Re-Colonization: A Response to Failure of Democratization; the Case of Comoro Islands

Re-Colonization: A Response to Failure of Democratization; the Case of Comoro Islands

(Paper presented at the Fifth Annual Penn African Studies Workshop, October 17, 1997)


Ahmed Shariff

University of Pennsylvania

[Copyright 1998, Ahmed Shariff, All Rights Reserved. This work may be cited, for non-profit educational use only, by crediting the author and the exact URL of this document.]


Recent events in the Comoro islands have drawn the attention to what is emerging as a very delicate issue which, if not contained wisely and tactfully, could turn to be a problem to future political development in African countries - the return to colonization.

It seems unimaginable and absurd for anybody, particularly for an African population to demand re-colonization, but it is a reality. At this very moment that I am writing this paper, a delegation from the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the Arab League (AL) is in Moroni, the capital of the Federal Islamic Republic of Comoros, herein referred as the Comoros, to negotiate between separatists from Anjouan, one of the islands that constitute the Comoros and the government of Comoros. The island of Anjouan or locally known as Nzuwani, declared cessation from the rest of the country on 3rd August of this year and announced their intention to rejoin France, the former colonial power. Why would a population choose to be re-colonized? What factor or factors led to such a decision? What happened to the democratic ideals and the democratization process as a whole in this area? Or, what's the future of democracy in Africa? I have chosen to address these questions and show the extent to which lack of opportunities, hope, expectations, developmental resources, and the failure of the democratization process can drive people to be so desperate to the extent of preferring recolonization to independence. This is the first case in the history of Africa since independence for an independent population to ask voluntarily to rejoin the colonial power. However, in order to understand the factors that led to the present crisis , it is necessary to have a brief knowledge of the economic, political and social dynamics that preceded it

Events leading to the cessation

On July 6, 1997 during the celebration of the 22nd anniversary of the independence of the Comoros, a spontaneous demonstration took place in Anjouan, one of the three islands that formed the Federal Republic of Comoros. They pulled down the official Comorian flag of green and four stars lined on a crescent and hoisted the tri-color French flag along with the red flag that pertained to the pre-colonial Sultan of Anjouan. In response, the government sent a police force to disperse the crowd that seemed unorganized. A confrontation between the demonstrators and the government forces resulted in one death and several wounded. The government dispersed the crowd and established law and order.

On August 3, less than a month after the first demonstration, a much more organized mob appeared in front of the government building in Mutsamudou, the island's capital, pulled down the Comoran flag, as they did in the July event and declared separation from the rest of the country. They did not only declare cessation but also hoisted at the same time the French flag and expressed their desire to be re-integrated with the French administration. The whole country was in shock, not only because the demonstrators declared separation from the rest of the islands but also because of their wish to be re-colonized. It took the government almost a week to decide on the appropriate action to take against the rebellions. The government again sent a para-military force to arrest the situation but this time it was met with a resistance. The roads from the airport to the city were blocked by the separatists. The military, with limited logistics could not penetrate the barriers laid down by the separatist militia. Consequently, the national army, which was sent to deal with the situation instead of the regular police, was restricted to the airport.

The stand-off lasted for almost a week before an emissary from the OAU arrived to initiate contact with the separatists and establish a dialogue between the separatists and the Comorian government. September 10, 1997 was fixed as the first day of negotiation. The army from Ngazija, the seat of the government, retreated from Anjouan. On September 7, three days before the beginning of the negotiation the government made a night assault to Anjouan with the aim of fighting the separatists and retake control of the island. The government felt that it needed to establish order and regain control of Anjouan before going to any negotiation. This was intended to give the government a position of strength at the negotiation table. However, the separatists militia who were alerted before the attack, fought back and prevented the central government from taking over the island. An undetermined number of government police were shot and some are feared dead, some were wounded and about 80 of them were held hostage by the separatists. The government did not release the number of police involved in the attack, nor the victims. It also blamed France for intervening in the crisis by helping the separatists with arms and manpower. However, France rejected such claims.

The government assault was met with criticisms both internally and externally. The population, at first praised the government for restraining to confront the separatists militarily, avoiding unnecessary blood shed. Thus, when the assault took place, the government was widely criticized and its credibility and legitimacy became questionable. Externally, the act of attacking the separatist was criticized by the OAU who were already preparing for the negotiations. The attack also increased the separatist's distrust of the central government and solidified their call to be separated from the other islands. The separatist movement found a cause to have aske for international security arrangement before going to Addis Abeba for negotiation. The Arab League joined the OAU in tying to find a solution the crisis. Three questions follow; What led to the rebellion? Why did they choose to be re-colonized? Does the separatist movement do justice to the democratic movement in Africa? To address these questions, we need also to understand a brief history of Comoran politics.

Historical Background

The Comoran Archipelago was originally composed of four islands; Grand Comore or Ngazija, the largest of the islands with the administrative capital in Moroni, Anjoua or Nzuwani, Mayotte or Maore and Moheli or Mwali, in order of size and population . France first colonized the island of Mayotte around 1840 and completed the colonization of the other islands by 1890. The first colonial administration was based in Mayotte where a number of French settlers made their home and produced a segment of the society of mixed race of Franco-Comorian. When Madagascar became a French colony, the Comoros and Madagascar were combined into one colonial administration with the administrative capital in Antananarivo, Madagscar. The colonial administration remained in Madagascar until after the second World War when the two entities were separated again and Comoros had its own administration with its capital in Mayotte. The relationship between Malagasy and Comorans grew stronger and led to huge number of immigration movement between the two countries. Most Malagasy emigrants settled in Mayotte and joined the Franco-Comorian in Mayotte to form the elite group of the island and became the dominant political and economic group.

In 1958 a referendum was organized by Charles de Gaulle, the president of France, to consult the French Overseas Territories on whether they preferred to be independent or continue to be under French protection. Comoros, like all French African colonies (except Guinea) opted to remain under French dominion. Two years later, France decided to grant independence to all its African colonies but continued to exercise a significant power in the newly independent countries. However, Comoros, was among the very few countries that insisted on retaining the French status claiming that it was not developed enough to be independent. The Comorian politicians argued that with other French African nations being independent, France would pay more attention to Comoros and would provide more resources for development. Thus, Instead of Comoro acceding independence at the same time as the other colonies, it was offered internal government, with France controlling finances, foreign affairs and security.

The president of the internal government, who was from Ngazija, transferred the capital from Mayotte to Moroni in 1961. This was the beginning of discontent between the people of Mayotte and Ngazija. Comoros remained autonomous under French administration until 1974 when calls for independence from inside and outside the country could no longer be ignored. Until this point, Comoros was a unified political entity composed of four islands and under the same colonial administration. While social differences between the islands existed, they were seen as part and parcel of the internal social structures of the country and were not considered as factors for separation.

The political situation in the region became very sensitive to France at this period. The cold war was still in force and France's military presence in this part of Indian Ocean was facing some problems. The three French military bases that were in Madagascar since its independence were closed down by the revolutionary government that came to power in 1972. In order to continue its military presence in the area considered as France's sphere of influence by other super powers, it was necessary for France to have its forces stationed in the region. Comoros provided an alternative.

The islands are located at the entrance of the Mozambique Channel, the route that was vital for military surveillance around the cape. When the referendum for independence was held in 1974 to decide whether the Comoros would accede to independence or remain under France, the initial arrangement was that the results would be declared globally, that is, all four islands together. The global results were 95% for independence and 5% against. The 5% represented part of the people of Mayotte who voted to remain with France. Instead of declaring the results globally, France suggested that a new round of votes be held in which the results would be announced island by island to satisfy the wish of each population. This suggestion was bitterly rejected by the rest of the country supported by the international community. France refused to change the new law which was passed after referendum. The Comorian authorities declared a Unilateral Independence (UDI) on July 6, 1975, six months after the referendum. Consequently, France maintained that the people of Mayotte did not want independence thus, prevented Mayotte from joining the other islands in their independence. France, used Article 53 , para 3 of the French Constitution of 1985 which stipulates that ".... No cessation, no exchange, no addition of territory shall be valid without the consent of the population concerned" to maintain Mayotte under France. Successive governments of Comoros have continued, to date, to press for the return of Mayotte to the rest of the island, using international fora such as the United Nations, the OAU and the Arab League. All these organizations recognized and admitted Comoros in their membership in its territorial integrity (all four islands). However, for 22 years, nothing was done to compel France to give up Mayotte. How does the question of Mayotte affect the current events in the Comoros?

The Comoros, like most African countries, have faced a downfall drive in their economic and social development since independence. The economic hardships have been coupled with spells of coups d'etat that have almost become symbol of the political system of the islands. The first coup took place just a month after the declaration of independence in 1975. Since then, 17 coup attempts have taken place, four of them by the infamous mercenary Bob Denard. He ruled the country behind the back of the former president Ahmed Abdalla, from Anjouan, for twelve years. Together they controlled more than 70% of the country's economy as well as the political system under a single party. Poverty, disease and malnutrition increased. Corruption became rampant and the population started to look outside for help. Mayotte, the neighboring sister island, was fairing better. French businesses were operating in Mayotte providing jobs and income to the local population. The French welfare subsidy for the jobless and the sick was one of the main attractions. Consequently, Mayotte started to attract immigrants from the other three islands. All those who had relatives in Mayotte, found a "safe heaven".

In December 1989 Bob Denard was dissatisfied with his boss and protegee, Ahmed Abdalla. The latter, was acting under internal and external pressure to eliminate the presence of mercenaries in the country. Denard decided to act control the situation personally. He assassinated Ahmed Abdalla while they were alone at the presidency. The state was paralyzed for a while. Denard tried to look for someone else to put in power and blamed the military for the assassination. However, neither the Comorian population nor the international community bought his claims. The French Navy and the South African military intervened and expelled Denard and his army from the country. The sudden death of Ahmed Abdalla left the position of President open for grab. It was also a foundation for the transition to democracy in the Comoros.

A national conference was held by all political organizations in the country , amended the constitution and established multiparty system . More than twenty political organizations were formed and the first multiparty election was held in 1990. However, the national conference did not alter the federal arrangement that was installed by Ahmed Abdalla. The new regime under the democratic banner was led by Said Mohamed Djohar, from Ngazija, thus ending twelve years of reign of Anjuanese. Djohar tried to unit the country by giving all political parties the opportunity to participate the in the government. Consequently, there was a new government after every three months. Most of these governments were led by an Anjouan as Prime Minister. The frequent change of governments increased instability both politically and economically. It also created a social tension between citizens of different islands. Djohar was finally removed by Bob Denard in another coup. However, the coup did not last long. The international community again intervened and arrested Denard. The anticipated second multiparty election was held in March 1996, and Mr. Mohamed Taki Abdulkarim, Who opposed Djohar in the first election, was elected to lead the second multiparty democratic government.

While the federal arrangement continued, the new Comorian executive decided to change some of the powers. He proposed that, instead of the governors of the island to be elected by their respective populations, they would be nominated by the president. He thus took away the power from the islands. By nominating the governor, the president managed to continue to reinforce the patrimonial character of his regime which became the mode of the political system and governance of the country since independence. This meant that the islands were deprived of the only power they had, to elect their own governor. Above all, the economic situation continued to deteriorate and the development imbalance between the islands became more and more evident. Since the government is the major employer of the country and the government administration is in Moroni, Ngazija, most of the business and commercial activities are concentrated on the island of Ngazija. The other two islands, not only have been losing jobs but also businesses and skilled manpower to Ngazija.

Access to mayotte has not been smooth by members of the other islands. Many people try to enter Mayotte through the back door, avoiding immigration formalities. Such means resulted in grave consequences. The lucky ones were arrested and returned to their original homes but many people perished in the sea. With the closure of access to Mayotte and the increased loss of opportunities for development, the people of Anjouan people started to show concern about the situation on their island. They drew the attention of the authorities on the deteriorating situation. Most people who work on the island are state employees and there has been a pattern of delay of salary for government employees since the time of Ahmed Abdalla. The salary delay could run from four to six months at that time. Mr. Abdulkarim promised to pay the civil servants regularly if they would forgive the unpaid salaries . This was bitterly accepted. However, the delay of salary did not stop and in fact it increased from six month to almost one year. The dissatisfaction increased and the people of Anjouan felt that they were more affected than their Ngazija counterparts. Several demonstrations were held to oppose the delay in payment of salary of civil servants in Anjouan. The government, however, did not heed to their demands. Thus, the anger turned into hatred and the decision was taken to separate.

However, what really added fuel to the fire was the discrimination of the government in judicial matters between residents of islands. In an effort to normalize the judicial process and make it fairer and free from state intervention, the court in Moroni started series of cases of mismanagement of public enterprises. The first person to be apprehended, accused, tried and condemned for such actions was the director of the state newspaper who originated from Anjouan. When the court started to deal with other people of Ngazija origin in similar cases the president intervened, stopped the process and transferred the judges concerned. This angered the people of Anjouan. Demand for fair treatment of all citizens was also included in the demands in demonstrations of July and August. The people of Anjoua became more and more desperate, frustrated and angered by the central government. The problem turned around to be Ngazija against Anjouan and not government inefficiency. They felt the need for a change in order to solve their problems. The solution, according to them, lies else where - the French welfare state, as that of Mayotte. But to obtain French welfare and French social benefits, one must be a French citizen or under French colony as in Mayotte. Separation from the other islands, therefore, became the only option encouraged and supported by Mayotte separatists.


The above description of the situation in Comoros indicates three main reasons that led to the cessation; (1) lack of economic opportunities for development on the island of Anjouan, (2) failure of the democratization process (3) external influence.

The problem in Comnoros is economical. It is quite understandable that when a population sees its economic opportunities dropping to the poverty level, it is required to look for an alternative way to get out of the crisis. However, going to the lowest esteem of recolonization was unbearable, and far from being the appropriate solution. Comoros remained under French domination fifteen years after most African countries got their independence and yet they were not better off economically than when they rejected independence in 1960. In fact, it was due to the stagnant economic situation during the fifteen years of internal government that led to the population's call for independence. It's beyond any logic that France today will recolonize a country in order to provide it with economic opportunities for development, particularly when the economic potentials in that country are limited. African countries that depend on single crop economy have been the worst affected economically during the three decades of independence.

Comoros depend mainly on Vanilla, Ylang Ylang and to some extent Cloves for export. The big share of production comes from Ngazija. Ylang Yang is almost being phased out due to lack of export caused by the fall of the world price. Vanilla and cloves used to be the major foreign currency earners for Comoros but now they have also lost tremendously in the world market. Their prices fell down for two reasons; increased competition in the world market and increased production of synthetic vanilla in the West. Comoros compete with Madagascar for the production and s ell of Vanilla, and with Zanzibar, Madagascar and Indonesia for cloves. The fall of prices does not favor the Comoros as a whole let alone the island of Anjoua. It is evident that the separatist leaders did not take time to study the economic advantages or disadvantages of separation, unless they decided to use the event as a means and not an end, to draw the attention from the authorities for more economic development.

The democratization process in the islands started in 1990 after president Ahmed Abdalla was assassinated by Bob Denard. But if holding of elections signifies democracy, then the Comoros have been democratic since independence as elections have been held regularly since 1978. However, none of these elections were considered fair even within the one party system. Ahmed Abdalla had ruled the country single handedly in a patron-client relationship and authoritarianism. Opposition was tolerated during non- election period but never during election. Corruption reached every sector of the society including the courts, the police and the security. The media was controlled by the state; radio and newspaper were state owned. Better social services were provided to those who were considered close to the regime. They would be sent to South Africa, Reunion or France for treatment. Children of the elites were also sent outside the country for education while local schools were seized with constant strikes by teachers claiming six months to one year salary in arrears. Such situation was found not only in Ngazija, the seat of the government, but also, and even worse in the other islands.

Democracy does not only mean rule by the people, it also implies social justice to all. The two democratically elected regime followed the footsteps of their predecessor Ahmed Abdalla and Bob Denard. Democracy is paid a lip service only. There is tendency to believe that a president must be a strong person and to show the strength he/she must have unlimited executive powers. That is true in Comoros as in many other African countries, for example Kenya, Cameroon and Uganda, to name but a few. Once the president was sworn in, he rules with absolute executive power. Accountability, transparency, protection of human rights and individual freedoms all become empty promises of election campaigns. His action and words are final. Authoritarianism, dictatorship and, to some extent anarchy, return under the cover of democracy. Opposition parties either act as rubber stamp of the ruling party or are treated as enemies and traitors by the ruling elite. Democracy is suffocated.

For the people of Anjouan, geographically separated from the government and lacking ability to participate in the policy decision , looked for an alternative. While the departure of the old dictatorship had brought hope to the people, the return of authoritarianism and regionalism increased the social divisions and reduced the chances of real democracy being implanted in the country. While the decision to separate could be considered to be the result of a strangled democracy, the action itself could not be considered democratic either. There was no justification possible to take arms and fight in order to change the regime. No country in modern politics has willingly accepted to be divided just because a minority part of the population is in disagreement or in conflict of interests with the regime. It is widely agreed in international law that boundaries inherited at independence are recognized and accepted as the permanent boundaries of modern nation-states. However, there are arguments that insist that the present boundaries are the result of European division of Africa and do not represent the true boundaries of African nationalities. Therefore, there is no obligation to respect them.

While the latter argument merits great considerations, any re-drawing of boundaries in Africa today would demand the "Berlin " type of conference among Africans themselves which, in my opinion, is long overdue. There is need for mutual respect of each other's boundary as well as the respect for minority's rights within those boundaries to avoid extreme wishes of separation.

Europe itself is facing separation movements. Spain is still fighting against the separatist Baas, England with Ireland in spite of recent accords to end hostilities, and so are France, Russia, Italy, Bosnia etc. All these countries consider their territorial integrity as indivisible. And so is the Comoros. The separatist action is a clear sign of the breakdown of the democratization process; disrespect for minority rights, regionalism, breakdown of law and order, corruption, favoritism, mismanagement of public enterprises etc. In short, it was the frustration and lack of open opportunities for the people to participate in their own political and economic development that, to an extreme case, led them to wish to be recolonized. But why ask for recolonization and not simply be independent? This leads us to the last point, that of the presence of external influence.

Reports from foreign media who have been covering the crisis since its nascent supported by local political analysts suggest that the conflict was exacerbated by the influence of Mayotte separatists who encouraged the Anjouanese to separate. The main reason is that Mayotte will soon be consulted to decide whether they want to be an Overseas French Territory (FOT) or French Overseas Department (FOD). The first allows territory, once conquered by France, to remain under French until when it decides to be independent. This was usually the status given to French overseas colonies. The latter is considered as part of France and cannot claim independence. This was the status given to those countries that were heavily settled by French or were found unoccupied before the arrival of French settlers. The island of Reunion is one such territories. The consultation entails two problems of interest. First, France under pressure from European Union (EU) is looking for means to discharge off the responsibilities of running an uneconomically productive island ten thousand kilometers from France. The cold war is over, Mayotte is no longer needed to serve the strategic importance it once enjoyed. The consultation will provide an opportunity to pressure local politicians to join their sister islands.

But the local Mayotte politicians who want to remain French knew the official French position and decided to act fast. They explored the economic weakness of Anjouan, identified potential partners and promised them that, if they managed to separate, Mayotte will help them integrate into the French system as they did. They could only enjoy the French welfare system by being under French, which was not difficult. France will accept them as a people who decided on their own destiny. The Anjouan separatists responded to the drums and started to play the Mayotte tune, completely unaware that, under the present international laws and regulations that recognize the boundaries of the countries admitted to the United Nations as final, France can not encourage the division of a nation state let alone recolonize it. What the Mayotte politicians wanted was to be able to point a finger to the crisis and the political instability in Comoros as a way of defending their decision to remain in the French system. The Anjouan separatists, therefore, remain losers.


The paper has enlightened an important consequence of the failure of democracy, the envy and willingness to be recolonized. The people of Anjoua who descended on the streets in support of the separatist movement, especially the younger generation, did not do so because they preferred the colonial state, with which they had no experience at all. It was simply because the door to true democracy was closed. Not only was social justice denied to them, but also all opportunities to take part in the decision of their own development were placed in the hands of the authoritarian regime of the central government. The state took the name of the Federal Islamic Republic while there was nothing federal in the state arrangement. It was a complete unitary state with all the powers delegated to the executive branch. It was this arrangement that frustrated the population of Anjouan and led them to take the drastic actions.

While the case of Comoros may seem to come from very poor and small islands, it may have serious repercussions in Africa. The multiparty elections held on the continent have not produced the desired democracy. They simply changed the electoral system from single or no party system to a multiparty system but did not change the governance style or the mentality of the ruling elite. The "winner take all" system favors the ruling elite and denies an important segment of the society their right to participate in the decision making process of the country. Liberal democratic ideals are not being respected. Most regimes in Africa remain authoritarian under the guise of democracy simply because of the presence of plural parties or the holding of regular elections. While it is true that multiparty and elections are components of democracy, they alone are not sufficient to warrant the country democratic. Presidential executive powers still dominate African political systems to the detriment of democracy. Recognition, respect and acceptance of opposite opinions still lag behind and so is the respect for human rights and individual freedoms. Very few countries in Africa could be said to be true democracy. If Western liberal democracy is the solution to African problems, than Africans have a long way to go. Re-colonization is even worse, but could it be an alternative?

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar

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