30 September, 2014

The Comoros Islands: Interlinked Domestic, Regional and Global Security Issues

by Virgil Hawkins

Don't be fooled by the relatively small size of the country, and its virtual absence from media coverage and discussions on peace and security in the region and beyond. The Comoros archipelago, situated in the Mozambique Channel, has a host of complex security issues that make it very relevant.

The Comoron capital, Moroni

Ostensibly freed from French colonial rule in 1975, the independence of the Comoros did not exactly signify a clean break. One of the four islands of the archipelago (Mayotte, or Mahoré) voted in a controversial referendum in 1974 to remain under French rule. As the United Nations granted membership to the Comoros, its General Assembly also recognized Comoran claims to the island. France has ignored the resolution. Since independence, the Comoros has experienced at least twenty coups and attempted coups. Four of these were led by French mercenary, Bob Denard, who, at least initially acted with the tacit support of the French government. The latest coup attempt, in April 2013, involved French mercenary Patrick Klein, who worked under the now late Bob Denard.

But it is not just such meddling by the French government and some of its citizens that has threatened the stability of the Comoros. With three islands under the control of the government (Grand Comore, Moheli and Anjouan), the country has always been faced with the challenge of maintaining unity and the perception of an even balance of power. Coups have resulted from frustration that power has been unfairly concentrated on the largest island, Grand Comore, as have a number of separatist attempts by the islands of Moheli and Anjouan, the latest of which was eventually crushed with the aid of an intervention by African Union forces in 2008. A new constitution in 2001 created the Union of the Comoros, giving greater autonomy to each of the islands.

The island remaining under French rule, Mayotte, is now a French Overseas Department, and an outermost region of the European Union. It also hosts a detachment of the French Foreign Legion. Thanks to French financial assistance, the island has a per-capita GDP that is ten times greater than the other islands of the archipelago. This huge gap in wealth and has resulted in waves of largely illegal migration from the Union of the Comoros to Mayotte (a visa is required), with people seeking jobs, medical care, and/or a generally better life. As a representative of the Comoran Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted, “poverty knows no borders”. Thousands have died in unsuccessful attempts to reach Mayotte by boat. Mayotte also appears to be serving to some degree as a hub for the smuggling of drugs destined for Europe.

A billboard in Moroni: "Mayotte is Comoran and forever will be"

As if these problems were not enough, the threat of Somali piracy, thankfully now in decline, also reached the Mozambique Channel and Comoros. Understandably complicated relations between Comoros and France were set aside to overcome this issue, with a military cooperation agreement reached between the two countries, aimed at enhancing the protection of the territorial waters of Comoros.

The issue of a potential 'terrorist threat' (the particular variety perceived as being connected to Islamic extremism) is also being raised, both within and outside of the Comoros. The country, in which as much as 99 percent of the population belongs to the Muslim faith, has not had a past associated with Islamic extremism or connections with international 'terrorism'. A poll of gender experts, for example, found Comoros to be the best country in the Arab world to be a woman. But the fact that many Comoran students have been undertaking religious studies in countries that do face issues of Islamic extremism – a number of Gulf states, Pakistan and Sudan, for example – has been giving some cause for concern. It is worth noting that Al Qaeda's former top commander in East Africa, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, was of Comoran origin.

From a slightly broader perspective, it is interesting to note that, for a variety of geopolitical reasons, the Comoros and the Western Indian Ocean region at large have been increasingly attracting the attention of many of the world's powerful players. The ever-present French relationship aside, development aid is naturally one of the manifestations of the interest of other powers. China has a long history of aid to the Comoros, for example, and this has recently included a large-scale malaria eradication scheme. India keeps a close watch on China's influence in the region (it has listening stations in Madagascar, Mauritius and Seychelles), and has stepped in with with soft loans for development projects. Gulf states are also stepping up their assistance, with Qatar opening an embassy in the capital, Moroni, in August 2014. Closer to home, Tanzania, which has significant historical and cultural ties with the country, also established an embassy in 2013.

With such interconnected domestic, regional and global peace and security issues, we would do well to include the Comoros in our consideration of the region. Last week, it was announced, without a reason being given, that legislative elections scheduled for December this year, were being postponed by three months. Let's hope it is a simple technicality and not a sign of any further political instability on the archipelago.

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