About Comoros


Officially the Union of Comoros, Comoros is an island nation in the Indian Ocean. It is located off eastern Africa’s coast. It sits on the northern end of the Mozambique Channel, between northwestern Madagascar and northeastern Mozambique. The capital is Moroni. Its surface area is 1,862 sq. km. Comoros is Africa’s third smallest country in terms of land area. Its population is 798,000 making it the 6th smallest by population. Its population density is one of the highest in Africa. The islands’ culture and history are diverse. The Union of Comoros has three official languages, Comorian, Arabic, and French.

There are four main islands including Grande Comore (Ngazidja), Moheli (Mwali), Anjouan (Nzani), and Mayotte (Mahore). There are also many smaller islands. The island of Mayotte has not been governed by Comoros, instead the French administer it as an overseas territory. In 1974, all of the islands voted for independence from France except Mayotte. France has used its veto power on U.N. Security Council affirming Comoros’ control over the island. The people of Mayotte, on March 29, 2009, voted to become an oversea department of France in 2011.

The country is a member of Francophonie, the African Union, Arab League, Indian Ocean Commission, and Organization of the Islamic Conference. Since 1975, numerous coups have occurred. In Comoros, half of the population lives below the poverty line.


History


Comoros’s first human inhabitants were Austronesian and African settlers, settling no later than the 6th century AD. This is the date of the first archeological site found on the islands. Diverse groups from the Persian Gulf, Africa’s coast, Madagascar, and the Malay Archipelago settled the islands. Around the first millennium, Swahili settlers reached the islands as part of the Bantu expansion.

There are several phases of development. The first is the Dembeni phase. In this phase, Swahili influence was persistent and each island supported a single village. Later in the 1000s to the 1400s, trade with Middle Eastern merchants and Madagascar’s inhabitants grew. Additional smaller villages started and others expanded. Arab settlement are said to have begun even before their known arrival in the area and historians of Swahili background trace their history back to Arab ancestors from Yemen and Saba’ in Eden, an ancient kingdom. The truth of this is not settled.
Arab Colonization

Islamic influence brought Arab culture to Comoros. This is most likely because they traded for slaves in Africa, which spread their culture throughout the continent. Mosques were constructed later on. The islands were an important stop on the Persian and Arab trade routes. While it is far from the coast, the islands sit on a major route between Mozambique and Kilwa.

The Shirazi people established settlements on the islands and traded with the Middle East and Africa.

When Zanzibar fell to Arab rule, Arab colonization increased. This included architecture and religion. When Europeans became interested in Comoros, Arab culture dominated over African and Swahili.
European Contact and French Colonization

In 1505, Portuguese explorers first visited Comoros. In 1792, Malagasy fighters began raiding the area for slaves and eventually settled many areas. In 1841, the French first established colonial rule. Its colonists first landed in Mayotte and the King of Mayotte, a Malagasy, signed a treaty recognizing French authority.

In 1886, Moheli Queen Salima Machimba placed that island under the protection of the French. Sultan Said Ali agreed to French authority over his island of Grande Comore. On Anjouan in 1909, Sultan Said Muhamed submitted to French authority. In 1912, the Comoros became an official French colony. It was placed under Madagascar’s governor in 1914.

The islands were a stopping point for merchants on their way to India and the Far East until the Suez Canal opened. This significantly reduced the amount of sea traffic through the Mozambique Channel. Coconuts, cattle, and tortoiseshell were exported from the islands. A plantation-based economy began due to French settlers and companies. Now, this uses about one third of the land in Comoros. Mayotte was converted into a sugar plantation colony after annexation. After other islands’ transformation major crops became vanilla, cocoa bean, sisal, coffee, and ylang-ylang.

In 1973, the islands agreed with France to become independent in 1978. Mayotte voted against independence and still remains a French colony today. On July 6, 1975, the Comorian parliament passed an independence resolution and Ahmed Abdallah became its first president.


Independence


Political turmoil marked the next 30 years. A mercenary with French support, Bob Denard, removed Abdallah from power in August 3, 1975. Prince Said Mohammed, part of the United National Front of Comoros, was installed as president. In January 1976, he was in turn ousted in favor of Ali Soilih, his Minister of Defense.

In two referendums, Mayotte voted against independence. In December 1974, 63.8 percent supported French rule and in February 1976, 99.4 percent rejected independence.

The other islands began socialist and isolationist policies. These strained French relations. In 1978, Denard returned to overthrow Soilih. Soilih faced several coup attempts during his rule and was eventually removed from office and killed.

Abdallah was reinstalled as president and his rule was authoritarian and Islamist. He renamed the country the Federal and Islamic Republic of Comoros. In 1989, he decreed that the Presidential Guard, headed by Denard, to disarm the military. He was assassinated shortly after this decree by a disgruntled military officer. Later sources claim an antitank missile killed him instead. Denard was injured as well but most suspect the assassin was under his command.

French paratroopers evacuated Denard a few days later. Soilih’s half-brother Said Mohamed Djohar then became president until 1995 when Denard returned to attempt another coup. French troops, instead of supporting Denard, forced him to surrender. Djohar was removed by the French and Mohamed Taki Abdulkarim was elected president. He led from 1996 until his death in 1998. These were times of crisis and conflict. Tadjidine Ben Said Massounde succeeded him.

Anjouan and Moheli islands declared their independence in 1997 to attempt restoration of French rule. France rejected the attempt. This led to clashes between government troops and the rebels. Colonel Azali Assoumani, the Army’s Chief of Staff, seized power in a bloodless coup in April 1999. Since independence, it was the 18th coup. Azali failed to reestablish control over the islands. The African Union then imposed sanctions to force negotiations. The country’s name then changed to the Union of Comoros. Each island was given political autonomy.

Azali stepped down from his interim post to run for election. He won in 2002 and led the country through constitutional changes that les to new elections. In 2005, a law was passed to define each governmental body’s responsibilities. It is being implemented. Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, a Muslim cleric, was elected president in 2006. When Azali honored the results, it was the first peaceful power exchange in Comoros.

In Anjouan in 2001, Colonel Mohammed Bacar, a French trained soldier, seized power. In 2007, a vote he staged was rejected as illegal by Comoros’ government and the African Union. Troops from Comoros and the African Union took control of Anjouan on March 25, 2008 and were generally welcomed by its people. Bacar is believed to have conducted torture during his rein. Bacar fled to Mayotte to seek asylum, which led to anti-French protest in Comoros. As a whole, Comoros has seen over 20 coups since independence.


Geography


In addition to minor islands, Comoros is made up of major islands Grande Comore (Ngazidja), Moheli (Mwali), Anjouan (Nzwani), and Mayotte (Maore). Officially, they are known by their local names. Moroni, situated on Grande Comore, is the capital. The islands are in the Mozambique Channel in the Indian Ocean between the African coast and Madagascar.

It is one of the world’s smallest countries at 2,235 sq. km. It claims 320 sq. km. of sea in its territory. Elevation varies between steep mountains and low hills. Comoros has a tropical and mild climate with two seasons, rainy and dry. The island rarely sees cyclones.

Ngazidja, or Grande Comore, is the largest island and equal in size to the others combined. It has rocky soil and two volcanoes, Karthala and La Grille. It has a lack of good harbors. The smallest is Mwali, or Moheli. Its capital is Fomboni. Nzwani, known as Anjouan, has a distinctive triangular shape and its capital is Mutsamundu. The shape is caused by three chains of mountains, Sima, Nioumakele, and Jimilime. The island’s central peak is 5,167 ft high, called Ntringi.

The oldest island is Maore or Mayotte. It has the best harbors and richest soil. Fish populations are good due to a ring of coral reefs. The prior capital of the territory, Dzaoudri, sits on one of Mayotte’s islets.

The islands were formed by volcanic activity. The country’s high point, Mount Karhala, is an active shield volcano 7,748 ft high. Comoros’ largest patch of rainforest sits here as well. Karthala is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. It experienced a minor eruption in May 2006 and a major one in 2005. In the 2005 event, 40,000 were evacuated and the volcano’s crater lake was destroyed.

The country also claims the Glorioso Islands. They were administered by the colony before independence. Banc du Geyser, an island now submerged, was annexed by Madagascar as unclaimed territory in 1976. Comoros claims it as part of its economic zone.


Government


Comoros is a federal presidential republic. The president is the head of state and government. It is a multi-party system. The last constitution was established in 2001. Prior to that time, it was considered a military dictatorship. Comoros had its first peaceful power transfer in 2006 when Azali Assoumani handed control to Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi.

Azali Assoumani, born January 1, 1959) is a Comorian politician who is the President of the Comoros. He has been in office since 2016. Previously he was President from 1999 to 2002 and again from 2002 to 2006.

The government has executive power and the legislative power is with the parliament and government. Islamic inspiration in governance is set forth in the constitution. There is a commitment to human rights and enumerated rights. Each island has much autonomy with their own presidents and parliaments. Comoros’ presidency and parliament are separate from the islands; own governments. The overall presidency rotates between the islands. Currently, Anjouan holds it, making Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi president. Moheli and Ngazidja follow in the rotation every four years.

Islamic law is the basis of the legal system. It also has influences from French civil law and customary law. Elders in villages settle a majority of disputes. There is an independent judiciary. The Supreme Court supervises elections and resolves constitutional questions. There is also a High Court of Justice to adjudicate instances of government abuse or malpractice. The president selects two Supreme Court members, two are also selected by the Federal Assembly, and one is selected by each island.

The complex electoral system accounts for 80 percent of the nation’s budget. On May 16, 2009, a referendum passed with 93.8 percent approval to simplify the election system.


Foreign Relations


After its independence in November 1975, Comoros became the 143rd United Nations member. The nation officially covered the whole archipelago, but France still maintains control over Mayotte. The U.N. General Assembly has passed repeated resolutions pressing Comoros’ claim to the island. These have no practical effect because Mayotte’s population wants to remain part of France. Other organizations have similarly challenged French control of the island.

The country is also part of the Arab League, the European Development Fund, the African Union, the Indian Ocean Commission, and the African Development Bank.


Military


Comoros’s military has a small standing army with a 500-member defense force and an additional 500-member police force. The country’s waters are protected by a defense treaty with France. This treaty also provides air support and military training. Pursuant to the government’s request, France also has a small number of troops in Comoros. There is also a French maritime base on Mayotte.


Economy


Economic growth and reduction of poverty are priorities due to Comoros’s status as one of the world’s poorest countries. Unemployment is 14.3 percent. 38.4 percent are employed in agriculture, the dominant economic sector. There relatively high population density, even in agricultural zones, which may lead to an environmental crisis.

The growth in GDP was 1.9 percent in 2004 and the per capita GDP has been declining. This is due to less investment, inflation, trade imbalances, and drops in consumptions. The islands are a large producer of vanilla and the world’s largest of ylang-ylang.

The government is attempting to improve technical training and education. It is also privatizing enterprises, broaden exports, promote tourism, improve healthcare, and reduce the high rate of population growth.


Demographics


While it is one of the least populated countries, it is one of the more densely populated with 275 people per sq. km. The current population of Comoros is 845,224 as of March  2019, based on the latest United Nations estimates. 200,000 to 350,000 live in France. Moroni, Domonu, Mutsamundu, Fomboni, and Tsembehou are major cities.

Sunni Islam is the dominant religion, with nearly 98 percent of the population as adherents. A minority population on Myotte is Roman Catholic. Other minorities like Malagasy (Christian) and Indian exist. Chinese live on Mayotte and parts of Grande Comore. While most French left after independence, there is a small European population still living on the islands.

Comorian, or Shikomor, a language related to Swahili, is the dominant language. Four different variants are spoken on each of the islands. French and Arabic are additional official languages, with Arabic being the general second language. French is the language of formal education. A third of Maore’s population speaks Shibushi, a Malagasy language. Just over half the population is literate in the “Latin” alphabet and 90 percent in Arabic. Comorian has no native script, but has adopted Arabic and Latin ones.


Health


Comoros has 15 physicians per 100,000 people and a fertility rate of 4.7 per woman. At birth, life expectancy is 62 for males and 67 for females.


Education


Most of the population has attended Islamic schools at some point. Here, both males and females are taught to memorize the Quran. Since independence, poor staffing and results have been present in the education system. Recent stability is hoped to allow improvement. 44.2 percent of children from age 5 to 14 were attending school in 2000. Salaries are often not paid, causing many teachers to refuse to work. There is generally a shortage of qualified teachers, books, and equipment for education.

ADC Editor
Thanks for reading and for your interest in Africa. Content is produced in collaboration between Africa.com’s editorial team and our partners — including nongovernmental organizations, private sector stakeholders, agencies and institutions. If you are interested in telling stories in an impactful way to shine a spotlight on a particular issue, please email editor@africa.com. We look forward to hearing from you.