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Comoros - Persistent State Failure

A potentially attractive tourist destination, Comoros has been undermined by three decades of instability drawing just small numbers of French and South African visitors each year. The archipelago has survived more than 20 coups or coup attempts since it acquired independence from France in 1975, four of those aided by French mercenaries, and four of which were successful. The Union of Comoros gained independence from France in 1975 and comprises the islands of Grand Comore, Moheli and Anjouan. Situated in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mozambique, the archipelago has had numerous coups and much civil strife, and in 1997 the islands of Moheli and Anjouan declared independence.

Since independence, France has continued to play a dominant role and has made use of mercenaries four times to bring about changes in regime. Comoros has remained closely tied to France and its interests in the Indian Ocean. There was a coup in the independent Comoros in 1976, followed by a counter-coup two years later carried out by French mercenaries led by the soldier of fortune, Colonel Bob Denard. Comoros' first president, Ahmad Abd Allah, was overthrown by French military mercenaries led by Denard, notorious for his widespread and long-lived influence as a soldier of fortune. The colonel featured in several further power struggles.

This triggered an almost 20-year period of coups and political instability on the three independent islands. In 1997, violent conflict erupted when the islands of Anjouan and Moheli declared independence from Comoros. Anjouan sparked a constitutional crisis in 1997 when it unilaterally broke away from what was then called the Islamic Republic of the Comoros, a move that went unrecognised by the international community.

Since independence the Comorian government has contended with several internal threats. This domestic instability reflects the weakness of the island's central government, the unpopularity of its rulers, and the presence of European mercenaries. On July 6, 1975, the Comorian Chamber of Deputies approved a unilateral declaration of independence from France, named Ahmed Abdallah as president, and constituted itself as the National Assembly. On August 3, 1975, a group of notables, radicals, and technocrats overthrew the Abdallah regime. These individuals replaced the National Assembly with a National Executive Council, led by Prince Said Mohammed Jaffar. In January 1976, Ali Soilih succeeded Jaffar as president.

Soilih embarked on a revolutionary program, based on Maoist and Islamic philosophies, to facilitate the development of an economically self-sufficient and ideologically progressive state. Apart from alienating France, which terminated its aid and technical assistance programs to Comoros, Soilih's policies aroused resentment among the island's traditional leaders. To make matters worse, Soilih established his version of Mao's Red Guards, the Commando Moissi. These vigilantes, trained by Tanzanian military advisers, further alienated Comorian society by acting as a repressive political police. Growing popular discontent resulted in four unsuccessful coup attempts against the Soilih regime during its two and a half-year existence.

On May 12-13, 1978, a fifty-member European mercenary unit, hired by Ahmed Abdallah in France and led by French Colonel Robert Denard, finally overthrew Soilih. Two weeks later, security personnel killed Soilih, allegedly while he was trying to escape from house arrest. Ahmed Abdallah and his former deputy, Muhammad Ahmed, then became co-presidents. Although it initially experienced some opposition because of the role played by Denard and his mercenaries in the coup, the new government eventually gained popular support. Its popularity rested on its ability to restore relations with France, which resumed economic, military, and cultural aid to the island, and to gain assistance from the European Community and several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Kuwait. On October 22, 1978, Abdallah was elected to a six-year term as president.

Despite the influx of foreign aid, political conditions in Comoros remained unsettled, largely because Abdallah failed to establish a government that included adequate representation for the people who lived on the outlying islands of Njazidja, Nzwani, and Mwali. Moreover, Abdallah frequently used repressive methods against his real and imagined adversaries. In this turbulent atmosphere, opponents of Abdallah's regime made at least four unsuccessful attempts to overthrow his government.

In February 1981, loyal Presidential Guard (Garde Presidentielle--GP) units crushed an army mutiny on the main island of Grande Comore and the authorities subsequently arrested about 150 people. In December 1983, another plot surfaced after the arrest of a group of British mercenaries in Australia. According to the Comorian government, they had planned to overthrow Abdallah on behalf of a former Comorian diplomat, Said Ali Kemal. A March 1985 plot against Abdallah by the GP also failed and resulted in seventeen people being sentenced to forced labor for life and fifty others being imprisoned for their part in the coup attempt. In November 1987, French mercenaries and South African military advisers, based in Comoros, reportedly thwarted a coup by a small number of GP and armed forces personnel.

On November 27-27, 1989, the Abdallah regime finally fell after members of the GP, which included several European advisers under Colonel Denard's command, assassinated the president. As outlined in the constitution, the Supreme Court president, Said Mohamed Djohar, became interim head of state, pending a presidential election. However, Colonel Denard and his associates engineered a coup against Djohar, disarmed the army, and killed at least twenty-seven police. Growing French and South African pressure forced Colonel Denard to leave Comoros for South Africa. In April 1990, the Comorian government announced that France would maintain a military team on the islands for two years to train local security forces.

Despite the presence of French troops and a general amnesty for all political prisoners, Comoros continued to suffer from internal instability. On August 18-19, 1990, armed rebels unsuccessfully tried to overthrow Djohar by attacking various French installations on the island of Njazidja. A small group of European mercenaries allegedly the coup attempt and believed that the Djohar regime would fall if they could force the French to withdraw from the islands. The authorities detained more that twenty people in connection with the uprising. Another coup attempt occurred on September 26, 1992, when Lieutenant Said Mohamed and 100 Comorian army personnel tried to overthrow Djohar. According to plotters, the coup's purpose was "to ensure state security and to put in place a true democracy." Troops loyal to Djohar quickly crushed this coup attempt. Since then, political instability has continued to plague Comoros, largely because of opposition to Djohar and growing demands for democratization.

Assoumani came to power in 1999 after ousting acting president Tadjidine Ben Said Massounde in a coup. He then won a presidential election three years later, stepping down when his term ended in 2006. In March 2000, dissident political and army elements attempted a coup against Azali. This coup was suppressed, and the leaders of the coup were detained.

In August 2001, separatist soldiers, reportedly dissatisfied with pay and promotions, started protests that led to the overthrow of Abeid in Anjouan. A three-man military commission replaced him as leader of Anjouan; Abeid fled to Mayotte. The new military commission pledged to support the reconciliation process begun by the February Accord. In November 2001, Abeid made an unsuccessful attempt to regain control of Anjouan by attacking forces loyal to the new military commission, but he quickly was defeated. The coup attempt did not threaten the Fomboni Agreement.

In December 2001 on Moheli, the army defeated a coup attempt by 13 French mercenaries after several hours of fighting. Colonel Hassan Harouna, a former defense official in the Government of former President Abdoulkarim, was arrested in December 2001 and accused of organizing the coup to derail the December 2001 referendum. He was released in May 2002.

The rupture was partially healed in 2001 when a new constitution devolved many powers from the central government to the three Comoro islands. The deal was meant to leave the union government in charge only of affairs of religion and nationality, currency, foreign and defence policy. But, although presidents had since been elected for the isles and the union, their leaders continued to squabble over who should control what.

Only in 2002 did the Comoros government grant the islands along with the island of Grande Comore - autonomy. Each island had since elected its own presidents and drafted a constitution. However, the central government under the leadership of President Azali Assoumani (an army colonel who himself assumed office in a bloodless coup in 1999) retained power over security and financial affairs.

The power struggle on Anjouan highlighted deep rivalries on the Indian Ocean archipelago, whose three main islands share a rotating national presidency but retain autonomy through local leadership under the terms of a 2001 peace deal. A 2001 constitution accorded each island greater autonomy including the right to its own president and constitution with the central government remaining in the Grand Comore capital, Moroni.

Mohamed Bacar had ruled Anjouan since 2002, but his re-election in 2007 was deemed illegal by both the central authorities and the African Union (AU). Trouble began when Comoros' constitutional court said that Bacar's five-year term had expired, and ordered him to step down ahead of June 2007 elections. The AU backed Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, the archipelago's president, to protect the territorial integrity of the Comoros. Bacar said he is seeking Anjouan's independence from the union.

By 04 May 2007, after two days of fighting, Bacar had gained complete control of the island, and his police had confiscated the arms and vehicles of a small government army contingent of about 30 soldiers. Police forces were driving round armed to the teeth, as president Bacar wanted to show the population he has won the battle. The house of Ahmed Abdullah Mohamed Sambi, the national president, who hails from Anjouan, had been ransacked by police there.

The French-trained officer staged another election to confirm his re-election, but the vote was rejected as illegal by both the Comoros federal government and the AU. Bacar and a force of several hundred armed police continued to control the island. The African Union (AU) and the Francophonie Organisation encouraged negotiation over outstanding fiscal and political issues dividing the national government and the regional island authorities. Regional power South Africa and former colonial rulers France said diplomacy should not be abandoned. Pascale Andreani, a French foreign ministry spokeswoman, said: "We remain ... in support of dialogue and a peaceful solution to this crisis."

In March 2008, Comoros government troops, backed by African Union forces and with logistical help from France, ousted Bacar from the capital of Anjouan, one of the archipelago's three main islands. More than 1,000 African troops took part, supporting about 400 Comoran soldiers. Yahya Abdallah, the Sudanese commander, said as he arrived with a deployment of paratroopers: "We are happy to be here... The Comoran people are our Muslim brothers and we are proud to be able to help them." A Comoran army lieutenant said: "We are soon going to be able to solve this matter.... We have waited too long to please the international community and wait for these African troops."

An estimated 1,400 AU and Comoros invaded the island to re-establish federal rule. At least 11 people were wounded in the fighting as some Bacar loyalists took on the AU forces. Tanzanian, Sudanese, and Comoran troops were reportedly greeted with cheers from the local population when they landed before dawn on 28 March 2008 and there was only light resistance from Bacar's forces.