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Old battleground, new players

Old battleground, new players
  • PublishedJune 1, 2018

The Comoros, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean, is often referred to as Africa’s ‘forgotten nation’ but its strategic location has attracted various powers over a long history. It is now again embroiled in power struggles involving outside players. Arthur Bickersteth reports.

Comoros’ strategic geographic location has been both a blessing and a curse. Merchants have long provided Comoros with trade, but this shared space marks the confluence of residual European interests, re-emerging Arab influence and old domestic rivalries.

“The struggle to recover my country’s sovereignty waits for no-one but us,” said a student protester to La Gazette des Comores during peaceful demonstrations against French deportations of Comorians from the Department of Mayotte last month. The Department of Mayotte is part of the four islands that make up Comoros. The Comorian government blocked the entry of the deportees, claiming that Mayotte is part of its sovereignty.

Bold as the student’s words may be, he faces a formidable challenge. The European presence in the Indian Ocean dates back to the Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, who rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498.

Da Gama’s historic journey was a watershed moment, but merchants, traders and explorers were nothing new in this part of the world. Sea-borne trade had always been the lifeblood of the Indian Ocean; African and Arab dhows had been crisscrossing it for hundreds of years. Monsoon winds and ocean currents carried intrepid merchants to their fortunes, or demise.

Until the present, the desperately poor Comoros has struggled to break free from the influence of these historical powers. France refuses to cede control over neighbouring Mayotte, undermining what Comorians view as their territorial integrity. Gulf Arabs have returned – this time not in dhows but private jets – offering shady business deals instead of spices.

Lying strategically along crucial trading routes, the Union of the Comoros is separated from its nearest neighbours, Mozambique and Madagascar, by hundreds of kilometres of ocean. While  isolated, the Comoros have always been connected to the wider Indian Ocean arena, where Arab, African, European and Asian interests converged. These cultures each left legacies, and continue to influence and shape the Comoros to this day.

Same crisis, different sea

The distance from Anjouan, Comoros’ second largest island, to Mayotte is 70 kilometres. This should be a straightforward hop between two neighbouring islands. But it isn’t. Since 1995, according to a French Senate report, between 7,000 and 10,000 lives were lost making this crossing. Other estimates are significantly higher.

This journey is as symbolic as it is treacherous. The small boats departing from Comoros, known locally as kwassa kwassa, are transporting migrants. Like the migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean from the shores of North Africa, these are migrants driven by the hope of a better future and a new life, one that they believe begins in the French département of Mayotte – a little-known frontier in Europe’s migrant crisis.

The French came to Comoros in 1841, but it was not until 1912 that it officially became a colony. This lasted until 1974 when the islands voted to become independent, with the exception of Mayotte, whose residents opted to remain part of France.

Mayotte has long been a sour point between the Comorian and the French governments. UN Resolutions have been passed asserting Comorian sovereignty. France, unsurprisingly, chooses to ignore them.

The situation fundamentally changed in 2014, when Mayotte became the 101st département of France. The islanders, known as Mahorais, now had the same rights as French citizens on the mainland.

Anti-migrant protests

Over the past few weeks, a series of protests has brought Mayotte to a standstill. Fuel shortages, roadblocks, and general strikes have all become part of daily life.

Behind this civil disobedience is a deep-seated resentment that the Mahorais harbour for Comorian migrants. The Comorians are seen as responsible for rising crime, not to mention being a drain on health and social services.

After Mayotte became a département in 2014, the island saw a dramatic upsurge in migration. A large number of pregnant women now make the crossing from Comoros. They hope to give birth on French soil, thus conferring French and EU nationality on their child: 70% of babies born in Mayotte’s biggest hospital are born to migrant women.

The Mayotte protests have coincided with an alarming rise in right-wing sentiment in France. The National Front, an anti-immigration party headed by Marine le Pen, fared well during the recent presidential run-off, taking 43% of the vote. This is somewhat surprising given the racist rhetoric associated with le Pen’s campaign, but the anti-immigrant message seemingly struck a chord with the local Mahorais.

Le Pen recently stated in the National Assembly that Mayotte, “is today the French Lampedusa”, drawing comparisons to the Mediterranean migrant crisis. She added that the French Navy could be deployed to intercept migrants en route to Mayotte.

The French government is understandably keen to see a return to normality. But government statements of “profonde détresse” and “réelle désespérance”, as well as a visit by the Overseas Minister, Annick Girardin, have done little to quell the frustration of the protesters.

The dispute escalated last month as when Comoros refused to accept deported migrants, it also reasserted its rights to Mayotte and the “unity and territorial integrity of the Archipelago of Comoros”.

Inequality and instability

The driving force behind this wave of migration is primarily economic; according to the IMF, Comoros is among the 10 poorest countries in the world. And seventy kilometres changes everything. The GDP per capita of Mayotte is over 12 times larger than that of Comoros. The Mahorais, as French citizens, get access to healthcare, education and social welfare. It is hardly surprising that the grass looks so much greener in Mayotte.

Years of political instability have been a key factor in hindering Comoros’ economic development. Famously, Comoros has witnessed over 20 coups d’état since independence. These included four led by the notorious French mercenary, Bob Denard; the self- proclaimed “corsair of the Republic” is said to have launched attacks from everything including trawlers, dinghies and even bicycles. An attempted coup in 1995 culminated in 3,000 French troops being sent to the islands to reinstall the legitimate President and capture Denard along with his 33 men.

French backing for his coups has always been suspected. Certainly at times he received financial support from the French government on the grounds it promoted Françafrique – the policy of protecting French interests in Africa.

During a trial, when asked if the government was aware of his plots, he described being given “an amber light”; no official approval, but no objection. It is little wonder that Comorian-French relations remain strained, given this history of interference.

Corrupt passport deal

Comoros has long and historic ties to the Arab world: 98% of its population is Muslim, it is a member of the Arab League and Arabic is an official language. But recent developments have seen Comoros being drawn into Middle Eastern disputes thousands of kilometres away.

Last October, Mohamed Hussein Bloushu landed in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport, transiting on his way to Comoros. Bloushu was born in the UAE but has a Comorian passport. Over six months later, he is still at the Kenyan airport. Neither Comoros nor the UAE view him as a legitimate citizen.

Bloushu seems to be a particularly unfortunate victim of a controversial, recently scrapped citizenship scheme concocted by the Comoros and two foreign governments – the murky details of which have come to light in recent weeks. A Reuters investigation exposed a corrupt deal to sell Comorian citizenship to stateless people of Kuwait and UAE. These stateless people – known as the bidoon – have lived their whole lives in their country of birth but never obtained citizenship.

Alex Boodrookas, a PhD candidate studying Gulf history at New York University, said that controlling citizenship has historically been used by Gulf states to “reinforce their own power… and try to shape political blocs dependent on royal largesse”. The granting and stripping of citizenship has long been used as a tool of political control.

Alarmingly, the removal and denial of citizenship has not been limited to the bidoon, but extends to members of the opposition. The New York Times has described the scheme as a “frightening precedent”, while Boodrookas noted that it has been a “terribly effective way to suppress dissent”.

The wealthy Gulf monarchies were not only using Comoros to solve the citizenship problem – they were also securing Comoros’ political support.

After agreeing the citizenship deal, the Comorian government came out against Iran and Qatar, longstanding rivals of Kuwait and the UAE. Defence Minister Yousuf Mohamed Ali announced that the Comoros plans to confront Iran “with determination and firmness”. This is despite previous warm relations: former Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visited Comoros in 2009. Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to Comoros. All over Africa, wealthy nations are using their financial power to gain political influence: with Eritrean ports being used by the UAE, Sudanese troops fighting for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Qatar investing millions in Somalia…

The economic citizenship deal offered clear benefits to Comoros, with the government receiving around $5,000 per passport. 52,000 passports were issued; this should have led to revenue of $260m – the equivalent of 40% of the nation’s GDP. Yet Reuters discovered that the Comorian government never received much of this money. A parliamentary commission into the now suspended programme has accused ‘mafia networks’ of selling passports illegally. Two previous Presidents are also suspected of embezzling public funds – over $100m is missing.  Not for the first time, poor governance and corruption are stifling the economic development of this desperately impoverished island state.

Outside interference has left Comoros facing a number of grave challenges. Like many African states, it continues to grapple with a dark history that influences the nation’s present. Breaking free from this cycle of exploitation is Comoros’ best bet for a more stable and prosperous future.  NA

Written By
New African

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