One Archipelago, Two Diverging Paths

Updated: Mar 11

The Comoros Archipelago is made up of four islands. On December 22, 1974, three islands voted for independence and formed their own country, while one voted to remain as a colony. As they say, the rest is history.

This article is part of the A Tale of Two Neighbours Series.

Mutsamudu is the second largest city in Comoros
Mutsamudu is the second largest city in Comoros and home to 30,000 people (Credit: IWRM AIO SIDS)

The Land of the Volcanos

The Comoros archipelago was formed by volcanic activities, roughly 7.7 million years ago. It all began with the island of Mayotte, then followed by 3 other islands: Mohéli, Anjouan, and Grande Comore, the youngest, at roughly 10,000 years old. Today, Grande Comore is still being shaped by its active volcano, Mount Karthala, last erupted in 2006.

The earliest inhabitants of the islands were likely people from the coasts of East Africa. They were followed by an influx of Austronesian sailors from Southeast Asia, who had earlier settled in nearby Madagascar. The Comoros Archipelago is believed to be the first site of contact and subsequent admixture between African and Asian populations. Today, Comorians still display at most 20% Austronesian admixture.

The Fighting Sultans

Islam first started In Mecca in the 7th century, and it was spread through Egypt and down south to the African Coast. According to local legend, Islam was brought to Comoros by Mtswa Mwindza, ruler of Mbude on Grand Comore, and Muhammad ibn Uthman, son of Uthman ibn Affan, a notable companion to prophet Muhammad. It grew to become the dominant religion. The small Comorian islands were split up by a huge number of Sultans. On the island of Anjouan, up to 40 fanis and other chiefs shared power of the island at one time; the island of Grand Comore was at many times divided into 11 sultanates. The Comorian islands were particularly prosperous in the 17th and 18th centuries, as they were ideally placed on a thriving trade route between Europe and the Omani empire. In particular, Anjouan was a major supply point on the ships' route to the East. But this wealth was soon accompanied by political rivalries between the four islands, which led to many raids and open wars. No Sultan ever managed to unify the four islands, although the island of Mohéli was generally ruled under the island of Anjouan. These rivalries deeply weakened the archipelago eventually.

The Island Sold for A King's Pension

Portuguese explorers first visited the archipelago in 1505, while British and Dutch ships began arriving around the start of the 17th century. By the early 19th century, France was funnelling resources into sugar plantations on the island of Réunion (1,600 km away). This led to a rise in demand in slaves, many of whom were captured from raids on the Comoros. In 1832, the island of Mayotte was conquered by Andriantsoly, former king of Iboina in Madagascar. However, possession of the island would change hands another 3 times before Andriantsoly re-obtained possession 4 years later. By then, his depopulated and unfortified island was in a weak position towards the sultans of Comoros, Malagasy kings, and pirates. Looking for the help of a powerful ally, he began to negotiate with the French, installed in the nearby Malagasy island of Nosy Bé (now Madagascar) in 1840.

Mayotte Andriantsoly Portrait
Andriantsoly, the last sultan of Mayotte.

On April 25, 1841, Andriantsoly sold his sovereignty over Mayotte to the French, obtaining in exchange, a personal annuity of one thousand piastres (5,000 francs) and some promises, such as raising his two children in Réunion. In 1886, following a series of invasions, France established the remaining 3 islands of Grande Comore, Anjouan and Mohéli as a French protectorate. Administratively, the French assigned Residents (les Résidents) to rule the 3 islands as protectorates, all under the leadership of Governor of Mayotte. The Comoros archipelago was finally unified under Mayotte. Further, in 1912, "Mayotte and dependencies" were officially annexed to Madagascar as a province of the French colony.

The Unexpected Consequence of Moving the Capital

After World War II, in 1946, the Comoros was separated administratively from Madagascar and became a French overseas territory. Dzaoudzi, on the island of Mayotte, was chosen as the capital of the new territory. But in 1958, twelve years later, the Comoros Territorial Assembly voted to move the capital from Dzaoudzi to Moroni, on the island of Grande Comore. The 26 elected officials from Anjouan, Mohéli and Grande Comore voted for the move, while the four representatives from Mayotte opposed the move.

Moroni, Grand Comore, Comoros.
Moroni, Grand Comore, Comoros.

Things all changed suddenly. Mayotte was deserted because government officials had to move to Grande Comore. This led to an economic downturn in Mayotte. It also resulted in a shortage of even basic supplies in Mayotte. Till today, there are rumours that these shortages were organized by the main importer of the time, the rich Ahmed Abdallah, who was originally from the island of Anjouan, and who later became the first president of the independent Comoros. Those left on Mayotte became bitter. At the same time, France began to offer the Comoros more autonomy as part of the decolonization process that was sweeping through the continent of Africa. But the people of Mayotte, bitter from the move of the capital, had other ideas. The Mouvement Populaire Mahorais (MPM) was created as a movement to campaign for keeping Mayotte in the French Republic. Women of Mayotte, who suffered most due to many men leaving for Grande Comore, was a key part of the movement. Intense lobbying was done in Paris to convince the French authorities to keep Mayotte in the French Republic. Press campaigns, such as "40,000 French to save", were launched, while representatives from the three other islands were lobbying for the independence of the Comoros. In 1974, a law was passed in Paris stipulating an independence referendum to be held in the Comoros archipelago. MPM then doubled down on their efforts, denying Mayotte's historical past with the other islands, and claiming "ethnic" difference of the Mahorais. For example, they crafted a narrative that "Mayotte is mostly Catholic", unlike the other islands which were dominated by Muslims. This is despite the fact that Islam is followed by over 98% of Comorians and 97% of those in Mayotte today.

The 1974 referendum and Diverging Paths

The Comorian independence referendum was finally held on December 22, 1974. On the islands of Grande Comore, Anjouan, and Mohéli, over 99% of the residents voted in favour of independence. But in Mayotte, 64% chose against independence. Subsequently, on July 3, 1975, France determined that the referendum results should be respected on an island-by-island basis, effectively declaring Mayotte would remain as part of French territory. From the French’s point of view, the fate of the two parts of the territory was not linked for both legal and political reasons. Mayotte was purchased in 1841, while the rest of the Comoros were taken over as protectorates in 1886. France's position was rejected by Ahmed Abdullah, the future first president of the Comoros, who was leading the negotiation effort for the Comoros. On July 6, 1975, the Comorian parliament passed a resolution declaring unilateral independence while the deputies of Mayotte abstained. Three days later, the French Cabinet recognized the Comoros as an independent country. It transferred authority of the three islands of Mohéli, Anjouan, and Grande Comore, but not Mayotte. A draft 1976 United Nations Security Council resolution recognizing Comorian sovereignty over Mayotte, supported by 11 of the 15 members of the Council, was vetoed by France. To this date, the Comoros maintains its claims over Mayotte in the United Nation.

Coups, Communist, Dictatorship

Independence celebrations in the Comoros did not last long. The new nation was soon thrown into political turmoil. On August 3, 1975, less than one month after its independence, Comoros president Ahmed Abdallah was removed from office in an armed coup. This was the first of over 20 coups or attempted coups that would later follow. Bob Denard, a French mercenary, claiming orders from an advisor to the French president, helped ousted the president. Ahmed Abdallah was replaced with an opposition party member, Prince Said Mohamed Jaffar. Only months later, in January 1976, Jaffar was himself ousted in favour of his Minister of Defense Ali Soilih, who tried to turn the country into a secular, socialist republic.

Bob Denard, Comoros coups.
Bob Denard, the coup mastermind.

The new president, Ali Soilih, set up Marxist policies to "modernize" the Comorian society, in a similar fashion as the Chinese Cultural Revolution. He set up the Red Guards, high-school student militias who act as political police and claimed to exercise the judicial power themselves. Given the strategic position of the Comoros in the Indian Ocean, the Western World felt extremely uneasy. So, on May 13th, 1978, Bob Denard returned to the Comoros with 43 mercenaries and carried out a coup against President Ali Soilih. Soilih was killed under mysterious circumstances. Helped by Denard, Ahmed Abdallah, the Comoros' first president, regained the presidency. Ahmed Abdallah's second presidency was marked by authoritarian rule and increased adherence to traditional Islam. In 1982, Abdallah had all parties abolished, and set up a new party, the Comorian Union for Progress (UCP). Comoros became a one-party state, with the UCP being the only legal party. UCP won 37 of 38 seats in the National Assembly in contested elections in 1982. It won all 42 seats in the following election in March 1987. Despite earlier assurances of a free ballot, few opposition candidates were permitted to run, and dissidents were subject to intimidation and imprisonment. Abdallah himself was also re-elected unopposed in 1984. Abdallah continued to rule as president until 1989 when, fearing a probable coup, he signed a decree ordering the Presidential Guard, led by Bob Denard, to disarm the military. Shortly after the signing of the decree, Abdallah was allegedly shot dead in his office by a disgruntled military officer, though later sources claim an anti-tank missile was launched into his bedroom and killed him. The Comorian people widely believed that Bob Denard was behind the death of Abdallah. But Bob Denard, who fled to South Africa, denied such claims and said Abdallah's bodyguard was behind the attack. Said Mohamed Djohar, former president Ali Soilih's older half-brother, then became Comoros' first democratically elected president. He served until September 1995, when Bob Denard returned and attempted another coup. The coup ousted President Djohar, who was imprisoned in the military barracks. Colonel Combo Ayouba became the head of state of the Comoros from September 29 until October 2, 1995, when the French military intervened and ousted Denard, Ayouba and their allies.

A Broken Nation

French-backed Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim was elected as president. He led the country from 1996 until he died in 1998, but his presidency was dominated by labour crises, government suppression, and secessionist conflicts. Years of poverty and infighting had led to secession movements on the islands of Anjouan and Mohéli. In July 1997, Anjouan secessionist leader Abdallah Ibrahim was arrested, and all anti-government parties were banned. Riots quickly broke out in Anjouan. Separatist militants quickly controlled the island, and on August 3, 1997, Abdallah Ibrahim declared the independence of Anjouan. Mohéli quickly followed in declaring its independence 8 days later.

Anjouan, Comoros. Comoros coup. Amjouan invasion.
The island of Anjouan.

The secessionists attempted to restore French rule. After all, with free education and health, a guaranteed monthly minimum wage of $400, and French citizenship – what was happening in Mayotte was just too sharp a contrast with Anjouan and Mohéli. The two islands had unemployment of 90%, and GDP per head hovered around $30. But France rejected the secessionists' request, and bloody confrontations between federal troops and rebels took place soon after. The African Union stepped in and brokered negotiations for a reconciliation. Mohéli did return to the Comoros' government control in 1998. However, an agreement between Anjouan and the Comoros federal government could not be reached. In April 1999, Colonel Azali Assoumani, Army Chief of Staff, seized power of the federal government in a bloodless coup, citing weak leadership in the face of the crisis. This marked the Comoros' 18th coup or attempted coup since independence in 1975. Anjouan also had its internal conflicts. On August 1, 1999, Anjouan leader Abdallah Ibrahim resigned and transferred power to a national coordinator, Said Abeid. The new government was later overthrown in a coup in 2001, by Mohamed Bacar, who rose to leadership of the junta and became the leader of Anjouan. He took a position that was more open to negotiation with the Comoros. A full agreement was finally reached in 2001 to bring Anjouan back into the Comoros when the nation approved a new national constitution that kept the three islands as one country but granted each island greater autonomy.

Invasion of Anjouan

Peace would follow for a short while. Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi won the 2006 Comoros presidential election and was inaugurated as President of the Union of the Comoros on May 26, 2006. After 31 years as an independent country, Comoros finally had its first peaceful transfer of power in its history. Individual island elections were supposed to follow in 2007. However, a standoff took place between the Anjouan government, still led by Mohamed Bacar, and the Union government over these elections. Bacar wanted to run again but this position was rejected by the union government. On April 26, 2007, the country's Federal Constitutional Court proclaimed the Presidency of Anjouan vacant, declaring Bacar's term had ended on April 14. Bacar, in defiance of both the federal government and the African Union, independently organised his own presidential election and claimed “a landslide victory of 90%”. This did not sit well with the federal government. On March 25th, 2008 hundreds of soldiers from the African Union and the Comoros seized Anjouan, with Bacar escaping to Mayotte and later to the Réunion.

(Press play to see the arrival of African Union soldiers into Anjouan)

Times became comparatively calmer subsequently, until a disputed referendum in 2018, which was passed to remove presidential term limits and the mandatory rotation of presidency between the 3 islands, as well as a reform of the court system. The opposition boycotted the referendum and claimed irregularities. This had led to violence whilst current president, Azali Assoumani, was re-elected in 2019 in a result that opposition leaders have not recognized.

Meanwhile in Mayotte

Mayotte. Comoros Archipelago
Mayotte from above (Image by Yane MAINARD from Pixabay)

After the independence referendum of 1974, France held a second referendum in 1976 in Mayotte, and reaffirmed Mayotte's status as "collective territorialé". Younoussa Bamana, a key figure in the MPM movement, became the President of Mayotte General Counsel in 1977 and remained a dominant figure until his election failure in 2004. In Mayotte during this period, anyone who dares to oppose the MPM was described as a separatist. The "dictatorship" of the MPM was based on the fear of "return to the past" and played on the feelings to impose its law on the population. Despite the creation of new parties including the RPR (Gaullist right) at the beginning of the 1980s and the PS (Socialist Party) in 1993, MPM continued to dominate the political scene. Given the turmoil in Comoros, France was keen to see political stability in Mayotte, as it was a strategically important base for France during the Cold War period. Communist governments were set up in the Eastern African countries of Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Uganda, and Mayotte was in a key position to access them as well as Madagascar. To this date, France operates a military base in Mayotte. In 2011, after a half-century-long fight and process, Mayotte was finally recognized as an overseas département of France. At a referendum on March 29th, 2009, 95% of the population voted in favour of changing the island's status from a French "collectivité départementale" to become France's 101st "département”. To be tightly integrated with France, the people had to abolish Mayotte's non-official traditional Islamic law, applied in some aspects of the day-to-day life. This was replaced by the uniform French civil code. Additionally, French social welfare and taxes were to be applied, though some of each will be brought in gradually. The islanders do stand to gain economically from the change of status, as they would eventually become eligible for social benefits as well as EU funds. Paris also promised an economic development fund to boost the island's infrastructure.

The Escape Towards A Better Life

Mayotte's relatively calm environment and the possibility of eventually reaching France were clearly appealing to those from the Comoros, and many risked their lives in travelling across to Mayotte. In Mayotte today, immigrants make up more than half the population. Every year, 70% of the 10,000 births in the island’s sole maternity hospital are to illegal migrants, with a majority from the Comoros. France’s policy of droit du sol (birthright citizenship) means newborns are entitled to French nationality. Mayotte is now the French département with the strongest demographic growth and France’s youngest department, with half the residents being under the age of 17. Driven by the immigration, Mayotte population had risen from 47,000 in 1978 to close to 300,000 today. But illegal immigration is also leading to violent protests from the locals. In 2008, locals organized a general strike, rounded up suspected illegal immigrants, and the island was brought to a standstill. Many from Mayotte are looking to move on: one-quarter of its natives now live outside Mayotte, mainly in mainland France or in Réunion, in seek of a better life. As of 2012, more than four-fifths of the 16-to-64-year-olds on Mayotte could not read and write, and more than a quarter of the population was out of work. Income per capita is four times less than the rest of France and two and a half times less than the other French overseas departments. Still, Mayotte is rich compared with its immediate neighbours: income per head is 13 times higher than that of the Comoros and 23 times higher than in Madagascar. Mayotte has 82 doctors per 100,000 people, compared with just 19 in the rest of the Comoros and 14 in neighbouring Madagascar, on 2018 basis. Between nationalistic pride and economic prosperity, only history can tell which side of the Comoros Archipelago have made the right choice.

This article is part of the A Tale of Two Neighbours Series.