The Comorian archipelago has long been an important hub of trade between East Africa and Asia. Its eclectic mix of East African, Arabic and Malagasy cultures has allowed the Union of the Comoros, also known as Comoros, to maintain strong ties to both the Arab world and Africa. 

Comoros or Juzr al-Qamar, the “Islands of the Moon” in Arabic, is located approximately 180 miles off the coast of East Africa, and is composed of three major islands: Grande Comore, Mohéli, and Anjouan—or Ngazidja, Mwali, and Ndzuwani in Swahili. Today, the island nation is a member of both the Arab League and the African Union. 

Although Comoros still lays claim to Mayotte, the archipelago’s fourth major island, it remains administered by France. In 1843, France officially took possession of Mayotte. After negotiations with European colonial powers, the other three islands in the Comorian archipelago came under French rule in 1886. Comoros was administratively attached to Madagascar in 1912, and, in 1947, became an overseas territory with representation in the French National Assembly. 

France granted “internal autonomy” to the islands of the Comorian archipelago in 1961 in response to their independence campaign in the 1950s. The unrest that characterized the pre- and post-colonial era in the archipelago has continued to undermine Comoros’ potential to this day. 

The Rocky Road to Democracy

In 1974, majorities on Grande Comore, Mohéli, and Anjouan voted for independence from France, while the population of the fourth island, Mayotte, voted to stay under French rule. On July 6, 1975, Ahmed Abdallah Abderemane (elected president of the Comorian Government in 1972 when the archipelago was still under French rule) unilaterally declared the whole archipelago’s independent and became the country’s first president. A month later, on August 3, 1975, Abdallah was overthrown by Saïd Mohamed Jaffar with the help of French soldier and mercenary Colonel Robert Denard. 

The island nation became the 143rd country to join the United Nations (UN), in November 1975. While the UN recognized all four islands of the Comorian archipelago as one nation, France rejected Comoros’ claim to Mayotte, which ultimately led to the deterioration of relations between Paris and Moroni, the Comorian capital.

While the struggle between France and Comoros persisted, the island nation soon found itself once again in the midst of an internal power struggle. In January 1976, Jaffar was deposed by Ali Soilih. Two years later, in May 1978, Denard and a group of European mercenaries led a coup that killed Soilih and returned exiled former President Abdallah to power. 

Eventually, diplomatic relations between Moroni and Paris resumed, and Comoros drew up a new constitution. Abdallah was re-elected president in late 1978 and again in 1984. After three failed coup attempts, Abdallah was assassinated in November 1989. Comoros held multiparty presidential elections in 1990 and Saïd Mohamed Djohar became the country’s first democratically elected president. 

Denard disrupted Comorian politics once more when he led a coup that deposed Djohar in September 1995. The French, however, defused the coup, captured Denard and his mercenaries and restored Djohar. Presidential elections took place again in Comoros in 1996 and Mohamed Abdoulkarim Taki took office. 

Trouble in Paradise: A Divided Union

Comoros Islands location in map of Africaiplomacy

Secessionist movements on the islands of Anjouan and Mohéli declared their own independence from Comoros in August 1997. Despite the federal government’s military attempt to suppress them and international organizations’ mediation efforts, the secessionists movements persisted. Two years later, in 1999, military chief Colonel Azali Assoumani staged a bloodless coup, seizing control of the entire government. 

The 2001 constitution, also known as the Fomboni Accords, was specifically tailored to “put an end to the cycles of violence” that had earned Comoros the title of “the coup-coup islands.” Comorians aspired to achieve political stability by implementing a power-sharing agreement that rotated the federal presidency among the three islands.  In this system, the president of the Union is assisted by three vice presidents from Grande Comore, Mohéli, and Anjouan, with each island maintaining its own autonomous local government. 

In 2002, Colonel Assoumani, from Grand Comore Island, won the federal election and became the president of Comoros. After Assoumani’s term ended in 2006, Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, from Anjouan, took over as the president of the Union. The fragile Comorian power-sharing system appeared threatened when the federal government ordered the postponement of Anjouan’s local presidential election, after violent incidents and evidence of voter intimidation emerged. Mohamed Bacar, Anjouan’s local president at the time, ignored the government’s request to step down. 

Instead, he held an election in Anjouan in June 2007 and was declared the winner. Both the Comorian federal government and the African Union (AU) rejected that outcome and demanded that new elections be held—a request Bacar refused. When the AU’s sanctions and naval blockade of Anjouan also failed, AU and Comorian soldiers seized the island in March 2008 and Bacar fled the country. The following year, the Comorian population voted to extend the country’s presidential term from four years to five years.  

Controversial Government Reforms

In 2010, the presidential term rotated to the island of Mohéli, and Ikililou Dhoinine won the presidency. He was inaugurated in May 2011. After closely contested elections in 2016, the rotating presidency returned to Grande Comore, and former President Assoumani won a second presidential term. Tensions between Assoumani and his opponents escalated in April 2018 when he suspended the country’s Constitutional Court, declaring it “dysfunctional.”

Assoumani announced in June 2018 that a constitutional referendum to implement controversial reforms would be held a month later. Despite an opposition boycott and numerous voting irregularities, Ahmed Mohamed Djaza, the head of the Independent National Electoral Commission said that 92.7 percent of the 63.9 percent of Comorians who voted in the July 30 referendum favored changing the constitution. 

The new reforms allow Assoumani to replace the power-sharing system established in 2001 with one that allows future presidents to serve up to two consecutive five-year terms. The reforms also allow Assoumani to scrap other constitutional checks and balances, such as the country’s three vice presidencies and the secular government clause, confirming Islam’s position as the “religion of the state.” Comoros will hold yet another presidential election on March 24, this year. If Assoumani wins, the new constitutional modifications would allow him to stay in power until 2029. After the assassination attempt on his life earlier this month, the increasing violence in Comoros could further perpetuate political instability and exacerbate dire economic and social conditions in the archipelago.