INTRODUCTION OF COMOROS
Comoros, independent state comprising a group of islands in the Indian Ocean. Located at the northern end of the Mozambique Channel, the islands lie about 290 km (about 180 mi) from Mozambique and about 320 km (about 200 mi) from Madagascar. Comoros has been a self-governing state since 1975 when three of the four islands of the Comoros archipelago broke away from French rule. The three islands are Njazidja (also called Grande Comore), Nzwani (Anjouan) and Mwali (Mohéli). The capital city, Moroni, is located on Njazidja. Comoros claims sovereignty over the fourth island, Mayotte (also known as Mahore), but Mayotte is still a dependency of France with the status of a territorial collectivity. Islam is the state religion of Comoros.
LAND AND RESOURCES OF COMOROS
The three islands of Comoros cover 1,862 sq km (719 sq mi), Njazidja being the largest with an area of 1,147 sq km (443 sq mi). All three are of volcanic origin and are mountainous. The highest peak in Comoros is Karthala, which rises to 2,361 m (7,746 ft) on Njazidja. Karthala has one of the largest craters, or calderas, of any active volcano. The most recent major eruptions occurred in 1965 and 1977. The highest peak on Nzwani is N’Tingui at 1,596 m (5,235 ft). The island shores are rocky, with offshore islets and a steeply sloping seabed. There are no good beaches on Nzwani, and although a few exist in northern Njazidja, only Mwali has many large expanses of sand.
The islands, which lie within the region of the Indian Ocean monsoons, experience a dry season between April and October, and they receive heavy tropical rains accompanied by cyclones between November and March. Daily temperatures seldom rise above 30°C (85°F), and 5,080 mm (200 in) of rain per year fall on the slopes of Karthala, the site of the heaviest rainfall in Comoros. In spite of the heavy rainfall, the porous nature of the volcanic rock means that no water is retained on Njazidja, and the islanders have traditionally built cisterns to store rainwater for the dry season. Mwali and Nzwani, however, have streams that flow from the mountains throughout the year.
Njazidja has virtually no topsoil, but the volcanic rocks nevertheless support a dense rain forest on the slopes of Karthala. The other islands have soils that are rich in minerals and are very fertile, providing ideal conditions for the growth of sugarcane, ylang-ylang trees (the blossoms of which are used to make a perfume), vanilla, cloves, and a wide variety of tropical fruits and flowers. Intensive cultivation, however, has stripped the forest cover from all but the mountain peaks, leading to heavy soil erosion; it has also destroyed the habitat of many species of plants and animals. A variety of flycatcher called Humblot’s flycatcher breeds only on Njazidja. The seas off the Comoros are the home of the famous coelacanth, a fish that was thought to be extinct for millions of years until 1938, when one was caught off the eastern coast of South Africa. In 1952 the coelacanth was discovered to live and breed off the Comoros.
About 59 percent (2003) of the country’s land area is devoted to cropland, and soil degradation and erosion have resulted from crop cultivation on slopes without proper terracing. A relatively high proportion of the islands’ limited biodiversity is threatened, and fishing and tourism are damaging coral reefs.
THE PEOPLE OF COMOROS
The 2009 population for the three islands was estimated to be 752,438. Nzwani and Njazidja each have populations of about 200,000, but the smaller size of Nzwani gives it one of the highest population densities in the world, with more than 500 persons per sq km (1,300 per sq mi). Some 64 percent of the population lives in rural areas. The largest towns are Mutsamudu (population, 2003 estimate, 30,900) and Domoni on Nzwani; Moroni (53,000) and Mitsamiouli on Njazidja; and Fomboni (13,300) on Mwali.
The population has been formed by successive settlements over at least 1,000 years. Early migrations from Madagascar were followed by Islamic settlers whose ruling elites were related to families in Kilwa and Zanzibar, islands off the coast of what is now Tanzania, as well as to families in Arabia and the Persian Gulf region. Early in the 19th century there were fresh incursions from Madagascar, and Mayotte and Mwali were ruled by Malagasy dynasties. Slaves meanwhile were regularly imported from Mozambique, and by the end of the 19th century their descendants may have constituted the majority of the population. Today there are no strong ethnic divisions; rivalries between the islands are more important than ethnic differences. The descendants of the former ruling elites may, however, tend to be more conservative Muslims who maintain ties to the broader Islamic world.
Most Comorians are Sunni Muslims, with the exceptions of the resident Indians and French Creoles. French and Arabic are the official languages, but the dialects of the islands, collectively called Shimasiwa (or Comoran), are used in everyday speech. Shimasiwa is related to Swahili (see African Languages). Islamic schools are attended by many children, and state education is officially compulsory from the age of 6 to 13. Although 90 percent of the primary school-age children attend school, only 31 percent receive a secondary education. The state spends one-quarter of its income on education. With the exception of a lycée (French high school) in Moroni, most education is of a low standard, and educational facilities are very poor. Adult literacy was estimated to be 75 percent in 2007.
Most of the people live in houses made of palm fronds in rural villages, but wealthier people build more substantial houses of stone or concrete blocks when they marry. Most women still wear the chirumani, a colorful traditional garment made of cotton. The festivals of Islam are observed, but the principal communal celebrations are those associated with marriage. When celebrated by a wealthy family, the grand mariage can last for weeks with public and private ceremonies, as well as a concert, called the twarab, which is an occasion for traditional musicians to display their arts and for the whole community to join in the festivities. Polygyny, a form of polygamy in which a man has more than one wife, is still common among the wealthy. Each wife has her own house and is endowed with considerable amounts of gold jewelry.
ECONOMY OF COMOROS
Agricultural work employs 77 percent of the labor force. Most Comorians find employment within a traditional subsistence economy producing maize (corn), cassava, rice, bananas, and vegetables. Protein comes from fish and poultry. Attracted by fertile soils and cheap labor, plantation companies acquired land in the islands in the 19th century, and by the beginning of the 20th century they owned most of the cultivable land. During the 20th century growing sugarcane gave way to the cultivation of scent-bearing flowers and spices, such as ylang-ylang, vanilla, and cloves, as well as copra (dried coconut meat that produces a valuable oil). Although the companies were forced to give up much of their land through successive land reforms, flowers and spices remain the basic commercial crops grown in the islands, and the only significant exports. Growing cash crops takes up a major part of the best land on the islands. As a result, Comoros is heavily dependent on imported food; food regularly constitutes 40 percent of all imports. There are no industries in the islands apart from some government power plants and artisan workshops that engage in small industries such as goldsmithing, boatbuilding, clothing manufacture, and scent processing. Political instability has resulted in little growth in tourism. Only 29,000 tourists visited Comoros in 2006.
France has remained by far the most important trading partner. The islands run a regular budget deficit, which has usually been covered by direct French aid. The country’s debt has been restructured by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the government has been forced to accept a structural adjustment package. The original structural adjustment package covered the period of 1991 to 1993, but it was renewed in 1993, and a further agreement with the IMF was reached in 1994. Since 1981 the currency has been the Comorian franc. The Comorian franc had a fixed exchange rate with the French franc of 50 to 1 until 1994, when the rate was changed to 75 Comorian francs to 1 French franc. In 2007, the Comorian franc exchanged at an average of 360 to U.S.$1.
Transport between the islands is mostly by air, and there is an international airport at Hahaia on Njazidja where jets can land. Road networks have been built between most of the main island settlements, but the mountainous terrain means that the majority of journeys are still made on foot. Public transport has traditionally been operated by private truck owners. In spite of improvements to port facilities, only small freighters can unload alongside the docks in Mutsamudu or Moroni, the two main ports. Much of the fishing is still carried out from traditional outrigger canoes (canoes with extra pieces of wood attached along the side).
Radio is the most common form of communication. In 1997 Comoros had 141 radio receivers for every 1,000 inhabitants. The state-owned Radio Comores transmits broadcasts from France and the Comorian government. Private stations linked to political parties occasionally broadcast on the radio as well. Television broadcasts exist, but there were only 5 television sets for every 1,000 Comorians in 1998. Comoros has 28 telephone mainlines per 1,000 people, with most of the telephones in government offices or on commercial premises. The government-owned newspaper Al Watany is published in French, as is L’Archipel, an independent newspaper.
GOVERNMENT OF COMOROS
According to a 2001 constitution, the three islands of Comoros constitute a union. Each island elects its own legislature and president, which are responsible for establishing and enforcing its own fundamental laws in accordance with the national constitution. On the national level, legislative power is vested in the Assembly of the Union, whose 30 members serve five-year terms. Half of the members are selected by the individual islands’ legislatures (each island selects five members), and the other half are popularly elected. The head of state is a president, who is popularly elected to a four-year term. The presidency rotates among the three islands. Two vice presidents, representing the other two islands, assist the president. Judicial power resides with the Supreme Court, which rules on fiscal and administrative issues, and the High Council, which considers constitutional matters.
HISTORY OF COMOROS
The history of the Comoros archipelago has largely been determined by the geographical location of the islands. Traders and seafarers from Africa and Madagascar were attracted to the islands because they provided fertile soil, timber for building boats, and important stops on long-distance trade routes. By the 15th century, trading towns had been built, and they played a significant part in regional trade, selling food or Malagasy slaves to pirates or to visiting European company ships. In the late 18th century the islands suffered severely from slave raids. Sakalava and Betsimisaraka chiefs from northern Madagascar conducted the raids to capture and enslave Comorians. During this period all the towns were fortified with citadels and town walls, many of which form a picturesque background to the modern urban scene. By the 1840s Malagasy chiefs controlled Mayotte and Mwali, and in 1843 one of these, Andriansouli, ceded Mayotte to the French. French influence gradually dominated all the islands, and they became a French protectorate in 1886.
The promoters of French plantation companies obtained forced labor from the peasantry of the Comoros, who had to lease their land from the companies. In 1912 the islands were formally made a colony and placed under the government of the French colony of Madagascar, after they had experienced nearly 30 years of exploitation by French land company promoters. Toward the beginning of World War II (1939-1945), the colonial administration in Madagascar sided with the French Vichy government, which collaborated with the occupying German Nazis. Afraid that the islands might fall to the Japanese and be used as bases for submarine attacks, British forces invaded the Comoros and Madagascar in 1942 and restored them to the Free French government of Charles de Gaulle. In 1946 the Comoros were given their own conseil général (general council), and they were separated from the government of Madagascar in 1960. In that same year Madagascar became an independent republic, but the Comoros stayed under French rule.
A referendum on independence was held in the Comoros in 1974, when Mayotte voted by a small majority to remain with France. France put up no opposition when the other three islands declared their independence in 1975. Since 1975, however, France has continued to play a dominant role in the life of the islands and has made use of mercenaries four times to bring about changes in regime. Comoros remains closely tied to France and its interests in the Indian Ocean.
After independence, Comoros became politically unstable. A revolution shortly after independence installed a radical nationalist regime under Ali Soilih, which was overthrown by a coup led by mercenaries in 1978. The country was then ruled by President Ahmed Abdulla, who was backed by French mercenaries and by South Africa until he was assassinated in 1989. Said Mohamed Djohar then took office and held onto power precariously until he was deposed in September 1995 by yet another coup, led by French mercenary Bob Denard. French troops intervened and arrested Denard in October.
In March 1996 Mohamed Taki Abdulkarim was elected president, in the first democratic elections held since Comoros gained independence from France. Taki drafted a new constitution that extended the authority of the president and established Islam as the basis for all legislation. Discontent with Taki soon spread across the country, and in mid-1997 the islands of Nzwani and Mwali separately declared their independence from the Comoros. In September dozens of Comorian troops were killed in a failed military operation to put down the secession on Nzwani. In late 1998 Taki died of a heart attack and was succeeded by an interim president. In April 1999 representatives from the three islands attended talks, mediated by the African Union (OAU), that were aimed at restoring unity. An agreement was reached that would restore a looser federation, with increased autonomy for the two smaller islands. Only the Nzwani delegation refused to sign the accord, saying it had to consult its people. Within days, riots broke out on Njazidja aimed at people from Nzwani. On April 30 the army staged a bloodless military coup, claiming it was necessary to restore order. The interim government was dissolved, and army chief of staff Colonel Azali Assoumani assumed control. Pledging to abide by the OAU agreement and return the Comoros to civilian rule, he formed a transitional government. A new constitution, giving each island a significant degree of autonomy over its own finances and laws, was approved by a national referendum in December 2001. The constitution specified that the presidency would rotate among the three islands. In April 2002 Azali, of Njazidja, was elected the first president under this system.