The 21 coups and political chaos have ravaged the island kingdom of Comoros since independence in 1975. It now appears to be a laid-back stage. But poverty is spreading, the economy is stagnating and the debt burden is growing. With the 2006 presidential election, the Comoros set the stage for a very turbulent decade, which was tearing the islands apart.
At the heart of the political struggle in the Comoros since independence has been the distribution of power and resources between the largest island, Grand Comore, and the two smaller islands, Anjouan and Moheli. The fourth island of the archipelago, Mayotte, wanted and in 1975 continued administration under the French colonial power, and has fared significantly better than the other islands. Anjouan and Moheli declared their independence from the administration of Grand Comore in 1997, and, like Mayotte, asked for French territory to be restored.
The separation attempt led to the country’s 19th coup in 1999, which led Colonel Azali Assoumani to the presidential power. When Assoumani and the army took power in 1999, the Organization of African Unity (OAU, after 2002 The African Union, AU) had negotiated the so-called Antananarivo agreement, in which the representatives of the islands of Grand Comore and Moheli accepted an agreement on partial autonomy for the three islands.. The representatives of Anjouan still wanted detachment. Neither diplomacy nor sanctions seemed to resolve the crisis between the separatists of Anjouan and the military regime in Grand Comore, and in August 2000 the OAU was ready to intervene with military force. Then Colonel Assoumani succeeded in reaching an agreement with Anjouan, the so-called Fomboni agreement. The agreement laid the foundation for today’s state form, which involves a federal state, with a parliament and a president on each island, subordinate to a national president and a national parliament. Assoumani himself extended his presidency in 2002, after a very contentious election.
The elections in 2003
In December 2003, after the troika of the African Union (AU), South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia mediated the so-called Beit-Salam agreement, elections were held for legislative assemblies in the three islands in March 2004, with elections to the federal assembly the following month. The elections were held on time, and Assoumani and his party, the Convention pour la renaissance des Comores (CRC), lost in all four elections. The CRC won only 11 of 55 seats in the three islands of the islands, and only 15 of 33 seats in the federal assembly. The federation ensures the islands both autonomy and a seemingly more equitable distribution of goods. At the May 2006 presidential election, Colonel Assoumani’s time was definitely out, as the presidential office was rolling between the three islands, and it was Anjouan’s turn to take over.
The residents of Anjouan chose between 14 candidates who ran for the pre-election in April, and three went on to the national election. In the May election, when all the Comoros voted for the Anjouan candidates, businessman Ahmed Abdallah got Sambi from the Islamist Front National de la Justice (FNJ) majority, with 58 percent of the vote. Zambi is known as the “Ayatollah”, with studies in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan behind it. Opponents have accused him of instituting Shi’ite Muslim faith in the Comoros with Sharia law and Islamic government, something Sambi denies.
According to the United Nations International Children’s Fund (Unicef) (2005), more than one-third of children under five are underweight or short-lived due to malnutrition. One of the causes is iron deficiency in pregnant women due to malaria, another is intestinal parasites that come due to poor hygiene. Nevertheless, the health indicators in the Comoros are good compared to the average in sub-Saharan Africa. Life expectancy is now estimated to be 61 years for children born between 2000 and 2005. Infant mortality has decreased significantly, from 159 per 1,000 live births in 1970, to 59 in 2002 (the average in sub-Saharan Africa is 108).
The education sector in the Comoros is not so good. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP from Abbreviationfinder) at primary school in 2004, 55 percent of school-aged children started, and only 21 percent of children attend secondary school. The UNDP estimates that more than one in three children between the ages of 10 and 14 were in employment between 1995 and 2003. 44 percent of adult Comoros could not read or write in 2002, according to the World Bank. As a result, the country has fewer literacy experts than Sudan, for example. The Comoros are ranked 132nd on the UN Index for Human Development.
Agriculture dominates the economy, but the country is still dependent on food imports. The three main export goods – vanilla, carnation and ylang-ylang – are vulnerable to price fluctuations in the world market. The government has called for the establishment of larger plantations and the development of agricultural collectives. In practice, the possibility of this is limited. There is a shortage of arable land, partly because of erosion after forest clearing in recent years. The World Bank has proposed greater diversity in agriculture, with goods such as pepper, cardamom and fruit.
The most reliable export product is vanilla, where the Comoros are one of the largest exporters in the world. However, the production is not efficient, and each plant produces only 100 grams of vanilla, up to 800 grams on the island of Reunion. Export volume fell from 144 tonnes a year in 1999 to 38 tonnes in 2004. Poor weather conditions, aging plantations and falling prices on the world market are to blame. In 2004, prices fell by as much as 60 percent. Artificial vanilla has taken over much of the market.
Comoros is the world’s largest producer of ylang-ylang, an essence used in perfume production. Prices fell in the late 1990s, due to the devaluation of Indonesian rupees. Production has remained stable at 40 tonnes in recent years. The carnation revenues are unstable because the world prices of carnations go up and down a lot. Like vanilla, prices depend on Indonesian production. The country’s carnation revenues fell by 35 percent from 2001 to 2003, but recovered somewhat in 2004, but not enough to compensate for major losses. The production, which mostly takes place in Anjouan, has been disturbed by the political turmoil.
The country is trying to get funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank by pursuing an economic policy based on deregulation and privatization. Agriculture is subject to deregulation, and the national oil distribution company Société Comorienne des Hydrocarbures and telecommunications company Comtel have been privatized. The Comoros thus hope to be funded through the financial institutions debt relief program (also known as HIPC; Heavily Indebted Poor countries), but must first have implemented a program that combines poverty reduction and economic growth (also known as the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility Program (PRGFP)).
The IMF states that poverty is on the rise in the country, but predicts growth if unreliable agricultural production does not fail and the country avoids new political unrest. The IMF report in 2005 describes a growing debt problem, with a non-sustainable debt of 78 percent of GDP. The country thus relies on appeasing the IMF and the World Bank in order to emerge from the debt crisis.
The presidential election and continued implementation of the Fomboni agreement, with a clear distribution of the country’s income between the islands, has given the prospect of a more stable Comoros in the time to come. However, a moment of turmoil is President Zambi’s promise of a “green revolution,” and then he believes a revolution based on Islamic values. This is the breeding ground for the population, but it is asked how this is received among secular generals. The economy depends on whether the country receives a PRGF agreement after privatization and deregulation. It will be able to secure badly needed loans with favorable conditions. A “sunset clause” threatens these prospects. The World Bank and the IMF will deny debt relief through HIPC for countries that have not reached an agreement with the IMF before the sun goes down on December 31, 2006.