Comoros: Big Troubles on Some Small Islands

On March 25, 2008, military forces of the Union of the Comoros, supported by African Union (AU) troops from Tanzania, Sudan and Senegal, landed on the Comorian island of Anjouan. They met little resistance and took control of the island quickly in order to topple the regime of renegade Anjouan strongman Mohammed Bacar. He had ruled Anjouan legally and illegally, initially coming to power in an island coup in 2001, then being elected Anjouan’s president in 2002, and since 2007 refusing to step down with the expiration of his five-year mandate.

The recent crisis in the Union of the Comoros has long-time observers rolling their eyes as the country experiences yet another political break-down. Since independence from France in 1975, the Comoros has suffered twenty coups d’etats, most of them successful. Several of these were perpetrated by an infamous French mercenary, the late Bob Denard, and his band known as Les Affreux (The Terrible Ones). More recently, Comorian rebels of varied backgrounds have taken responsibility for overthrowing elected governments. The blame for the incessant political instability in the Comoros can be spread far and wide: the Comorian elites, France, and the African Union deserve their fair share. Another part of the problem, however, is that the United States has for years largely ignored these far-away islands, even though the impoverished Comorian people are much in need of U.S. development assistance – and even though some trends on the islands are potentially dangerous to U.S. interests.

With a population of about 700,000, the Union of the Comoros is located in the Mozambique Channel off Africa’s east coast. Grouped together, the Comoros islands would be smaller than Delaware. The capital city, Moroni, is on the main island, Grande Comore. The other islands are Moheli, Anjouan, and Mayotte, though Mayotte remains a French territory. The Comorian economy is based on the export of exotic spices, such as vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves, and is highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the world commodities market. Vanilla prices, for example, dropped from over $300 per kg in 2003 to less than $50 per kg in 2005, dampening the Comoros’ prospects.

Foreign assistance is essential to the Comorian economy, but has been severely affected by the Anjouan crisis. In July 2007, for example, a meeting of the African Development Bank, scheduled to cancel Comoros’ debt, was postponed due to the situation. This was especially damaging because overall economic assistance dropped from about $60 million a year in 1990 to a low of $25 million in 2005, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Remittances from Comorians working abroad form the greatest part of the economy, contributing about a quarter of the country’s GDP. In 2006, Comoros dropped on the United Nations’ Human Development Index from 132 to 134 out of 177 countries.

The late 1990s had seen increased animosity between the three islands of the then Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros. In 1997, Moheli and Anjou an actually declared independence from the Republic, Anjouans initially claiming they wanted to be re-colonized by France (France, not surprisingly, refused.) The country was reunited in 2001 under a new constitution which allows for a federal government in the new Union of the Comoros, which maintains control over foreign affairs, the military, and international trade, while each island has increased autonomy with its own elected president and representative assembly. The costs of maintaining four bureaucracies as well as ambiguous divisions of power in the new constitution were enough to create conflict between the island presidents and the government of the Union. While the new constitution was a response to the potential secession of Anjou an and Moheli, recent events show that it has failed to assuage the outer islands’ sense of oppression by Grande Comore.

April of 2007 saw the election of Anjouan’s Ahmed Abdallah Mohammed Sambi, popularly known as “The Ayatollah” for his Iranian education, to the Union presidency. Each island also elected a new president and assembly, except on Anjouan, where Bacar refused to step down. The Union government initiated efforts to peacefully remove Bacar and hold proper elections on the island, while the AU imposed sanctions and travel restrictions on Bacar and the illegal Anjouan authorities. But these measures completely failed to bring down Bacar. President Sambi expressed his frustration with the AU measures, condemning the seemingly incessant international conferences on the Anjouan crisis. The fact that AU forces were able to take control of the island in March with no loss of life should not be seen as an AU success, but rather as a mark of the AU’s failure over nine months of effort to achieve a peaceful solution.

Increased U.S. engagement with the Comoros might have helped to resolve the situation sooner. The U.S. Embassy in Moroni was closed in 1993, and the Peace Corps office shut down a couple of years later. Currently, the U.S. Ambassador to the Comoros is resident in Madagascar. The fact that the United States has no official presence in the country makes a clear statement of indifference and deprives the United States of influence over the situation. With a relatively small investment, the United States could achieve important results for the islands and for itself.

More American engagement is needed not only because the Comoros is a poor country in need of help, but also because continuing political instability there presents opportunities for terrorist organizations. In the past, the islands, though Muslim, have been an unlikely breeding ground for extremist terrorists. The Comorian brand of Islam is tolerant and pragmatic, and there are few fundamentalist sympathizers – although Comorian do, in a very general way, identify with their co-religionists worldwide, and there is popular resentment towards anything perceived as anti-Islam. Further instability may provide terrorist organizations the opportunity to form partnerships with warlords such as Bacar. In 2004, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the Comoros office of the Saudi Arabia-based Al Haramain Islamic Foundation as a “Foundation Linked to Terror.” In 2002, Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter made reference to the recruitment of youths in the Comoros for “schooling in radical theology and military training.” The most infamous Comorian national, Abdallah Mohammed Fazul, was indicted in the 1998 Embassy bombings in Nairobi, and is also believed to have played a role in the Mombassa tourist attacks of November 2002.

The United States has a clear interest in preventing the Comoros from becoming an attractive place of refuge for wanted terrorists such as Fazul. The Comorian government is on record as being eager to cooperate with U.S. and UN anti-terrorist efforts. Unfortunately, this cooperative attitude has gone unappreciated. There is an International Military Education and Training (IMET) program in Comoros, budgeted at just $95,000 in 2008, but this is the only U.S assistance the country receives.

February 2004 saw the inauguration of the Comoros’ first university, an important step toward the country’s attempts to stem brain drain. In the past, Comorian school-leavers would head to universities in France and other Francophone countries, but since September 2001 student visas to these countries have become harder to obtain. As a result, Comorian baccalaureate holders increasingly accept scholarship offers in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other Gulf states. Returning home with fundamentalist views, these students make the Comorian establishment uncomfortable. This was another factor in the decision to build a university. The situation presents the United States with a perfect opportunity to promote education in the Comoros and fight the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. U.S. agencies such as the Peace Corps and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have an enormous amount to offer the students of the Université des Comores.

Positive U.S. engagement of this sort would provide an alternative vision to the Comorian social psyche. Other than France, Comorian have nowhere else in the west to direct their aspirations as they consider alternatives to the political chaos that has defined their independent history. I shall never forget a Comorian friend’s reaction to his first trip to the United States. Arriving back in Moroni, rather than enthusiastically describing skyscrapers, fast food, and cable TV, his singular observation was that in the United States there are no Peugeot or Renault cars! This piece of technology, essential to Comorian life, had always been French, and this Comorian was shocked to learn that there were alternatives. By offering alternatives in education, cultural exchange, trade promotion, and other areas, the United States could show Comorians, and particularly the nation’s youth, that the western world is wider than France – and that hope lies in associating with that world rather than the world of the extremists.

Mohammed Bacar escaped capture on Anjouan in March, making his way to Reunion, where he is currently being held by French authorities. The Comoros have demanded his return to face trial, and several anti-French protests have demonstrated the islanders’ suspicion of French motives. Expressing frustration with the delay of Bacar’s repatriation and the state of Comoros-France relations, President Sambi recently described France as “a friend, not a sister,” of the Comoros. This growing distance between France and the islands only underscores the need for the United States to step forward as an alternative western partner.

In the Comoros, the United States has committed only sins of omission. This must change, and the first step should be the reinstatement of the U.S. Embassy to the Union of the Comoros. It is no coincidence that the most peaceful period of Comorian independence coincides with the presence of a full U.S. diplomatic mission in the islands. It is time for Comorian to once again be able to count the United States as a friend.

Matthew Dwyer was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Comoros in the 1990s, and now teaches at the International School of Luxembourg. He comments frequently on Comorian affairs.

Matthew B. Dwyer