For almost two years the Indian Ocean nation of Comoros has been set on a path of political oppression as the government seeks to centralise power. Events this summer, including a highly controversial referendum to change the constitution, have compounded the crisis and violent protests now threaten the stability of the archipelago. As of yet the situation has largely gone unreported. New African’s Tom Collins was in the capital Moroni.
Clearly emblazoned upon the national flag of the Union of the Comoros, one of Africa’s smallest Indian Ocean nations, are four stars representing the archipelago’s four islands: Grand Comore, Anjouan, Mohéli and the French-contested island of Mayotte. The flag itself is a symbolic reminder of a hard-won power sharing arrangement, enshrined in a new constitution, which brought an end to a turbulent cycle of no less than 20 coups since independence from France in 1975. Signed in 2001 and referred to as the Fomboni Agreement, the accord sought to guarantee each islands’ autonomy within the larger context of a federal union. Importantly, the presidency of the union was limited to five-year terms rotating consecutively between the three main islands.
Now, after nearly two decades of peace and democracy, this security is being threatened by recent moves from President Azali Assoumani to illegally extend power beyond the limits of the constitution. Moroni, the sleepy capital, has since been gripped by a climate of fear and repression. As legislation is bundled through the national assembly, political prisoners are many and civil liberties few. While rumours of armed separatists circle, the country finds itself at a tipping point as moderates cry out for help from the international community to mitigate Azali’s power grab before it’s too late.
Slide to diktat
Azali has served as president twice before; initially rising to office as head of a 1999 coup and then in a contested election in 2002. Many see his third term as means to fulfill previous ambitions of securing power indefinitely. “We understand now why he wants to stay in power,” says Mohammed Msaidie, Secretary General of the opposition Convention for the Renewal of Comoros party. “Because he had regretted not seizing power by force when he was President the first time.”
With these goals in sight, Azali held a National Conference in February under the guise of taking stock of the country’s social and economic development. In reality, however, these meetings were used to push forward the political agenda of dismantling the 2001 constitution by way of referendum. In July this year the referendum was held and the government succeeded in changing the constitution while claiming an extraordinary percentage of the vote.
“They have told us that 92% voted to approve the new constitution,” comments Hassani Hamadi Mgori, Governor of Grande Comore. “This is an absolute lie.” Indeed, these numbers stand in stark contrast to testimonies of a nation-wide boycott and hugely diverging results recorded by independent observers. “Electoral observers, commissioned by the AU whom I had in my office noted that by 3.30pm only two villages had more than 30 voters,” continues the Governor. “The percentage did not go beyond 6% which is therefore fraud and theft of the citizens’ right to decide.”
Yet these concerns were quickly brushed aside. Earlier moves by Azali to transfer electoral duties from the Constitutional Court; whose members are democratically elected, to a new Constitutional Chamber within the Supreme Court; whose members are appointed by the President, saw the boycott fall flat. The successful change of the constitution, then, saw term limits extended while scrapping what is known as ‘le tournant’, the presidential rotation of the islands, meaning Azali can seek two consecutive terms as a representative of Grand Comore. In addition, the President has announced he will hold an election in 2019 in order to restart his tenure under this new body of law. “The island governor will now only be a symbolic figure with no legislative or economic prerogatives,” laments Msaidie. “All the power is concentrated in the hands of the President. This is one of the greatest political failures since the independence.”
Since July, these changes have been followed by a spate of social and political crackdowns which are beginning to test the fabric of the nation. The main opposition Juwa party has been muzzled; its leader and ex-President Ahmed Mohamed Sambi under house arrest since earlier this year, and half of the party’s representatives in jail without trial or conviction. Sambi has been accused of corruption by way of selling Comoros passports illegally to willing-buyers – a large majority reportedly being sold to Iranians.
That said, he is yet to appear before a judge and has been detained for longer than is legal while awaiting trial. Ahmada Mahamadou, Sambi’s acting lawyer and go-between for the press, points to a rupture away from legal processes. “I cannot admit that these are purely judicial charges,” he says. “Far from it, I would say that I am facing a political trial. Sambi has always told me that he is not afraid of justice, he is only afraid of injustice.”
The party’s meeting houses now gather dust on the streets of Moroni as the authorities have banned opposition gatherings. Msaidie, in fact, pays first-hand testament to the government’s heavy-handed approach to any opposition. “We wanted to organise a meeting, a peaceful one, to raise awareness among the population, on what’s happening,” he recounts. “The meeting was obstructed as the police dispersed protesters. On the way back to our homes, we were arrested. We spent over 12 hours at the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Ministry of Home Affairs has become a prison. We were beaten up, sprayed with tear gas and whipped.” In the face of such repression, dialogue has been moved to gated private property in order to escape prying eyes. Yet to little effect. Opposition figures are now being openly pursued in parliament.
During the period that New African was in Comoros, parliamentary immunity was overturned for three MPs by the National Assembly Bureau. The controversial decree was blocked just weeks before as a majority voted against the decision; yet, on the second occasion, while many MPs were out of the country, it was returned to the Bureau and passed with just two votes in favour.
On that same day a meeting scheduled with MP Mohammed Dossar to discuss the government’s crackdown was abruptly cancelled as the deputy went into hiding; fearing being arrested after his immunity was lifted. Mustoupha Cheikh, Opposition Chief Negotiator, situates these developments within larger attempts by Azali to erode the rule of law throughout Comoros. “This manoeuvre aims at reproducing what had been done with the Constitutional Court,” he says. “They aim at paralysing the Parliament, so that Azali can rule by decree. He wants to have as few constraints as possible.”
Cheikh, as Opposition Chief Negotiator, has watched all dialogue between the opposition and the government break down. Initially the African Union sent a delegation to mediate the reconciliation process and agreed upon a number of ‘calming measures’. “These measures dealt with civil rights, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of protest, the issue of political prisoners, the freedom of the press and the radio,” explains Cheikh. However, recent moves by the government appear to have rubbished these measures and many now feel the window for reconciliation is shrinking daily.
Most independent media houses have been shut down and arbitrary arrests on both civilians and politicians are increasing. “Ever since the political problems, we as journalists have experienced a new kind of pressure,” reveals Anziza Mchangama, working for Radio France Internationale (RFI) as one of the last remaining lines to the international press. “We understand that we cannot say what we see, because if it does not fit with what the government wants to convey then there are threats. Every time you write contrary to the government’s point of view you receive a phone call from some kind of minister, like the Minister of Defence.”
The most noticeable ruptures emerging from these crackdowns are felt in the island of Anjouan – an island with a history of separatist sentiment. In 2001, contrary to the Union of the Comoros, Colonel Mohamed Bacar seized power in a military coup and ruled Ajouan until he was deposed in 2008 by government and African Union forces. As the Grand Comore government now seeks to enforce its power grab, the island’s separatist ideals are being reignited and have begun to bubble under the surface.
While New African was in Moroni, a young man was detained by police in Anjouan and died two days later from suspected beatings. Weeks later and at the time of writing armed citizens of Anjouan took to the streets of the federal-capital Mutsamudu to protest; clashing violently with the army which led to a number of deaths. Clearly the island has much to lose as its autonomy is jeopardised following the negation of the Fomboni Agreement.
In the aftermath of the violence Anjouan Governor Abdou Salami Abdou contacted New African via WhatsApp and communicated the following: “It is thus that my responsibility leads me to call on the President of The African Union Commission, Mr Moussa Faki, that he will ask the two opposing sides to immediately cease all combat in order to prevent the loss of human life and further injury.” Governor Abdou is now under house arrest.
While Comoros is a tiny island with a population of less than one million, it’s position in the corridor between Mozambique and Madagascar gives it ever increasing geo-political significance. Mozambique’s gas fields are pegged as some of the largest in the world and exploration for oil and gas is underway around Comoros’s not-so-distant archipelago.
The corridor also links up to Saudi Arabia’s wider strategic interests around the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, and as a majority Sunni-Muslim country, Comoros is seen as a key ally. In fact, as a stakeholder and development partner, Saudi Arabia is backing Azali’s consolidation of power and the Kingdom reportedly financed the July referendum. “Two days before the referendum was held, a prince from Saudi Arabia came here for an official visit, with contracts to be signed,” confirms Msaidie. “The day the results were announced at the Supreme Court, usually, the whole international community is invited. Only Saudi Arabia and China were there. This is a strong sign of Saudi Arabia’s support.”
Commentators also worry that Islamic extremism may gain a foothold in Comoros as a means to rebuff government oppression. Just across the Mozambique channel, Al-Shabaab fighters have established a presence in northern-Mozambique after being pushed out of Kenya. The insurgents have made links to local extremist organisations. Many are concerned that this insecurity may eventually seep into Comoros – creating a larger axis of threat within the region.
As the crisis deepens members of the opposition call out for peaceful and democratic solutions, brokered by the international community, before the archipelago’s unity and stability is plunged into further disarray.