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Hope of political peace from Moroni summit

[Comoros] Mosque beside Moroni Harbour
Business fears instability will keep investors away from Moroni (Andrew Masters)

Almost three years after a deal was struck between leaders in the Comoros to resolve a secessionist crisis, political stability continues to escape the troubled Indian Ocean archipelego. A protracted dispute pits federal President Azali Assoumani against Grande Comore President Abdou Soule Elbak over the respective powers of their offices. Elbak has accused Assoumani of riding roughshod over the country's recently adopted constitution. On the other hand, supporters of the federal government claim that Elbak – relatively new to politics on the main island - is being manipulated by a small group of detractors, whose aim is to derail the fragile peace process and eventually oust Assoumani from power. Commentators have remarked that the infighting, now entering its second year, has deteriorated into a mudslinging match between the two politicians. They say the long-running standoff has delayed economic development, as investors remain wary of the precarious political situation in the country. The principal disagreements between Assoumani and Elbak concern the distribution of national revenues, and authority over law enforcement and national security. In December 2001, 75 percent of voters overwhelmingly approved a decentralised constitution, mainly aimed at cooling attempts by Anjouan and Moheli - two of the archipelago's three islands - to secede. The basis of the settlement was the Fomboni agreement, signed in February 2001, which outlined a plan for devolving political power in the Comoros. Under the new constitution, the federal presidency rotates between the three islands on a four-year basis. The first president was to be elected from Grande Comore. Each island has its own president; the federal president has overall authority. Assoumani's union government, which acts as the umbrella authority for the islands' administrations, has control of finances and the archipelago's security apparatus. However, Elbak has pointed to provisions in the constitution which stipulate that local authorities are solely responsible for tax collection on their respective islands. He has also called for shared control of the country's army. The counterargument put forward by Assoumani's government is that only a national assembly would be in a position to clarify the functions of each authority, but the country is without a parliament because the ongoing dispute has forced the delay of legislative elections. Following protracted negotiations between the African Union (AU) and Comoros political leaders, there was an apparent breakthrough in August. Under the provisions of a draft document, signed in South Africa, the federal government would maintain control over the country's army, but the police will be administered by local presidents. Another key compromise was the decision to set up a provisional customs council to facilitate the fair distribution of revenue among the three islands. However, the consensus between Elbak and Assoumani was short-lived. In November Elbak led a march to the federal government's offices to protest against alleged rights abuses. In the melee that ensued between police and protesters 14 people were injured. "In this case the devil is definitely in the detail. Although a worthwhile experiment, this system of decentralisation leaves a lot up to the imagination - and it doesn't help much that that country's leaders fail to see that clarity will only be reached through constant dialogue and compromise. Much of this stubbornness appears to be fuelled by personal agendas, which has nothing to do with long-term political stability in the country," former politician Abdorohim Bacar told IRIN. He noted that, while commendable, interventions by the AU and the rest of the international community would come to nought without "the political will from both camps" to enter serious negotiations. According to Bacar, the political detente between Assoumani and Elbak is not without precendent. "A close reading of politics in the Comoros since independence shows that it's never really been about government policies, probably because most of the leaders over the years weren't in power long enough to come up with a viable plan for economic development. So in the end, Comorian politics - and we see it today - comes down to indivduals who use personal and inter-island rivalry to secure their legitimacy," Bacar explained. Since gaining independence from France in 1975, the archipelago has endured some 20 actual or attempted coups. In 1997, the leaders of Anjouan and Moheli unilaterally declared their independence from the federal republic which, according to them, was dominated by the residents of Grande Comore. Anjouan secessionists claimed they did not receive fair compensation by the central government from the export of ylang-ylang flowers, used internationally in the manufacturing of perfume. With secessionism threatening to fragment the country, Assoumani, then army chief of staff, led a bloodless coup in April 1999. Four years later he remains in power and, according to Bacar, his popularity among Comorians remains unchallenged. "Assoumani's appeal is his ability to articulate a vision for the country. I think the people of Comoros are tired of this fluid state of affairs, which has often resulted in uncertainty. Of course, there are those who complain that his style of governance is too autocratic. However, he maintains credibility, which is a lot more than some of the leaders in the past," Bacar told IRIN. There are more than a dozen opposition parties, but their failure to offer any meaningful challenge to the government has given rise to a plethora of civic groups, the most vocal being the Citizens Initiative (CI). Founded in 1997, at the height of the secession crisis, the group has recently been involved in several attempts to get Elbak and Assoumani back to the negotiating table. "We have no hidden political agenda but to see peace come to the country. It is shortsighted to see our efforts at mediation as an attempt to insert ourselves into politics. The exit out of this problem is, quite simply, dialogue and more dialogue," CI director Abdollah Attoumane told IRIN. CI said one of the shortcomings of Assoumani's government was its failure to engage with civil society in any meaningful way. "The authorities remain suspicious of any group outside of the government - whether this is a sign of political immaturity or not is unclear, but we will continue to exert pressure until this problem between Elbak and Assoumani is resolved," Attoumane added. The apparent aloofness of the government is also a complaint levelled by the local employers association, who lamented that it was "almost impossible" to meet with the finance ministry to express their grievances. Earlier this year traders in the capital, Moroni, protested against double taxation, complaining that the current dispute between the federal and local government over tax collection had resulted in them being taxed twice. "Because we have no access to the government it is impossible to know if, in fact, they are aware of some of the difficulties the private sector is faced with. We would like to build a partnership with the authorities, but our attempts so far have either been ignored or rebuffed," said Sitti Chihabiddine, secretary-general of OPAC0, the county's largest employer organisation. Meanwhile, there is hope that an upcoming meeting in Moroni tentatively scheduled for 20 December, could bring an end to months of political deadlock. "This meeting will once and for all finalise how things should be run, and who should be responsible for particular functions. Then we can get on with our work," government communications director, Kaarubi Roubani told IRIN.

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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