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IRIN Briefing on separatist crisis

Country Map - Comoros Island
The Indian Island archipelago is currently led by an interim government (IRIN)

Comoros was rocked by renewed instability over the weekend when the former military ruler on the breakaway Indian Ocean island of Anjouan attempted to retake power. The coup attempt was thwarted by forces loyal to military ruler Major Mohamed Bacar, and Lt-Col Abderemane Said Abeid was forced to flee the island. The failure of the putsch has raised optimism among pro-union parties that a referendum across the archipelago on a new constitution to end the country's secessionist crisis will go ahead in December as scheduled. According to news reports, Abeid's power bid was motivated by a desire to end moves towards reconciliation between Anjouan and the other two Indian Ocean islands that make up the Comoros. The following briefing aims to provide an insight into Comoros' convoluted constitutional crisis. What are the Comoros? An archipelego of four small volcanic islands that lie between the coasts of East Africa and Madagascar, at the mouth of the Mozambique chanel. The French names for the islands, Grande Camore (the most westerly and on which the capital Moroni is situated), Anjouan, Moheli and Mayotte were changed in 1977 to Njazidja, Nzwani, Mwali and Mahore respectively, although the former names are still widely used. The authority of the Federal Islamic Republic of the Comoros is internationally recognised to extend over three of the islands. The fourth, Mayotte, remains a French territory but is claimed by Moroni. The 692,000-strong population of the Comoros are of mixed descent: African, Arab and Malagasy. Although Arabic and French are the official languages, the primary spoken tongue is the Comorian dialect of Swahili. The great majority of the people, except on Mayotte where Christianity is common, are Muslim. Why the fuss? Abeid's failed putch, launched from Mayotte, was the latest in at least 20 attempted coups on the Comoros since independence in 1975. The concern among pro-unionist groups across the archipelego was that if Abeid had succeeded, he would have torn up the Fomboni agreement signed in February 2001 aimed at formally reinstating the Comoros as one federated entity, ending three years of secessionist strife. Abeid's coup appears to have been a last ditch attempt of the Anjouan diaspora, which constitutes the hardcore of the pro-Anjouan independence movement, to retake control of the island. A more cynical view is that separatism has proved lucrative, with the political leadership profiting from the activities of international criminal syndicates. What's the background to the separatist problem? In 1997, clashes on Anjouan between separatist demonstrators and the security forces escalated into a full-scale secessionist movement on the islands of Anjouan and Moheli. Behind the demand for either a return to French rule, or the status of micro-states in association with France, was the political and economic failings of the Comoros. An underlying cause of the unrest was the Moroni government's attempt to centralise the administration of the archipelego, which was seen by some as a bid for political and administrative supremacy by Grande Comore. Underdevelopment was also a trigger. Comoros is a poor agriculture-dependent economy. The export of vanilla, ylang-ylang and cloves is the principal source of foreign exchange (90 percent). The relative economic wealth of French-controlled Mayotte contrasts with Anjouan for example, the poorest of the islands. When hardliners on Grande Comore sent troops to Anjouan to end the rebellion in September 1997, barricades were thrown up and the invasion beaten off. A separatist government was announced a month later led by Abdallah Ibrahim. A referendum on a separatist constitution was carried by a reported 99.5 percent of the votes. However, in 1998 splits emerged within the island's political leadership leading to violent clashes between those favouring union with France and those supporting Ibrahim and independence within the framework of an association of Comoran islands. France repeatedly rejected the demands for reincorporation, but Paris is widely seen by people on Moroni as intent on undermining national unity. By the end of the year, the tension on Anjouan had degenerated into armed clashes between rival militia which left several dead. In mid-June 1999, Lt-Col Abderemane Said Abeid, a French-trained officer and citizen, formed a government of national unity on the island. What have been the diplomatic moves? In April 1999 the Organisation of African Unity OAU sponsored an inter-island conference in Antananarivo, Madagascar. An agreement was reached to re-unite the archipelego within one year as the Union of the Comoros Islands, with the presidency rotating among the three islands every three years and each island having their own parliament. The union would be responsible for sovereignty, defence, the currency and most aspects of foreign affairs. However, the Anjouan delegate failed to sign the accord, on the grounds of a need for consultation at home. The refusal to ratify led to several days of violent protest in Moroni, in which the 70,000-strong Anjouanese community was targeted. In a response to the "chaos", the army Chief of Staff Colonel Assoumani Azzali seized power in a bloodless coup, deposing President Tadjidine Ben Said Massoundi. Was anything tougher tried to end the separatist crisis? Yes, the OAU threatened sanctions if Anjouan did not sign the Antananarivo accord by 1 February 2000. The leadership responded with a referendum in January 2000 in which it claimed 94.7 percent voted for full independence for the island. The OAU refused to recognise the ballot citing reports of intimidation, and OAU-backed sanctions on the movement of goods and people were imposed by Moroni. The OAU's annual summit in 2000 recommended military action to end Anjouan's secession, and in August 2000 plans were prepared by a regional contact group led by South Africa for a naval blockade. What was the response? The February embargo resulted in a crackdown by the authorities in Anjouan on anti-separatists - including their expulsion from the island. However, the threat of naval action prompted a new round of negotiations between representatives of the military government in Moroni and the Anjouanese separatist leaders. In a series of talks in Moheli's main town of Fomboni, a reconciliation agreement was reached based on the Antananarivo framework. But, opposition supporters on both Anjouan and Grande Camore condemned the "declaration of intent" as a "gimmick" designed to keep both military governments in power. The Anjouan authorities lashed out at their critics and more than 100 people were detained. Why are there doubts about Colonel Azzali's intentions? He took power in April 1999 promising to hand over to a civilian government a year later. He is still there. What is the Fomboni agreement? Finally signed on February 2001 between the political leaders on all three islands, the agreement stipulated the adoption of a new constitution clarifying their relationship with a central government to be put to a referendum. The accord offers wide autonomy to each island in return for national unity. Under the deal brokered by the OAU and la Francophonie, the community of French-speaking countries, the parties agreed that Colonel Azzali would head a transitional administration. The administration would oversee the establishment of an electoral commission, constitutional commission and a mechanism to collect small arms from militia men. The current regimes in Moroni and Anjouan would remain in place until the referendum. But its members who wanted to run for elections would have to resign a week after the results of the referendum are publicised. A new transition government would then be formed to oversee the installation of the new institutions. Its members would not be allowed to stand for elections. Where are we now? In August 2001, amid growing popular rejection of his regime, Colonel Abeid was overthrown on Anjouan and fled to Mayotte. Major Bacar emerged as the new military leader. He has reconfirmed his commitment to the December referendum on the draft constitution. At his request, UNDP has resumed an electoral census preparation on the island. However, diplomatic sources warn that Bacar's power base is fragile and the disarmament of militia in Anjouan is a priority. But on Grande Comore, doubts continue to be expressed over Azzali's political ambition and its impact on the transition. Analysts point out that the Fomboni agreement is not a precise document, and is open to interpretation. The international community is looking to have issues of presidential candidacies tightened by a "follow-up committee", particularly should Azzali stand. The order and chronology of upcoming elections also needs to be clarified. But there remains real concern over the stability of the Comoros in the post referendum period if mechanisms for the transfer of power are not ironed out, political sources warn.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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