Conflict in the Comoros

Map of the Comoros Including MayotteAlthough Mayotte is a troubled island, its difficulties are minor compared to those of the other islands in the Comoro Archipelago, which collectively form an independent state. By some accounts, the Comoros is the most coup-wracked country in the world, having suffered twenty military assaults on its government since independence in 1975. Its instability is almost matched by its poverty; as listed by the IMF, the Comoros ranks 166th out of 183 countries in per capita GDP (in PPP). Food insecurity is widespread, and according to a recent report, the Comoros has experienced an increase in hunger since 1990. Private enterprise is weak and discouraged; according the World Bank’s most recent “ease of doing business report,” the Comoros is one of a handful of countries that would tax a hypothetical small ceramics firm at a rate “exceeding 100% of its profit.” It is thus hardly surprising that many residents of this densely populated state have fled to French-controlled Mayotte in recent years.

As mentioned in the previous post, the Comorian island of Mayotte voted to remain under French sovereignty in a 1974 plebiscite. Supposedly, in the same election the residents of the other islands in the archipelago—Anjouan (Ndzuwani), Grande Comore (Ngazidja), and Mohéli (Mwali)—voted by more than 99.9 percent for independence. Many evidently came to regret that decision. In 1997, both Anjouan, and Mohéli first declared their independence and then sought the reinstitution of French rule. France declined the offer, and federal Comorian troops brought the recalcitrant islands back under central control. Resistance to centralization persisted, however, leading to mediation by the African Union. As a result, in 1999 each island was granted substantial autonomy, and the country itself was rechristened the Union of the Comoros.

Wikipedia Map of the Invasion of Anjouan in the ComorosDespite decentralization, inter-island tensions and general political instability persisted. Problems came to a head in 2007 and 2008 on the island of Anjouan. Anjouan’s president, Colonel Mohammad Bacar, refused to step down after federal authorities accused him of rigging the most recent election, which he had ostensible won with over ninety percent of the vote. The central government appealed to the African Union, which responded with a 2000-troop invasion force. Soldiers from Sudan, Tanzania, and Senegal—with logistical backing from France and Libya (!)—soon restored the island to federal authority. Bacar fled to French-controlled Mayotte, prompting a sizable anti-French demonstration in the capital city, Moroni. Eventually he found sanctuary in Benin.

Tension between the Comoros and France has not kept the island country from joining French-led international associations, such as the International Organization of the Francophonie and the Indian Ocean Commission. But then again, the Comoros has joined a wide array of international groups, including the Arab League. Membership in the Arab League is somewhat unusual, as the Comoros is not an Arabic-speaking country.* Evidently, its leaders are hoping to address that situation, at least as far as the government itself is concerned. On October 4, 2011, a press release from Kuwait noted that the “Foundation of Abdulaziz Saud Al-Babtain’s Prize for Poetic Creativity announced on Tuesday that Prime Minister of the Republic of Comoros issued a decree stipulating that all his ministers would be attending the Arab language courses held by the Foundation.”

The indigenous inhabitants of the various islands of the Comoro Archipelago are culturally similar. Uninhabited before the sixth century CE, the islands were settled, like Madagascar, by peoples from both Indonesia and East Africa. The Comoro islands, unlike Madagascar, were subsequently tightly entwined in East African and Arabian trade networks, eventually forming an insular extension of the Swahili Coast. Arab merchants settled, and the common version of Swahili gained a particularly heavy Arabic influence. The resulting Comorian (or Shikomor) language is the common tongue of the archipelago, although each island has its own local dialect.

The religious demography of the Comoros not entirely clear. Wikipedia and the CIA Factbook state that 98 percent of the islanders are Sunni Muslims, with the rest following Roman Catholicism.** Other sources cite a Shia presence, varying from slightly less than one percent to as much as five percent of the population. Freedom House, moreover, claims that “Tensions have sometimes arisen between Sunni and Shiite Muslims,” which would indicate a non-trivial Shia*** presence. Intriguingly, the former president of the Comoros (until May 2011), Ahmad Abdullah Sambi, was so fond of Iran that he was dubbed “The Ayatollah of Comoros.” Ostensibly a Sunni Muslim, Sambi was lauded in the Iranian media as a convert to Shia Islam and for proselytizing on its behalf (2008).  At the same time, the Comoros Sunni religious establishment angrily accused the entire government of “favouring the spread of Shiism.”

Regardless of Shia numbers, I have not found any evidence suggesting that religious practices differentiate one island in the Comoros from another. Linguistic differences are minor, and history is shared. Why then are relations among the islands so fraught? Global comparison suggests that insularity itself may play a role; the individual islands in small, politically bound archipelagos sometimes develop deep rivalries. A prime example would be the ABC islands of the former Dutch Antilles: Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. Their cultural differences may be minor, but their political relations have generally been tense.

* The other non-Arab members of the Arab League are Somalia and Djibouti.

** The Christian proselytizing Joshua Project pegs the Christian population of the Comoros at 0.01 percent. It also claims that among the Muslim community, “mosque attendance is very low. Mixed with their Islamic practices is a strong involvement in occultism and spirit possession.”

** Presumably most Shiites in the Comoros are Twelvers (Ithnā‘ashariyyah), followers of the largest branch of the faith, dominant in Iran and southern Iraq. Evidence gleaned from on-line matrimonial advertisements, however, suggests a Dawoodi Bohra (an offshoot of Ismaili Shiism) presence, linked to the Gujarati diaspora. The Bohras are noted for their high rates of educational and professional achievement, for women as well as men. I have not provided a link, however, as it seems rude to link to such personal sources of information.

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Mayotte: The EU’s—and France’s—Troubled New Exclave

Modified Wikipedia map of France with its Overseas DepartmentsOn March 31, 2011, the European Union expanded, adding 144 square miles (374 km2) and almost 200,000 persons. The population of this new UE territory is almost entirely Muslim (97 per cent). It is also, by European standards, quite poor, with a nominal per capita GDP of only US $6,500. Oddly, the land in question is not even physically located in Europe, situated instead thousands of miles to the south. But despite these unusual features, the European Union’s most recent addition received little mention in the international media. Most outlets ignored it altogether.

Modified Wikipedia World Map of France The land in question is Mayotte, an island group in the Comoros Archipelago, located off the East African coast northwest of Madagascar. Mayotte joined the EU as a matter of course when it became an overseas department (département d’outre-mer, or DOM) of France, joining the roster with French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Réunion. Mayotte had previously been under the sovereignty of France, but as a quasi-colonial dependency rather than an integral portion of the country. Today it is as much part of France as Hawaii is part of the US.

Map of the Comoros and MayotteUntil 1975, France controlled the entire Comoros Archipelago as a colonial dependency. In a 1974 referendum, the inhabitants of the other islands voted for independence, but those of Mayotte elected to stay under French rule. The newly independent State of Comoros (as it was then officially called) contested the maneuver, arguing its case in the United Nations. In 1976 the UN Security Council voted in favor of the Comorian claim, but France vetoed the motion. For the next two decades, the UN continued to apply pressure for decolonization. The people of Mayotte resisted such demands, their identification with France only increasing as economic and political conditions deteriorated in independent Comoros (as will be discussed in the next GeoCurrents post). Eventually, they sought full union with the metropolitan state. In a 2009 referendum, “95.5 per cent voted in favour of changing the island’s status from a French ‘overseas community’ to become France’s 101st département.” Neighboring states were not pleased.  The African Union opposed the change, while the vice president of the Comoros said that the vote was tantamount to “a declaration of war.”

In voting to join France, the people of Mayotte expected to reap economic benefits while acknowledging that they would have to reform their own legal and social frameworks. Whereas Islamic law had previously been informally used for family matters, French law will now have to be instituted; polygamy will no longer be allowed, and girls will no longer be allowed to marry at age fifteen, having to wait until they reach eighteen years of age. Language is another issue: according to the BBC, only about half of the island’s residents can read or write French. Demographic issues present yet another challenge for integration into the French Republic. According to a March, 2011 Deutsche Welle article:

Every third inhabitant of Mayotte is either a foreigner or a refugee, and new immigrants arrive every day. Every year, the island expels some 24,000 illegal immigrants, one reason why France has sent hundreds of extra police to Mayotte.

 Mayotte attracts numerous immigrants and refugees due to the profound economic advantage that it enjoys over the Comoros proper and other near-by countries. Many Mahorans (as residents of Mayotte are called) expected that such disparities would expand significantly and immediately with ascension to France. Thus far, their expectations for an economic boost have not been met, generating mounting frustration. In late September 2011, protests and rioting broke on Mayotte, focused on the rising cost of living and more specifically on the large profit margins enjoyed by big French retail chains. Police responded by using tear gas grenades and “flash-balls,” which likely contributed to the death of one demonstrator. In mid-October, French Secretary of State for Overseas Territories Marie-Luce Penchard visited the island, hoping to quell tensions. Her arrival coincided with an intensification of the disturbance, with looters ransacking a major supermarket. Penchard subsequently “promised to probe profit margins enjoyed by large retailers” and to “make sure that measures are taken and, if necessary, sanctions handed down.” Due to the unrest, France’s recent Socialist Party primary election could not be held on Mayotte.

In explaining the situation in Mayotte to my students, I noticed more than a few dumbfounded expressions. Why, I was asked, would France want to take on such a burden? Pour la gloire!” I was tempted to respond, but I could not come up with a satisfying answer. Evidently, some people in France are asking the same question, if the comment thread in a recent Rue 89 article is any indication. As one commentator asked:

A question all the same: what interests has our government encouraged to integrate this island? Nothing in their history, Muslim and clannish morals, or local political or economic context moves them closer to us except to ostracize the foreigner who robs them. This department will remain a weight on our country. So who will respond to this question: why was this loaded referendum proposed?*

 Several Rue 89 responders cited “geostrategic advantage,” the only answer that made much sense.

*”Une question tout de même : quels intérêts notre gouvernement a-t-il favorisés pour intéger cette île . Rien dans leur histoire , moeurs musulmanes et claniques , contexte politique et économique voisin… , ne les rapproche de nous sauf pour ostraciser l’étranger qui les vole . Ce département restera un poids pour notre pays. Donc qui répondra à cette question : pourquoi avoir proposé ce référendum pipé ?”

(Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for help with this post.)


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