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Comoros

[kom-uh-rohz]

The Comoros (جزر القمر, Juzur al-Qumur), officially the Union of the Comoros (Union des Comores, الإتّحاد القمريّ, Al-Ittiḥād 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 northeastern Mozambique. The nearest countries to the Comoros are Mozambique, Tanzania, Madagascar, and the Seychelles. At 2,235 km² (863 sq mi) the Comoros is the third smallest African nation by area; and with a population estimated at 798,000 it is the sixth smallest African nation by population (though it has one of the highest population densities in Africa), and is the southern most member state of the Arab League. Its name derives from the Arabic word qamar ("moon").

The country officially consists of the four islands in the volcanic Comoros archipelago: Ngazidja (Grande Comore), Mwali (Mohéli), Nzwani (Anjouan), and Mahoré (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.

The archipelago is notable for its diverse culture and history, as a nation formed at the crossroads of many civilizations. Though in the contested island of Mayotte the sole official language is French, the "Union of the Comoros" has three official languages: Comorian (Shikomor), Arabic and French.

The "Union of the Comoros" is the only state to be a member of each of the African Union, Francophonie, Organisation of the Islamic Conference, Arab League, and Indian Ocean Commission, among other international organizations. However, it has had a troubled history since independence in 1975, marked by an inordinate number of coups d'état.

History

Pre-colonial inhabitation

The first human inhabitants of the Comoro Islands are thought to have been Polynesian and Melanesian settlers, Malays and Indonesians (Austronesians), travelling by boat. They settled there no later than the sixth century AD, the date of the earliest known archaeological site, found on Nzwani, though some sources speculate that settlement began as early as the first century. The islands of Comoros became populated by a succession of diverse groups from the coast of Africa, the Persian Gulf, Indonesia, and Madagascar. Swahili settlers first reached the islands as a part of the greater Bantu expansion that took place in Africa throughout the first millennium.

Development of the Comoros is periodized into phases, beginning with Swahili influence and settlement in the Dembini phase (ninth to tenth centuries), during which each island maintained a single, central village. From the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries, trade with the island of Madagascar and merchants from the Middle East flourished, smaller villages emerged, and existing towns expanded. The citizens and historians of the Comoros state that early Arab settlements dated even before their known arrival to the archipelago, and Swahili historians frequently trace genealogies back Arab ancestors who had set travel from Yemen and the ancient kingdom of Saba' in Eden (thought to be the biblical Eden). Middle Eastern merchants first introduced Islam to the islands. As the religion gained in popularity, large mosques were constructed. The Comoro Islands, like other coastal areas in the region, were important stops in early Islamic trade routes frequented by Persians and Arabs. Despite its distance from the coast, Comoros is situated along the major sea route between Kilwa and Mozambique, an outlet for Zimbabwean gold.

By the nineteenth century, the influence of Sunni Arabic-speaking Persians from Shiraz, Iran, dominated the islands. The Shirazi traded along the coasts of East Africa, the Middle East, and India, and established colonies in the archipelago. Arab influence increased with the ascendancy of Zanzibar under Arab Omani rule, and Comorian culture, especially architecture and religion, increasingly reflected Arabic influence. Many rival sultanates were established in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

By the time Europeans showed interest in the Comoros, the dominant Arab cultural veneer of the islands led many to remind of the society's Arab foundations at the expense of its Swahili and African heritage. More recent western scholarship by Thomas Spear and Randall Pouwells emphasizes African historical predominance over the diffusionist perspective.

European contact and French colonization

Portuguese explorers first visited the archipelago in 1505.

In 1793, Malagasy warriors from Madagascar first started raiding the islands for slaves, and later settled and seized control in many locations. France first established colonial rule in the Comoros in 1841. The first French colonists landed in Mayotte, and Andrian Tsouli, the Malagasy King of Mayotte, signed the Treaty of April 1841, which ceded the island to the French authorities. In 1886, Mohéli was placed under French protection by its Queen Salimba Mochimba. That same year, after consolidating his authority over all of Grande Comore, Sultan Said Ali agreed to French protection of his island, though he retained sovereignty until 1909. Also in 1909, Sultan Said Muhamed of Anjouan abdicated in favor of French rule. The Comoros (or Les Comores) was officially made a French colony in 1912, and the islands were placed under the administration of the French colonial governor general of Madagascar in 1914.

The Comoros served as a way station for merchants sailing to the Far East and India until the opening of the Suez Canal significantly reduced traffic passing through the Mozambique Channel. The only native commodities exported by the Comoros were coconuts. French settlers, French-owned companies, and wealthy Arab merchants established a plantation-based economy that now uses about one-third of the land for export crops. After its annexation, France converted Mayotte into a sugar plantation colony. The other islands were soon transformed as well, and the major crops of ylang-ylang, vanilla, coffee, cocoa, and sisal were introduced.

Agreement was reached with France in 1973 for Comoros to become independent in 1978. On July 6, 1975, however, the Comorian parliament passed a unilateral resolution declaring independence. The deputies of Mayotte, which remained under French control, abstained. Referendums on all four of the islands excluding Mayotte showed strong support for independence. Ahmed Abdallah proclaimed the independence of the State of the Comoros (État comorien; دولة القمر) on September 5, 1975 and became its first president.

Independence

The next 30 years were a period of political turmoil. On August 3, 1975, mercenary 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. Months later, in January 1976, Jaffar was ousted in favor of his Minister of Defense Ali Soilih. At this time, the population of Mayotte voted against independence from France in two 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-instate Abdallah with the support of the French and South African governments. During Soilih's brief rule, he faced seven additional coup attempts until he was finally forced from office and killed.

In contrast to Soilih, Abdallah's presidency was marked by authoritarian rule and increased adherence to traditional Islam and the country was renamed the Federal and Islamic Republic of Comoros (République Fédérale Islamique des Comores; جمهورية القمر الإتحادية الإسلامية ). Abdallah continued as president until 1989 when, fearing a probable coup d'état, he signed a decree ordering the Presidential Guard, led by Bob Denard, to disarm the armed forces. Shortly after the signing of the decree, Abdallah was allegedly shot dead in his office by a disgruntled military officer, though later sources claim an anti-tank missile launched into his bedroom killed him. Although Denard was also injured, it is suspected that Abdallah's killer was a soldier under his command. A few days later, Bob Denard was evacuated to South Africa by French paratroopers. Said Mohamed Djohar, Soilih's older half-brother, then became president and served until September 1995 when Bob Denard returned and attempted another coup. This time France intervened with paratroopers and forced Denard to surrender. The French removed Djohar to Reunion, and the Paris-backed Mohamed Taki Abdulkarim became president by election. He led the country from 1996, during a time of labor crises, government suppression, and secessionist conflicts, until his death November 1998. He was succeeded by Interim President Tadjidine Ben Said Massounde.

The islands of Anjouan and Mohéli declared their independence from the Comoros in 1997, in an attempt to restore French rule. But France rejected their request, leading to bloody confrontations between federal troops and rebels. In April 1999, Colonel Azali Assoumani, Army Chief of Staff, seized power in a bloodless coup, overthrowing the Interim President Massounde, citing weak leadership in the face of the crisis. This was the Comoros' 18th coup d'état since independence in 1975. But Azali failed to consolidate power and reestablish control over the islands, which was the subject of international criticism. The African Union, under the auspices of President Mbeki of South Africa, imposed sanctions on Anjouan to help broker negotiations and effect reconciliation. The official name of the country was changed to the Union of the Comoros and a new system of political 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 Comoros, 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 Comoros through constitutional changes that enabled new elections. A Loi des compétences law was passed in early 2005 that defines the responsibilities of each governmental body, and is in the process of implementation. The elections in 2006 were won by Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, a Sunni Muslim Cleric nick-named the "Ayatollah" for his time spent studying Islam in Iran. Azali honored the election results, thus allowing the first peaceful and democratic exchange of power for the archipelago.

Colonel Mohammed Bacar, a French-trained former gendarme, seized power as President in Anjouan in 2001. He staged a vote in June 2007 to confirm his leadership that was rejected as illegal by the Comoros federal government and the African Union. On March 25, 2008 hundreds of soldiers from the African Union and Comoros seized rebel-held Anjouan, generally welcomed by the population. Some rebels were killed and injured, but there are no official figures. At least 11 civilians were wounded. Some officials were imprisoned. Bacar fled in a speedboat to the French Indian Ocean territory of Mayotte to seek asylum. Anti-French protests followed in Comoros (see 2008 invasion of Anjouan).

Since independence from France, the Comoros experienced more than 20 coups or attempted coups.

Geography

The Comoros is formed by Ngazidja (Grande Comore), Mwali (Mohéli), Nzwani (Anjouan), and Mahoré (Mayotte), the major islands in the Comoros Archipelago, as well as many minor islets. The islands are officially known by their Comorian language names, though international sources still use their French names (in parentheses) commonly. The capital and largest city, Moroni, is located on Ngazidja. The archipelago is situated in the Indian Ocean, in the Mozambique Channel, between the African coast (nearest to Mozambique and Tanzania) and Madagascar, with no land borders. At 2,235 km² (863 sq mi), it is one of the smallest countries in the world. The Comoros also has claim to 320 km² (124 sq mi) of territorial seas. The interiors of the islands vary from steep mountains to low hills. The climate is generally tropical and mild, and the two major seasons are distinguishable by their relative raininess. The temperature reaches an average of 29-30°C (84-86°F) in March, the hottest month in the rainy season (December to April), and an average low of 19°C (66°F) in the cool, dry season (May to November). The islands are subject to cyclones during rainy season which are strong enough to devastate the infrastructure about twice every decade.

Ngazidja is the largest of the Comoros Archipelago, approximately equal in area to the other islands combined. It is also the most recent island, and therefore has rocky soil. The island's two volcanoes, Karthala and La Grille, and the lack of good harbors are distinctive characteristics of its terrain. Mwali, with its capital at Fomboni, is the smallest of the four major islands. Nzwani, whose capital is Mutsamudu, has a distinctive triangular shape caused by three mountain chains, Sima, Nioumakele, and Jimilime, emanating from a central peak, Mtingui (1,575 m, 5,177 ft). The oldest of the islands, Mahoré has the richest soil as well as good harbors and local fish populations, due to its ring of coral reefs. Dzaoudzi, a previous capital of all the colonial Comoros, is located on Pamanzi, (Petite-Terre), the largest islet of Mahoré. Mahoré's current capital is at Mamoudzou. The term Mayotte (or Mahoré) may also refer to the group of islands, of which the largest is known as Mahoré (Grande-Terre), and it includes Mahoré's surrounding islands, most notably Pamanzi (Petite-Terre).

The islands of the Comoros Archipelago were formed by volcanic activity. Mount Karthala, an active shield volcano located on Ngazidja, is the country's highest point, at 2,361 m or 7748 ft. It contains the Comoros' largest patch of its disappearing rainforest. Karthala is currently one of the most active volcanoes in the world, with a minor eruption in May 2006, and prior eruptions as recently as April 2005 and 1991. In the 2005 eruption, which lasted from April 17 to 19, 40,000 citizens were evacuated, and the crater lake in the volcano's 3 by 4 km (2 by 2½ mi) caldera was destroyed.

The Comoros also lays claim to the Glorioso Islands, comprised of Grande Glorieuse, Île du Lys, Wreck Rock, South Rock, Verte Rocks (three islets), and three unnamed islets, one of France's Îles Éparses or Îles éparses de l'océan indien (Scattered islands in the Indian Ocean) possessions. The Glorioso Islands were administered by the colonial Comoros before 1975, and are therefore sometimes considered part of the Comoros Archipelago. Banc du Geyser, a former island in the Comoros Archipelago, now submerged, is geographically located in the Îles Éparses, but was annexed by Madagascar in 1976 as an unclaimed territory. The Comoros now claims it as part of its exclusive economic zone.

Government

Politics of the Union of the Comoros takes place in a framework of a federal presidential republic, whereby the President of the Comoros is both head of state and head of government, and of a multi-party system. The Constitution of the Union of the Comoros was ratified by referendum on December 23, 2001, and the islands' constitutions and executives were elected in the following months. It had previously been considered a military dictatorship, and the transfer of power from Azali Assoumani to Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi in May 2006 was the first peaceful transfer in Comorian history. Executive power is exercised by the government. Federal legislative power is vested in both the government and parliament. The preamble of the constitution guarantees an Islamic inspiration in governance, a commitment to human rights, and several specific enumerated rights, democracy, "a common destiny" for all Comorians. Each of the islands (according to Title II of the Constitution) has a great amount of autonomy in the Union, including having their own constitutions (or Fundamental Law), president, and Parliament. The presidency and Assembly of the Union are distinct from each of the Islands' governments. The presidency of the Union rotates between the islands. Anjouan holds the current presidency rotation, and so Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi is President of the Union; Mohéli and Ngazidja follow in four year terms.

The Comorian legal system rests on Islamic law and an inherited French (Napoleonic code) legal code. Village elders or civilian courts settle most disputes. The judiciary is independent of the legislative and the executive. The Supreme Court acts as a Constitutional Council in resolving constitutional questions and supervising presidential elections. As High Court of Justice, the Supreme Court also arbitrates in cases where the government is accused of malpractice. The Supreme Court consists of two members selected by the president, two elected by the Federal Assembly, and one by the council of each island.

As of 2008, Comoros and Mauritania are considered by US-based organization Freedom House as the only real “electoral democracies” of the Arab World.

Military

The military resources of the Comoros consist of a small standing army and a 500-member police force, as well as a 500-member defense force. A defense treaty with France provides naval resources for protection of territorial waters, training of Comorian military personnel, and air surveillance. France maintains a small troop presence in Comoros at government request. France maintains a small maritime base and a Foreign Legion Detachment (DLEM) on Mayotte. See also Military of Comoros.

Foreign relations

In November 1975, Comoros became the 143rd member of the United Nations. The new nation was defined as comprising the entire archipelago, although France continues to maintain control over the island of Mayotte as an overseas collectivity. Comoros has repeatedly pressed its claim to the island before the United Nations General Assembly, which adopted a series of resolutions under the caption "Question of the Comorian Island of Mayotte", opining that Mayotte belongs to Comoros under the principle that the territorial integrity of colonial territories should be preserved upon independence. As a practical matter, however, these resolutions have little effect and there is no foreseeable likelihood that Mayotte will become de facto part of Comoros without its people's consent. More recently, the Assembly has maintained this item on its agenda but deferred it from year to year without taking action. Other bodies, including the UN General Assembly, the Organization of African Unity, the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, have similarly questioned French sovereignty over Mayotte.

Comoros also is a member of the African Union, the Arab League, the European Development Fund, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Indian Ocean Commission, and the African Development Bank.

Economy

Economic growth and poverty reduction are major priorities for the government. With a rate of 14.3%, unemployment is considered very high. Agriculture, including fishing, hunting, and forestry, is the leading sector of the economy, and 38.4% of the working population is employed in the primary sector. High population densities, as much as 1000 per square kilometer in the densest agricultural zones, for what is still a mostly rural, agricultural economy may lead to an environmental crisis in the near future, especially considering the high rate of population growth. The Comoros' real GDP growth was a low 1.9% in 2004 and real GDP per capita was continuing declining annually in 2004. These declines are explained by factors including declining investment, drops in consumption, rising inflation, and an increase in trade imbalance due in part to lowered cash crop prices, especially vanilla.

Comoros has an inadequate transportation system, a young and rapidly increasing population, and few natural resources. The low educational level of the labor force contributes to a subsistence level of economic activity, high unemployment, and a heavy dependence on foreign grants and technical assistance. Agriculture contributes 40% to GDP, employs 80% of the labor force, and provides most of the exports. Comoros is the world's largest producer of ylang-ylang, and a large producer of vanilla.

The government is struggling to upgrade education and technical training, to privatize commercial and industrial enterprises, to improve health services, to diversify exports, to promote tourism, and to reduce the high population growth rate.

The Comoros claims the Banc du Geyser and the Glorioso Islands as part of its exclusive economic zone.

Demographics

With fewer than a million people, the Comoros is one of the least populous countries in the world, but is also one of the most densely populated, with an average of 275 people per km² (712 people per sq mi). In 2001, 34% of the population was considered urban, but that is expected to grow, since rural population growth is negative, while overall population growth is still relatively high. Major urban centers include Moroni, Mutsamudu, Domoni, Fomboni, and Tsémbéhou.

The islands of the Comoros share mostly African-Arab origins. Sunni Islam is the dominant religion, representing as much as 98% of the population. Although Arab culture is firmly established throughout the archipelago, a minority of the citizens of Mayotte (the Mahorais) are Roman Catholic and have been strongly influenced by French culture. Malagasy and Indian minorities also exist, as well as Creole-speaking minorities mostly descended from Réunionnaise. Chinese peoples are also present on Mayotte and parts of Grande Comore (especially Moroni).

The most common language is Comorian, or Shikomor, a descendant of Swahili with Arabic influences. Shingazidja, Shimwali, Shinzwani, and Shimaore are the local dialects spoken on each of the islands, Ngazidja, Mwali, Nzwani, and Mahoré, respectively. French and Arabic are also official languages, along with Comorian. Arabic is widely known as a second language, being the language of Quranic teaching, and French is the language of all other formal education. Malagasy is also spoken by a small number of Malagasy immigrants. About fifty-seven percent of the population is literate in the Latin alphabet, more with the Arabic alphabet; total literacy is estimated at 62.5%. Comorian has no native script, but both Arabic and Latin scripts have been used.

Media and culture

Almost all of the educated populace of the Comoros has attended Quranic schools at some point in their life, often before regular schooling. Here boys and girls are taught about the Quran, and memorize it. Some parents specifically choose this early schooling to offset French schools children usually attend later. Since independence and the ejection of French teachers, the education system has been plagued by poor teacher training and poor results, though recent stability may allow for substantial improvements.

Comorian (Shikomori) is the most widely used language on the Comoros. It is a close relative of Swahili with a very strong Arabic influence, and is one of the three official languages of the Comoros, next to French and Arabic. Each island has a slightly different dialect; that of Anjouan is called Shindzuani, that of Moheli Shimwali, that of Mayotte Shimaore, and that of Grande Comore Shingazidja. No official alphabet existed in 1992, but Arabic and Latin scripts were both used.

There is no national newspaper in Comoros; the leading regional paper is Al-Watwan published on Grande Comore; Kwezi is also published on Mayotte. Radio Comoros is the national radio service and Comoros National TV is the television service.

See also

References

This article incorporates text from the Library of Congress Country Studies, which is in the public domain.

Further reading

  • The Comoros Islands: Struggle Against Dependency in the Indian Ocean Malyn Newitt
  • Historical Dictionary of the Comoro Islands Martin and Harriet Ottenheimer
  • Shinzwani-English/English-Shinzwani Dictionary Harriet Ottenheimer
  • Lonely Planet World Guide: Madagascar and Comoros Gemma Pitcher and Patricia C. Wright

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