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Comoros (country profile)

COMOROS* (Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros) Faissoili Ben Mohadji 1. History and Development of Federalism The Comoros archipelago includes four islands in the southwest Indian Ocean between Madagascar and the east coast of Africa. Grande Comoros (Njazidja), Anjouan (Nzwani) and Moheli (Mwali) form the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros (FIRC). A fourth island, Mayotte, remains under French administration. The population of Comoros is approximately 500,000, with an average density of 300 inhabitants/km2, 80 per cent of whom live in rural areas. Migration and intermarriage have mixed Malaysians, Persians, Arabs and Cafres, and the original Swahili civilization of the western Indian Ocean. Demographic growth is high—between 2.7% and 3% per year—and the population is very young, with nearly 50% of inhabitants below the age of 15. The population is poor and often malnourished. The economy of the Comoros is closely tied to agriculture. Eighty per cent of the population earns its livelihood through agriculture which is the main source of exports and brings in 97% of foreign currency. The country has little industry and no valuable minerals. Foreign debt represented 90% of the GDP in 1990, compared with 8% in 1970, and the state does not have the means to deal with this debt. Europeans first discovered the Comoros Islands in the sixteenth century but they were not united under a single authority until French colonization in the nineteenth century. Before that numerous sovereign sultanates co-existed on the territory. The French managed to unify the Comoros Islands using a highly centralized structure. Yet, despite the many years of French administration and centralized political authority, the sultanates have persisted in collective memory and behaviour. Comorans identify first and foremost with their family, their village or their region and rarely, if ever, with the central government. The independence movement in Africa provoked a burst of nationalism in the Comoros. Prince SaVd Ibrahim, from Grande Comoros, took power in 1970 at the peak of this period of nationalism. He made overtures to Mayotte and Moheli in an attempt to calm the tension that characterized relations between these islands and the government in Moroni (Grande Comoros). Nonetheless, it was not his destiny to orchestrate sovereignty for the Comoros Islands. He was forced out of politics democratically on 12 July 1972, following a vote of non-confidence. Ahmed Abdallah, a former Senator in the French National Assembly, took over. The Parliament of the Comoros expressed the people’s desire for independence with a resolution on 23 December 1972. Following this, Ahmed Abdallah travelled to Paris and on 15 June 1973, he signed joint declaration with the French government on the independence of the Comoros Islands. As stipulated in the French constitution, a referendum on accession to international sovereignty was held in Comoros on 22 December 1974. The results showed the a vast majority of the population favoured independence, except in Mayotte where the opposite was true. Once the results of the referendum were announced, the Comoran Parliament instituted a complex process for accession to independence, taking into account Mayotte’s refusal to leave the French Republic. President Abdallah, with the support of all Members of Parliament except those from Mayotte, opted for a unilateral declaration of independence on 6 July 1975. Ali Soilihi (from Grande Comoros) seized power from Ahmed Abdallah (who was from Anjouan) with a coup on 3 August 1975. In addition to soured relations with France, the new regime had to cope with simmering inter-island rivalries and the fact that the previous government had eliminated neither the authority of the sultans nor that of the centralized colonial administration. Ali Soilihi neutralized the Anjouan resistance but an attempt to muster support on the rebel island of Mayotte ended in failure. Representatives from Mayotte and Moheli perceived the disparate development of the islands as a consequence of centralized power, which was either in the hands of Grande Comoros or Anjouan. A federal solution therefore became attractive to Mayotte’s dissidents on the eve of independence. Federation offered the possibility of each island preserving its identity by managing its own affairs and assets. But the Comoran authorities staunchly opposed federalism because they viewed it, in light of Mayotte’s dissent, as incorporating the seeds of partition. With President Ahmed Abdallah’s return to power in 1978, federalism re-surfaced as a last recourse for bringing Mayotte into the fold. Although previously Abdallah had rejected federalism as a divisive manoeuvre by the colonizers, in October 1978 he had a federal constitution adopted. The arrangement provided him with strong executive powers and techniques for keeping the federated islands under control. Unfortunately, during Ahmed Abdallah’s leadership, from 13 March 1978 to 27 November 1989 (the date on which he was assassinated), economic problems proliferated. Regionalized investments accentuated the disparities in development and the inequality of opportunity among the different islands. While some enjoyed fortunes amassed under dubious circumstances, poverty was widespread. This led to rebellious behaviour and divisive movements that undermined national unity. Each island had a tendency to defend its interests by opposing those of the overall group. It was this defiant society that Said Mohamed Djohar inherited when he was elected President. In his constant quest for political balance, Djohar governed with contradictory decrees, which resulted in the Supreme Court’s unsuccessful attempt to have him removed from office for incompetence in August 1991. The island of Moheli suffered particularly from this dysfunctional situation. Distanced from an increasingly centralized power and its attendant privileges, Moheli demanded equality for the islands. This demand, coupled with opposition demands, led to the first national conference, which met from January to April 1992, to develop a constitution for the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros. 2. Constitutional Provisions Relating to Federalism From independence to the present day, the Comoros Islands have had four constitutions, two of which were federal in nature. The first was the Constitution of the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros, 1978 to 1989. This constitution was developed with no parliamentary intervention. The constitution was built around the need for national cohesion and outlined a central organization to promote economic growth—two tendencies which indicated that it was a centralized federation. As a result of the 1978 constitution, each island was recognized as an autonomous entity free to administer itself. These entities were known as governorates. Each governorate had an Island Council elected for a four-year term by universal suffrage. The Council was a deliberative assembly that voted on the island’s laws and adopted the local budget. Each island managed its own budget, along with almost all social matters—including, health, education, training, community facilities, etc. A Governor was elected for a five-year term by direct universal suffrage. The Governor administered federal laws and those of the Island Council. He was assisted by commissioners that he appointed himself, who were responsible individually and collectively to him and the Island Council. On a national level, the main offices of the federal state (presidency of the republic, presidency of the Federal Assembly and presidency of the Supreme Court) were divided among the three islands. This same formula applied to the make-up of the central government, where each island had one or more ministers. The government was unicameral and therefore the islands were not represented in a chamber of the central government. The constitution divided jurisdictions among the Governors and the federal government, reserving for the latter and its leader an impressive list of powers and trusts. This seemed to be an attractive arrangement, but the highly uneven distribution of scarce resources between the governorates and the federal state limited the autonomy of the islands. The federal government collected all tax and non-tax resources, as well as international public funding for development. The jurisdiction allocated to the governorates did not include sufficient means for the independent management of each island, and the constitution denied them the possibility of benefiting from foreign aid without the approval of the federal executive, which capitalized on this opportunity for control. Eighty per cent of the governorates’ budgets came from the federal state. The funds were allotted each month, in principle, at the discretion of the Finance Minister. The redistribution of national resources and foreign aid in the form of federal grants was accompanied by central guidelines on how the funds were to be used. This situation gave the central government in Moroni legal authority that penetrated deep into each island’s internal affairs. The increased federal interference by President Ahmed Abdallah reduced autonomy on the islands and stripped the federation of its substance, leaving only the legal entity. In this context, the President met with the 90 members and councillors from the islands in Mrodjou (Grande Comoros) on 24 October 1983, to revise the constitution. The constitution was also revised in 1984 and again in 1989, when the position of Prime Minister was eliminated, and Article 16, which limited the head of state to two successive terms, was also amended. For 11 years, Abdallah’s authority proved invincible. He crushed not only individuals but also the constitutional institutions that could have balanced the ambitions of an authoritarian President with vast powers. The Assembly and the Supreme Court were the trustees of his personal power. Their role was one of consultation—they provided opinions that neither bound the government nor ratified its decisions. The second federal constitution was developed after Abdallah’s assassination—the 1992 Constitution of the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros. This constitution, for once in the history of the Comoros, was developed by a national conference that met in early 1992, and brought together all the political parties and representatives from civil society. Under the 1992 constitution each island was an autonomous territorial entity, governed by a Governor and an Island Council. The Governor was elected for a five-year term by direct universal suffrage, and was eligible to run for one additional term. He ensured that the island’s laws and regulations were respected, represented the island government, and exercised regulatory powers in areas not defined in the constitution as part of the federal domain. The Island Council determined the island’s resources and spending. These included: the proceeds of direct taxation collected on the island; a share of indirect taxes collected throughout the republic; external resources allotted to the island; and a share of external resources allotted to the republic and not specifically designated to one island. Federal law set the share of indirect taxes destined for the federal budget at between 30% and 40%. The remainder was proportionately divided among the islands according to population size. The islands were eligible for grants or other external assistance, with the government’s consent. Each Island Council was elected for five years by direct universal suffrage. It had to be consulted on matters relating to the preparation and application of multi-year economic, cultural and social development programs, and federal public concessions located on the island. The 1992 constitution outlines that the President is to be elected for five years by direct universal suffrage, and gives him a number of roles. The President is to ensure that the constitution is respected and to oversee the regular functioning of public powers and the continuity of the state. He is the guarantor of national independence, the unity of the republic, the autonomy of the islands, and respect for international commitments. The President’s role includes the determination and conduct of foreign policy. Governmental appointments made by the President are to be made with regard for equity and balance among the islands. According to the constitution, the government determines and implements the nation’s policies and controls the federal administration and the armed forces. The government’s actions are directed by a minister appointed by the President from the party with the majority in the Federal Assembly. The government is collectively terminated if the Federal Assembly questions it in a vote of non-confidence by at least one-quarter of the members and an absolute majority vote by the members of the Assembly. The constitution states that the Federal Assembly is elected for four years by direct universal suffrage. In each electoral riding, voters are to elect one member. Ridings are determined by federal law and there can be no fewer than five per island. The right of constitutional amendment is the joint prerogative of both the government and the Federal Assembly. Unlike the earlier constitution, the 1992 constitution provides for a Senate in which the islands have equal representation. Five Senators per island are to be elected for six years by an electoral college consisting of municipal and island councillors. The 1992 constitution gives the Senate some power to change legislation. Thus, laws and other acts which are voted on by the Federal Assembly but contested by all Senators of an island are withdrawn if, upon second reading in the Federal Assembly, they are also contested by a majority of members from the same island. The constitution also created The Council of the Ulema which is an Islamic institution that promotes and protects Islam. Judicial power is independent of executive and legislative power, and justice is rendered on the entire territory in the name of Allah. The High Court of Justice, which includes one-quarter of Assembly members, one-fifth of Senators and high-ranking magistrates, is responsible for trying the President of the Republic, Presidents of the Federal Assembly and the Senate, the Constitutional Council, members of the government, ambassadors and island Governors accused of high treason, crimes or misdemeanours in carrying out their duties. There are a number of other courts outlined in the constitution. Thus there is also a Court of Cassation/Appeal, a State Council, a Court of Auditors and a Court of Conflicts. Decisions made by these bodies cannot be appealed. The Constitutional Council was designed to oversee the constitutionality of laws, rulings, regulatory texts, proceedings on the islands and international commitments. It has also been given the responsibility of monitoring elections for President of the Republic, Assembly members, Governors, island councillors, Senators and municipal councillors. The members of the Constitutional Council are to be appointed for a seven-year term as follows: three by the President of the Republic; three by the President of the Federal Assembly; and one by each Island Council. 3. Recent Political Dynamics A coup on 28 September 1995 ended the rule of President Djohar, who in five years had not succeeded in setting up the democratic institutions set forth in the 1992 constitution and had changed the make-up of his government 17 times. Mohamed Taki Abdulkarim was elected President on 16 March 1996, with a 64 per cent majority. His election sparked great hope for change. In a few months, however, he had amended the constitution to increase his powers and scheduled a ratification referendum in October 1996. The opposition refused to participate, and also ignored the legislative elections in late 1996. Like his predecessors, Taki faced huge social protests rooted in worsening youth unemployment, the growing gap between the ruling class and the poorer classes, and the anger of civil servants who were forced to wait months before getting paid. In the summer of 1997, Anjouan and Moheli were engulfed by rebellion. Taki appealed to the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the League of Arab Nations, the European Union and the United Nations to help settle the crisis. With the OAU’s mediation, an inter-Comoran conference was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in December 1997. The sole result was the adoption of the principle of an inter-island conference to be held as soon as possible, under the auspices of the OAU. Its goal would be to define a new institutional framework. President Mohamed Taki died suddenly in November 1998, and finding a successor proved difficult. According to the constitution, interim President Tadjidine SaVd Ben Massounde, a 70-year-old Anjouan, was not eligible to run in the election, which had to take place within 30 to 90 days. But the prospect of finding another candidate with sufficient support within the given time-frame was unrealistic, given the separatist crises on Anjouan and Moheli. By March 1999, the situation was increasingly confusing: Anjouan was split into two factions, and Grande Comoros itself had succumbed to the virus of separatism. Before the divisiveness could spread even further, the OAU announced that a conference on Comoran reconciliation would take place in Antananarivo, Madagascar from 19-23 April 1999. An agreement-in-principle took shape, in favour of maintaining the territorial integrity of the Comoros Islands. Even the Anjouan and Moheli delegations recognized the principle, with a number of conditions, including a rotating federal presidency and a Federal Assembly designated by the island assemblies. The Anjouan delegation members, however, refused to sign the final declaration, although they agreed in principle, claiming that they needed time to consult the population. On the night of 29-30 April 1999 another coup took place, perpetrated by the Chief of Staff of the Comoran Army, Colonel Assoumani Azzali. This coup meant the removal of the interim President, Prime Minister, the Council of Ministers (appointed by the President), and the dissolution of the Federal Assembly. On 6 May Colonel Azzali made himself leader of a state committee with 12 commissioners. He promised he would apply the Antananarivo agreement, but this has not occurred. The governments of the Comoros have been constantly plagued by the endless rivalries on and between the islands. Despite efforts by the international community, political parties and island movements, the integrity of the country remains threatened. Separatists in both Anjouan and Moheli declared independence in 1997, although these declarations are still unacceptable to the central government. Today there are demands for self-determination coming from all three islands. A tripartite committee is working on a new constitution which will regulate the “Nouvel Ensemble Comorien”. Representatives of the OAU and Francophonie continue to work with the Comoran authorities and civil society in an attempt to reach a reconciliation agreement. Although the country is currently ruled by a constitutional charter developed and custom-tailored by the military leaders who took power in April 1999, a schedule has been established for presidential elections and the establishment of new decentralized institutions to give more autonomy to the islands, and the tripartite committee continues to negotiate a new legal and constitutional framework for the country. 4. Sources for Further Information Abdou Djabir, Les Comoros: un état en construction, Harmattan, 1993. Deval, Raymond, L’islam aux Comoros, Monde et Culture, 1980. Hervé, Chagnou and Ali Haribou,. Les Comores. Que sais-je ? Paris: PUF, 1980. Maurice, Pierre, “Communication sur un séminaire international annuel du 26 novembre 1999: la position de la France et la Communauté internationale B l’égard des îles Comoros”, La Réunion: Saint-Denis. Wadahane. Mayotte et le contentieux entre la France et les Comores, 1994. Constitution of the Federal Islamic Republic of Comoros, 1978. Constitution of the Federal Islamic Republic of Comoros, 1992. Note * The Forum of Federations would like to express its appreciation to Abdourahim Said Bakar for his helpful comments on this article.