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Government considers military option to resolve electoral crisis

[Comoros] The south shore of Nzwani, between Sima and Moya.
Storm clouds gather over the Comoros (Martin Ottenheimer)

A military solution to end the burgeoning electoral crisis on the Indian Ocean island of Anjouan, one of three islands comprising the Union of Comoros, is being considered by the government, IRIN has reliably learned.

Grand Comore and Moheli islands held scheduled elections on Sunday 10 June, but Anjouan's poll was initially postponed by a week after deadly clashes between Union government forces and the island's para-military police.

The archipelago's complex electoral system was brokered in 2001 by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), in the wake of Moheli and
Anjouan seceding from Grand Comore in 1997. The electoral system provides for a semi-autonomous government and president for each island - Anjouan, Grand Comore and Moheli - with a rotating presidency for the over-arching Union government.

The Comoros constitutional court approved 31 candidates to contest the individual island elections: 18 for Grande Comore, eight for Anjouan and five for Moheli. Mohamed Bacar, 45, elected president of Anjouan in 2002, was asked to step down by the court on grounds that he had served his five-year term, and nominated an interim president to head the island's government until the elections were held.

Illegal election

Bacar refused to step down, printed his own ballot papers and went ahead with the election, despite a declaration by the African Union (AU) - the OAU's predecesor -  and the Union government that the Anjouan poll would be deemed invalid.
 

''We don't have the forces to remove him, but, believe me,  the day we have the forces, whether from the African Union - when we have the mandate - or our own forces, when we will be strong enough to do so, we will remove him[Bacar] by all means''

The AU withdrew a 40-strong contingent of South African policemen sent to monitor Anjouan's election, and the Union government prevented the dispatch of electoral material to hinder the holding of any ballot on the island.

Events leading up to Anjouan's poll included the inability of candidates to campaign freely and the sacking of the national radio offices, during which four of its journalists were detained and allegedly tortured.

The airport was also blocked to prevent the Union's president, Ahmed Abdallah Sambi, and the AU troop commander from visiting the island.

Bacar has claimed a landslide victory of 90 percent and is planning to hold his presidential inauguration on Thursday.

Military loyalties

Francisco Madeira, AU special envoy,  and representatives of the Arab League, held negotiations with Bacar on Monday and Tuesday this week to try and defuse the political crisis.

Bacar, Anjouan's former chief of police and a participant in the island's 2001 military coup before being elected as the island president the following year, is said to command "100 percent loyalty" from the gendarmerie. Apart from a few hundred gendarmes, who possess heavy weapons in their armoury, the island also has an armed militia thought to be about 500-strong.

His investment in military power has skewed the balance of military forces between the island and Union forces, and his younger brother, Abdou, commands Anjouan's security forces.

Idi Nidhom, the vice-president of the Comoros, reportedly said this week: "We don't have the forces to remove him but, believe me, the day we have the forces, whether from the African Union - when we have the mandate - or our own forces, when we will be strong enough to do so, we will remove him [Bacar] by all means."

The UN Resident Coordinator in the Comoros, Opia Mensah Kumah, told IRIN the Union government had indicated that even if Bacar agreed to new elections on Anjouan in the next few days, it was unlikely a free and transparent election could be held on 17 June and a more realistic date of  24 June had been suggested.

"The crisis is very serious and not just for Anjouan, which some have characterised as police state, but for the entire union," Kumah said. "The UN has a development mission here in the Comoros, and a protracted political dispute impacts negatively on our work and effectiveness."

Unity versus separation

Political analyst Ahmed Thabit told IRIN it was "evident" that the Comoran forces were not strong enough to combat Bacar, "but once he knows the AU is serious about force, he will seek a compromise ... Bacar has become a rebel and he cannot be allowed to take the whole country hostage."

Ahmed said the Comorian political system, with its three presidents and governments, plus a national union government, was not only unaffordable in a country ranked 132 out of 177 in the UN's Human Development Index, but also fomented the very divisions it sought to allay.

"Every island believes in a wide autonomy, but not to the extent that every island has its own government," he said. The prevailing political system, especially when it came to paying for services such as electricty and water, created a "tug-of-war" between the different governments, which worked against unity.
 

''Everybody boycotted the [illegal Anjouan] election and only very few people cast their votes, as they knew voting would be tantamount to agreeing to separation''

Ahmed said there was a groundswell among the Comorans for greater unity between the islands and a return to elected governors, as was the case under the 1978 constitution, instead of island presidents. "Everybody is fed up with Bacar, even on Anjouan they are fed up."

"Everybody boycotted the [illegal Anjouan] election and only a very few people cast their votes, as they knew voting would be tantamount to agreeing to separation,"  Ahmed said.

The geographical position of the Comoros at the northern entrance of the Mozambican Channel made it a haven for pirates before it was colonised by France in 1841. After 130 years of colonial rule, during which its strategic importance waned with the opening of the Suez canal, the islands gained independence in 1975 but has experienced three decades of instability with 19 successful and attempted coups.

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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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