nationale pour la Démocratie Comorien--UNDC). As would be the
case in other Comoran elections in the 1990s, the sole major issue
appeared to be the character and ability of the incumbent president
rather than any matter of public policy or ideology. The Supreme Court
certified the results of the election, despite strong evidence that the
Ministry of Interior had altered the vote count, especially in the first
round, to favor Djohar at Taki's expense.
In March 1992, with two of the government's Udzima ministers having
broken away to form a new party and conflict among the remaining Udzima
ministers growing, Djohar headed off the complete collapse of his
government by convening a multiparty constitutional convention. He
scheduled a referendum on the new document in May, with general
elections in June and balloting for local offices in July. After one
postponement, the referendum was held on June 7. The Constitution of
1992 passed with about 74 percent of the vote, despite intensive
campaigning against it by the FD and Udzima, which by this point opposed
President Djohar. Among the new document's elements were articles
calling for a bicameral legislature and a limit on presidential tenure
to two five-year terms.
The legislative elections, postponed several times, finally were held
on November 22 and 29, 1992. They were preceded in late September by an
attempted coup by junior army officers, allegedly with the support of
opposition politicians. Possible motives for the coup were an unpopular
restructuring program mandated by the World Bank, which entailed sharp
reductions in the number of civil servants, and President Djohar's
ambiguous threat on September 10 that his main opponents would "not
be around for the elections." Djohar used the coup attempt as an
opportunity to jail six military men and six opposition leaders
"under conditions of extreme illegality," according to the
Comoran Association of Human Rights (Association Comorienne des Droits
Although a trio of French public officials sent to observe the
balloting judged the election generally democratic, President Djohar's
most prominent and determined opponents spent the voting days either in
hiding or in jail. Two of the most important of the republic's
twenty-four political parties, Udzima and the UNDC, boycotted the
election. Given the president's own lack of party support, he spent most
of 1993 cobbling together one government after another; at one point, in
late spring 1993, he formed two governments in the space of three weeks.
The events of a single day in July 1993 perhaps summed up the
near-term prospects of politics in Comoros. On July 23, heeding demands
that he call legislative elections (he had dissolved parliament on June
18 because of its inability to agree to a candidate for prime minister
and because of the lack of a government majority) or else face the
prospect of "other forms of action" by the opposition, Djohar
scheduled voting for late October. That same day, his government
arrested two opposition leaders for public criticism of the president.
The scheduled elections were again postponed--for the fourth
time--until December 1993. On November 17, 1993, Djohar created a new
National Electoral Commission, said to be appropriately representative
of the various political parties. Meanwhile Djohar had established a new
progovernment party, the Rally for Democracy and Renewal (Rassemblement
pour la Démocratie et le Renouveau--RDR). In the first round of
elections on December 12, which featured twenty-four parties with 214
candidates for fortytwo seats, various voting irregularities occurred,
including the failure to issue voting cards to some 30 percent of
eligible voters. The government announced that Djohar's party had won
twenty-one seats with three seats remaining to be contested. Most
opposition parties stated that they would not sit in the assembly and
also refused to participate in the postponed second stage elections,
which were supervised by the Ministry of Interior and the gendarmerie
after the National Electoral Commission disintegrated. As a result, the
RDR gained a total of twenty-two seats, and Djohar appointed RDR
secretary general Mohamed Abdou Madi as prime minister.
Denouncing the proceedings, on January 17, 1994, thirteen opposition
parties formed a combined Forum for National Recovery (Forum pour le
Redressement National--FRN). The Udzima Party began broadcasting
articles about Comoros appearing in the Indian Ocean Newsletter,
including criticisms of the RDR. In consequence, its radio station, Voix
des Îles (Voice of the Islands) was confiscated by the government in
mid-February 1994-- in September 1993, the radio station belonging to
Abbas Djoussouf, who later became leader of the RDR, had been closed.
Tensions increased, and in March 1994 an assassination attempt against
Djohar occurred. At the end of May, civil service employees went on
strike, including teachers, and violence erupted in mid-June when the
FRN prepared to meet.
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