Les Personnages
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Les Sultans et les résidents de Grande Comore
Djoumbe Fatouma
Prince Said Ibrahim
Said Mohamed Cheick
Said Mohamed Djaffar
Ali Soilihi
Ahmed Abdallah
Said Mohamed Djohar
Taki Abdoulkarim
Taki Abdoulkarim (2eme doc)
Décès de Taki
Tadjidine Ben said Masonde
Azali Assoumani 
Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi

En marge de l'histoire des Comores:

Ursule Salima MACHAMBA 1ère, Reine de Mohéli

Bob Denard

Jean Claude Vallée
Un siècle d'histoire
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    THE COMOROS "The Federation of the Quarrelsome Sultans"
    Pierre Cyril Pahlavi

    The Islands of the Moon
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    Retour sur le 3 août 1975

    12 Nov.1975 Entrée à l'ONU
    Galerie Historique des Comores à L'ONU
    The Post-Independence History of the Comoros
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    Martin Bohnstedt
    La Question de l'état Nation
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    L'autonomie interne, une restauration de la dignité Comorienne (1946-1975) par Jean Louis GUEBOURG
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    "The Federation of the Quarrelsome Sultans"

    This text is published with the consent of the autor
    Available also in its original context on the web at the following address:


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    Winter 2001 Issue


    "The Federation of the Quarrelsome Sultans"

    Pierre Cyril Pahlavi, Ph. D. Candidate


    Department of Political Science

    McGill University


    "History does not repeat itself, but it sometimes reveals curious constants."
    (Abdoul Djabir)


    Since its independence, the Comoros Federation has been faced with a profound crisis that affects its political institutions. Today, even its territorial integrity is questioned. In 1997, two of the three islands decided to secede, breaking the young federation into pieces. This article attempts to demonstrate that the disintegration of the Comorian federation can better be understood by taking into account the strong forces that have characterised the twenty-five years of its short history. These forces are the archipelago's natural tendency towards political breakdown, the specific interests of France, and the authoritarian and centralising policy of the federal government in Moroni.

    This article attempts to show the chaotic and incredible history of this volcanic archipelago, punctuated by numerous coups d'état and theatrical developments. This paper also aims to expand the study on this Indian Ocean archipelago, which has so far been neglected. In the first part, which covers the period from independence to the advent of the federation, the author gives a general idea of 1) the pre-colonial and colonial history of the Comorian archipelago, 2) the walk towards independence, and 3) the Mayotte island's dissent. He also analyses 4) the rejection of the federation option in 1978, 5) the ambiguous French policy, 6) the circumstances surrounding the declaration of independence and 7) the advent of an independent Comorian entity without the Mahorian island.

    In the second part, which deals with the period between independence and the Comorian crisis of 1990, the author analyses 8) the Islamic Comorian Federation's institutions, 9) President Abdallah's arbitrary and Jacobinical federalism (the democratic and centralising model which came out of the French Revolution), and 10) President Djohar's attempt at liberalisation. Finally, the author describes the exact circumstances that surrounded the beginning of the Comorian crisis, 11) from Anjouan's and Mohéli's secession to the internationalisation of the crisis and 14) the impasse in which the archipelago found itself since the beginning of 2000.

    Introduction 1

    The Comoros is located in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mozambique.2 It consists of an archipelagos composed of four islands: Grande Comore (Njazidja), Anjouan (Nzwani), Mohéli (Mwali) and Mayotte (Mahoré). The northern most is Grande Comore; just south of Grande Comore is the small island Moheli; to the east is Anjouan, the second largest of the islands after Grande Comore, and just south-east of Anjouan is the disputed island of Mayotte. While Grande Comore, Anjouan and Mohéli separated from French colonial power in 1975 to form the Islamic Federal Republic of the Comoros (capital Moroni), Mayotte kept its attachment to France under the status of a 'collectivité territoriale'. Since the independence, the official federal government is located in the capital city of Moroni on the island of Grande Comore.

    The Comorian population, being a unique mixture of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, possesses among others, Malgaches, Tanzanian, Arab, Persian and even Indian and European elements. Two official languages (French and Arab) exist beside two Comorian dialects, which are close to Swahili (Anjouanese-Mahorian, Grand Comorian-Mohélian). Although each island has its own peculiarities relative to their history, the archipelago enjoys a certain ethnic and cultural homogeneity which is strongly reinforced by the unifying presence of Islam (Shafeite rite Sunni).3 Three of the four islands, which opted for independence in 1975 in becoming the Islamic Federal Republic of the Comoros,4 today constitute a country which is essentially rural (77% of the labor force), and extremely poor (GNP/inhabitant = 177th ranking among 226 countries), in which the level of alphabetisation and industrialization is very low, in spite of the aid given regularly by France.5

    At the moment when the Islamic Federation of the Comoros is threatening to break down under the pressure of Anjouan's and Mohéli's secession, it seems necessary to determine the recurrent elements which, during this system's twenty years of existence, have caused its desequilibrium and its progressive fall. A study of this period shows three strong forces 6 whose interaction is largely responsible for the crisis the Comorian federation is experiencing today. The first element is the archipelago's natural tendency towards geo-political breakdown; a tendency that has made the construction of a homogeneous and strong political ensemble since the pre-colonial times. The second factor is the façade of federalism with which the Comoros endowed themselves in order to parry the forces of disintegration. Behind this is hidden, in fact, a centralising Jacobinism 7 inherited from the French colonial era and exercised by authoritarian leaders whose disdain for the islands' autonomy contributes to the federal system's discredit and fall. Finally, the last element is the ambiguity of the role played by France, whose double approach consists, on the one hand, of backing the centralism of Moroni's leaders and, on the other, of encouraging Comoros' natural tendency towards geo-political breakdown, notably by promoting a very positive picture of the dissident Mayotte's enviable status and economical success.

    The question then, is to know how these underlying forces combine throughout this period to produce a complete rejection of federalism, which paradoxically was federal only in name. To answer this question, it is necessary to take into account the Comoros' political evolution since the 1970s. First, after a brief look at pre-colonial and colonial history, I will analyse the circumstances in which independence took place as well as the reasons that led to the choice of the federal system. Secondly, I will compare the Comorian federal system since 1978 with the real exercise of power and finally; I will examine how this system entered a crisis in the early 1990s.

    I. First Part : From Independence to Federation

    The Comoros seem, when one looks at their history, to be marked by the seal of discord and disunion. They have often been called the 'archipelago of the quarrelsome Sultans'. The history of each one of the islands is, in effect, closely related to the quarrels between the Sunni Sultans who went there from Persia and the Arabian Peninsula after the Shiite conquest. A multitude of sultans, each reigning over his own city, shared among them the territory and the archipelago, which were covered by several kingdoms without any central authority. In the eighteenth century, the Grande Comoros island, for example, consisted of a mosaic of sultanates placed under the formal tutelage of the Ntibe Sultan - a sort of general without power only designated by the other sultans in order to face a potential foreign invasion. The archipelago's three other islands had an analogous situation, and the various attempts at unification always failed. Anjouan was divided into rival sultanates before being unified by Abdallah I who, at the head of the Mutsumadu Sultanate, conquered the Domoni Sultanate.8 However Anjouan's attempts, under the reign of Abdallah III, to unify the archipelago failed, its authority being constantely contested by the other Islands. Thus, at the end of the nineteenth century, when the neighbour island of Madagascar was unified by the Emperor Andrianipoinimérina, it seemed inconceivable that those rival and pugnacious islands would, one day, submit themselves to a common authority and that from these secular divisions, unity could be generated.

    It is in this context that, unable to defend themselves alone, one island after another, and each one separately, accepted the protection of the same foreign power - France. Thus, between 1841 and 1909, the Comoros, involuntarily unified, were progressively integrated into the French Empire, which immediately reorganised the archipelago, using the centralising Jacobin model. France did not succeed, however, in eradicating the archipelago's natural proportion toward geo-political division. Yet "despite one century and a half of French administration and political centralisation, the ancient Comorian sociological reality subsisted in the collective memory and behaviour of its people. Comorians base their identity on their families, hometowns or regions of residence, but rarely or never, on the state and the central administration. For better or for worse, solidarity is familial or regional before being national."9

    Thus, from the beginning, one finds the three elements that characterised the political evolution of an independent Comoros: A) a strong tendency in the Comorian geo-political entity toward against integration that makes each island jealous of its identity rights, B) a centralised political system inherited from the colonial era and deeply rooted in the Comorian elite's political culture and, finally, C) France's paradoxical attitude which gained a footage in supporting dividing forces, but was to install immediately a unified system.

    After having acquired the status of overseas territory in 1947 - within the framework of the French Union - the Comoros expressed their fidelity to France at the referendum proposed by General De Gaulle in 1958. Appearing content with the internal autonomy received in 1961, they did not join in the wave of decolonization of the 1960s. It is only in the early 1970s that some voices demanded the independence of the archipelago -- except for Mayotte where a majority of the population was expressing a desire to remain part of France's territory. From then, by affirming its attachment to Mayotte, the French government contributed to reintroducing a ferment of division into the archipelago after more than a century of cohabitation. During a visit to Mayotte in January 1972, Pierre Messmer, then minister of Overseas Territories and Departments (DOM-TOM), declared: "Mayotte, which has been French for 130 years, can remain French for as many years as it wishes. The population will be consulted about that; a referendum will be held island by island ... If you do not wish to be separated from France, France does not wish to be separated from you."10 This declaration, which was then largely overlooked, was to be repeated three years later in order to legitimise the French government's new policy.

    On January 15, 1973, a treaty was signed in Paris stipulating that the Comoros could become independent within a maximum of 5 years after a popular consultation. The conditions of this treaty, approved by the French government on October 2, stated that the result of the vote would be ratified by the French parliament and that, in the case of a refusal, the islands should retain their status within France. Yet there was no mention of a referendum 'island by island'. As Keesing's Record states:

    The French proposals opted for a "global" rather than an island-by-island referendum, the significance of this approach being that the island of Mayotte, which had constantly expressed a preference for maintaining its French status, would not have the opportunity to make its individual opinion felt over the other three main islands', which, during the election of December 1972, had given a substantial majority to the three-party coalition advocating independence from Franc.11

    But the Mahorian Popular Movement (MPM), the anti-independence majority party of Mayotte, highly disapproved of the treaty and immediately reacted. On October 9, its leader, Marcel Henry, claimed the Mahorians' right to auto-determination by invoking article 53 of the 1958 French constitution, according to which the secession of a French territory is impossible without its inhabitants' consent.

    On October 16, 1974, Ahmed Abdallah, who had officially been the president of the Comorian government since the June 1973 treaty, replied that the MPM only represented a part of Mayotte's population and that the archipelago's dismemberment was excluded because it constituted an inviolable political and judicial ensemble. However, Ahmed Abdallah, who had occupied several positions in the colonial administration, was far from having the unanimous support of the independentists, who suspected him of being manipulated by Paris.

    In October, Abouhacar Boina, the leader of the Movement for the Liberation of the Comoros (MOLINACO) - recently returned from exile - accused Abdallah's government of being a puppet in the hands of France. Meanwhile, on October 27, the president of the French Republic, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, put an end to the debate on Mayotte by recognising the legitimacy of an independent and integral Comorian archipelago.

    The population of the Comoros is homogeneous, with a virtually non-existent or very limited element of French descent. Was it reasonable, confronted with the request for independence presented by the Government of the islands, to imagine part of the archipelago becoming independent and one island, however much one may sympathize with its inhabitants, retaining a different status. I think we have to accept contemporary realities. The Comoros are and always have been an entity and it is natural for them to share a common destiny even though some of them might have wanted a different solution, a fact that naturally touches us although we were not to act in consequence. It is not for us, on the occasion of a territory's independence, to propose to break up the unity of what has always been one Comoro archipelago.12

    However, France's position appeared progressively more equivocal concerning the Comoros' integrity than suggested by Giscard's declaration. Although the French parliament ratified the global referendum principle in November, it added an amendment stipulating that Mayotte had to benefit from a certain degree of regional autonomy. In the same way, Olivier Stirn, the new minister of DOM-TOM,13 declared to the French Senate on November 6, that "the holding of a global referendum did not imply any inevitable juridical consequences as regards Mayotte and that it would be for the Parliament to draw its conclusions from the outcome of the referendum."14 This reorientation was materialised by the new legislation adopted on November 23, 1974. The 74-965 law confirmed the organisation of a global referendum within six months. However, article 2 stipulated that "the Parliament will be called, at the expiration of a 6-month term following the proclamation of the results, to pronounce itself on the orientation that it wants to give to this consultation."15 In other words, France reserved for itself the possibility of examining the result of the referendum and of consequently making a decision regarding the independence of the islands. During the period preceding decolonization, it was as if France, aware of the ineluctability of independence, wanted to remain prudent by treating gently the new leading elite's susceptibility concerning Mayotte and, at the same time, ensuring the possibility of using this issue as a political lever in the future.

    As planned, the referendum vote took place on December 22, 1974 with a participation rate of 93%. To the question 'Do you want the Comoros' territory to become independent?', the Yes option obtained a tremendous majority, with 95.56% of the popular vote. However, 64% of the Mahorians declared themselves against independence, preferring to remain under France.16 Excluding an immediate declaration of independence, President Abdallah called for the unity of the Comoros and declared "that the Chamber of Deputies would assume the powers of a Constituent Assembly to draw up a constitution and that independence would be proclaimed at the appropriate time in agreement with the French Government and Parliament."17 Nevertheless, the Mahorian vote encouraged France to try to convince the Comorian leaders to devise a constitution that would secure a large degree of decentralisation and some autonomy for Mayotte.

    On the occasion of an official visit to the archipelago in February 1975, Olivier Stirn invited the Constituent Assembly to draft a text that would respect the island's particular autonomy by referring to a principle of 'multi-insularity'. This concept is in fact "an euphemism for a federal system in which individual islands would have executive, legislative and internal security powers as well as some foreign trade autonomy."18 By opting for the multi-insularity concept, France was again encouraging a dynamic of disunion within the young Comorian federation. For his part, the leader of the Mahorian Popular Movement (MPM), Marcel Henry, turned this concept into the main theme of his struggle against the new federal Comorian government established in the capital city of Moroni.

    Rapidly, a context was created in which the adoption of a federal system for Comoros was first seen as the best option for the newly independent Comoros. As Abdou Djabir explains:

    The federal solution became tempting on the eve of independence considering the Mahorian dissent. The partisans of federation saw it as a clever way to avoid the obstacle created by the suspicion toward decisions taken in the buildings of Moroni ... Federation offered the possibility for each island to preserve its identity by managing its own business and exploiting its assets to fill the gap between itself and the others. The French government, through the ministry of DOM-TOM, put the emphasis on the federal formula considering that it was the only way to avoid the balkanisation of the archipelago ... The Mahorians could, in this perspective and similarly to the Québécois, benefit from a particular status.19

    However, the federal solution generated great suspicion among the Comoros' leading elite who feared that in the long run it would entail the fragmentation of the archipelago. President Abdallah declared: "I am against a federal state, but I am in favour of respecting the individuality of each island in a single state ... We shall never surrender Mayotte."20 In reality, he suspected France of encouraging federalism in order to use Mayotte as a 'Trojan horse' to maintain the archipelagos under its influence and weaken its sovereign power. On April 11, Abdallah rejected the draft prepared by the National Assembly on the grounds that it was too decentralising. The president of the Chamber of Representatives, anticipating that Abdallah would impose his rule by force to the whole, declared: "One must really fear a unilateral declaration of independence in July if the French Parliament neglects the Comoros issue. Such a declaration would ... open the way to dictatorship."21 Everything led then to believe that the honeymoon between the Comorian president and Paris was over.

    The ties were finally severed when, following a parliamentary Commission led by Gaullist deputies, the French National Assembly, on July 3, 1975, adopted a law on the independence of Comoros, whose second article stipulated that the new Comorian constitution had to be accepted not globally, but island by island:

    Within six months after the promulgation of this law, a Constitutional Committee formed by delegates from all the Comorian political formations that have been allowed to participate in the campaign relating to the consultation of Comorian populations, representatives of this territory at the French National Assembly and Senate, and members of the Comoros Chamber of Deputies, will establish a Constitution project guaranteeing the democratic liberties of citizens as well as the political identity of islands composing the future state. This Constitution project will be submitted by referendum before the independence proclamation and at a date that will be fixed by the Constitutional Committee. It will have to be approved island by island by a majority of voters.22

    The consequences of this consultation 'island by island' were the following:

    If one or several islands reject this project, the Constitutional Committee will have to propose a new draft within three months. If all the islands did not approve the new project, the Constitution will be applicable to those which adopted it. The Government will deposit a bill fixing the provisional organisation of other islands as well as the details of the new consultation of their populations on the status that they wish to adopt. 23

    With this law, France not only went against its commitment to the principle of a global referendum but also cast doubt on the territorial integrity of Comoros. Also, it seems clear that, understanding that the Comorian leaders were determined to reject the federal compromise, and fearing that a strong and centralising regime would cast doubt on its influence, France decided to support the Mahorian dissent. Without difficulty, this strategy can be interpreted as the application of the old adage of divide and conquer.

    One must take into account economic and specially strategic factors to explain the French government's volte-face. In effect, "the repudiation of the 1974 Giscard policy on Comorian integrity was not only the result of imperial nostalgia in Gaullist ranks, it was also due to French strategic considerations, France finding itself in an increasingly militarised Indian Ocean area where it had already lost its strategic vantage points on Madagascar."24 We will see how, in the long run, the attitude adopted by France facilitated the weakening of the Comorian regime, and the putting in place by its leaders of an authoritarian and intransigent policy towards the islands.

    The reaction of the federal government in Moroni to the announcement of the promulgation of the French law was violent. On June 27, Ahmed Abdallah rejected it as unacceptable and inapplicable and the National Congress of his party, Oudzima, adopted the following resolution: "The Comoros people disapprove of interference by the French Parliament in the internal affairs of the future Comoros state, condemn all manoeuvres to balkanise the Comoros, and consequently reject the provisions of the act of June 30, 1975."25 On July 6, the Chamber of Deputies, renamed the National Assembly, unilaterally proclaimed the independence of the Comoros within its colonial frontiers. France ignored the proclamation.

    Elected on July 7, President Abdallah made a cautious declaration on the same day to Paris: "Mayotte will not stir unless France gives the order ... The responsibility for future events lies with France;"26 he also called for the arbitration of the international court of justice and the involvement of the UN and the Organisation for African Unity (OAU). For its part, France stood its ground and maintained that, given the unilateral declaration of independence, it was no longer obligated to guarantee the unity of the archipelago. On July 13, Abdallah implored France: "We are convinced that if France maintains her position by force on Mayotte, the nations of the world will oppose her. But we don't wish the situation to come to that. There has been no rupture with France. We shall never accept the shedding of a single drop of French blood on Comorian soil."27 The more striking fact was not so much the inflexibility of French policy but the defensive attitude of President Abdallah, who acted as if he had made an error and wanted to correct it or at least justify himself in the eyes of France.

    Nevertheless, "France had evidently decided that the mercurial Abdallah would no longer serve French purposes,"28 and - not surprisingly - on July 26, he was deposed by a parliamentary coalition. Abdallah accused France of having "prepared and financed the opposition's coup d'état...."29 Ironically, the man who had represented the unity of the newly independent Comoros fled to his native island of Anjouan where he organised a rebellion against the government in Moroni. Like a feudal sultan, he tried desperately to spread secessionism, but in vain, since the central power regained control of the situation right away.30 For its part, the principal beneficiary of this first act, France, declared that the rebellion was the internal business of the Comoros and did not concern it.

    As soon as he took up his duties, the new president Ali Soilih declared: "We shall maintain the ties of friendship and co-operation with France, which have been broken by President Abdallah."31 However, the chief of government, Prince Saïd Mohamed Jaffar, invited France to reconsider its position regarding the Comoros "now that the reactionary, corrupt, nepotistic and anti-French Abdallah"32 was no longer in power. France's only concession was to recognise the independence of Grande Comoros (Nzazidja), Anjouan (Nzwani) and Mohéli (Mwali), which they did on December 31, 1975, without mentioning Mayotte (Mahoré).

    In February 1976 Mayotte voted by a huge majority in favour of maintaining its bonds with France, and received in December the hybrid status of Territorial Collectivity with a representative at the French Assembly and the Senate, as well as a prefect as government leader. France retained Mayotte, consequently amputating the new Republic. "Comoros has remained from this moment on what one might call 'a three-legged cow'."33 Nevertheless, the new Comorian Constitution referred to the concept of one archipelago plus one island and affirmed Moroni's de facto sovereignty over Mayotte. The Comorian character of Mayotte was maintained and the Constitution took into account the long term political reintegration of the island into the Comorian whole. The paradox of France's policy was that, after promoting a centralising model for more than a century, it was now encouraging the fragmentation of the archipelago by depriving it of one of its four islands in the name of the preservation of its distinct identity. Hence, by the end of 1976, France had already put in place a strategy aiming at maintaining its influence in the Comoros by playing both the card of the Comorian central power and the dissent of Mayotte. Paris' strategy worked but its casualty was the newly put in place federal status.

    II. Second Part : From Federation to Crisis

    In 1978, Ahmed Abdallah came back to power due to of a military coup realised with the help of European mercenaries led by the French colonel Bob Denard.34 Even though the coup was almost unanimously condemned by the international community, "the French government, while it denied having given any official encouragement to the mercenaries, was clearly willing to support the new regime as being favourable to its strategic interests in the Indian Ocean."35 As early as November, France's economic help and the co-operation agreement were re-established. However, the new power did not give up on the hope of one day seeing Mayotte reintegrated into the national ensemble, which is why it promoted the adoption of a federal type of constitution that offered Mahorians the chance to join the other islands and guaranteed each island a certain degree of autonomy.

    At first, the Federal republic, instituted by October 1, 1978 constitution, seemed to be conform to the principles of federalism. Two levels of government were established, each with a level of sovereignty. At the local level, governments - elected directly by universal vote - received a large degree of autonomy: the legislative as well as executive powers were their prerogatives, and they could manage their revenues and federal government subsidies themselves. Each island as a governorship was able to manage itself freely with the help of a Council (elected by direct popular vote) that voted on laws for the island and adopted the local budget based on direct tax money and allocations from the federal government. Each one managed equally almost all of the social programs: health, education, training, equipment, etc. A governor (elected by direct popular vote) represented the local executive branch and was in charge of the local administration. 36

    At the federal level, the new Constitution seemed to support a rather decentralised system where each island is well represented in the government. But in fact, it appears that this system was the continuation of the old clannish solidarity:

    Nationally, the main functions of the federal state (presidency of the Republic, presidency of the Federal Assembly and presidency of the Supreme Court) are divided between the three federated islands. In principle, this division is meant to allow the three islands to be involved in the central decision-making process. It is considered by Comorians an equity factor and a way to preserve harmony between the national entities. The central government is divided in the same manner: each island has one or several ministers, who keep strong ties with their home regions. Thus, they are more the ambassadors of their regions than members of a united government. This practice, which introduces a kind of ethnic strategy within the government, is now an integral part of Comorian politics that harms the country's cohesion and makes the choice of ministers difficult.37

    Comorian society's insularity, which had been contained during the colonial era, was thus liberated by the federal system. This system weakened the Comorian political entity by opening the door to political disintegration. But, in practice, the autonomy of each island was strongly limited, as the parliamentary representation of each island was impossible due to the absence of an assembly. Progressively, the quasi-monopoly of the state on fiscal resources was worsened by unequal redistribution, which was accompanied most of the time by strict federal directives which did not allow the governorships to be as financially autonomous as the Constitution stipulated they should be. It appeared therefore, that in fact the federal balance was biased by the weight the central government had subtly arrogated to itself. These two tendencies - the insularity and the centralisation - both threatened the proper functioning of the federal state.

    In the early 1980s, President Abdallah used the pretext of the international economic crisis that seriously afflicted Comoros to undertake a vast reform of the federal institutions, which he considered to be money pits; his objective was greater centralisation. In October 1980, he made the following declaration: "The past four years have showed the inadequacy of some of our institutions, and our financial problems demand the revision of the Constitution."38 The modifications were undertaken at the expense of the federal character established in 1978 and to the profit of the centralised power. Concretely, among the critical changes, one can note that the governors were no longer elected by popular vote but nominated directly by the president himself; fiscal resources were even more concentrated in the hands of Moroni, thus reducing the financial autonomy of the islands. As Abdou Djabir writes, "the 'small federated republics' became the underlings of the central government. Under the central and hierarchic authority of the president, governors became wise men without power."39 In other words, the constitutional amendments of 1982 had the effect of depriving the Comorian regime of its federal characteristics. The Comorian Federation of 1978 therefore was less of a federation that its name implied, as it acted more as a centralised state operating under prefects and governors. Democracy was also the victim of the new constitution, as the Parliament was limited to purely consultative functions and a unique party system was established in 1982.

    Thus, the Comoros Republic oriented itself towards an authoritarian and monocephalous regime President Abdallah at his head, whose powers extended throughout the 1980s. In the September 1984 elections, he was elected with the dubious score of 99.4% of the vote for an additional mandate. In January 1985, an amendment abolished the position of Prime Minister, its function being from that moment on carried out by the president himself. After two coups d'état, in March 1985 and November 1987, Abdallah pushed for the adoption on November 5, 1989 of a new amendment allowing him to stay for a third presidential mandate (the limit had been two consecutive mandates until then). Abdallah also wished to become the president of all the Comorian people since he decided to make Mayotte part of the Comoros again.40 But as Abdallah was preparing himself for his "triumphal" re-election, his reign came to an abrupt end. He was assassinated on the night of November 27, the same year, when his presidential palace was taken by Bob Denard's mercenaries, who - ten years earlier - had helped him achieve power. Abdallah left behind him an absolutist regime and an agonising federalism.

    The head of the interim government, Saïd Mohamed Djohar, was elected president in February 1990. He announced his will to democratise the regime by restoring a multi-party system. In April 1992, he succeeded - despite the opposition's suspicion - in bringing about the adoption of a constitutional reform project. The new amendments limited the presidential mandate to a maximum of two five-year terms, re-established the Prime Minister's functions and put in place a bicameral system composed of "a Legislative Assembly and a 15-member Senate with each island choosing 5 representatives by an Electoral College."41 The federal spirit was also restored: the federal government was given national defence, mail and telecommunications, transport, civil law, industrial and penal law, foreign trade, federal taxation, economic planning, education and health;42 while the attribution of the islands were enlarged. Governors and island councils were once again elected by popular vote, and each district elected a representative who would be a member of the Assembly. Consequently, although the new system was an improvement over what it had been and a return to the system prevailing in 1978. This reform, however, was not enough in the face of the profound unrest that affected the Comoros Federal Republic in the 1990s.

    The unrest, which had been latent in the archipelago since the end of the 1980s, finally exploded in the mid-1990s. Several coups d'état against President Djohar were attempted, at the same time involving the opposition, foreign mercenaries and - indirectly - France. One demonstration after another broke out to protest against the help, subsidies and arms provided to President Djohar by the French government. The latter was publicly accused of corruption and nepotism as ministerial instability was at its worst. It is in this context that Paris progressively decided to stop backing the Djohar administration.

    France opted then to engage in an official duel with the government in Moroni: The Parisian press accused the Comorian chief of state and his relatives of financial wrongdoings, the French government joined the Comorian opposition to demand the liberation of political dissidents and Air France threatened to suspend its flights to Comoros. In November 1994, the French government undermined Comoro's claim for sovereignty over Mayotte, by imposing visa requirements for Comorian people entering the island. This provoked severe condemnation on the part of Djohar.43 In the summer of 1995, the latter, deprived of the backing of Paris and beeing discredited and criticised in his own government, was more isolated than ever.

    It was therefore no surprise when Djohar was overthrown by a new coup d'état supervised by colonel Denard and his men in late September. Invoking a defence treaty concluded in 1978, France intervened to re-establish order and deport Djohar to Réunion Island (France). "It was also widely believed that the French government had viewed Djohar's administration as untenable, in view of his increasing domestic unpopularity, and had tacitly encouraged his removal of power."44 Following presidential elections that were held on the March 16, 1996, Mohamed Taki Abdul Karim - an old opponent of Djohar's and France's new protégé - was elected with 64% of the vote. Benefiting from "strong support from the African network of the RPR party,"45 he obtained, as early as 1996, the promise of financial help and an offer of assistance for the reorganisation of the public finances and the education, health and judiciary systems from French President Jacques Chirac. But as the new regime tried to maintain France's benevolence, the federal system was on the verge of crumbling; used up by twenty years of power abuse and arbitrary centralism, the federal cohesion was seriously threatened.

    In the mid 1990s, the volcanic Comoros Archipelago, which had been in a state of constant political turmoil, 'erupted'. The crisis first broke out on the Island of Mohéli, which was the first to reject the authority of Moroni's government. This island organised, in October 1995, a campaign of civil disobedience and adopted a Citizens' Council as government. In February, another step was taken when Mohéli unilaterally declared itself a democratic Republic. In early August, important manifestations were organised on themes such as separatism and resistance to federal power. "We will show the Comorian authorities that we are fed up with being permanently humiliated,"46 declared its leaders. Protesters, who were always numerous, finally demanded independence and an insular organisation as opposed to federalism, which was associated in their minds with central power abuses. "In Mohéli, next to the French flag, the black and gold flag of Queen Fatima Djoumbé is hoisted in tribute to the feudal era of insular rivalries."47

    Slower to erupt, the revolt was also more virulent and more durable in Anjouan, where it broke out in March 1996, when civil servants that had not been paid held a demonstration. Refusing to participate in the Comoros Independence Day celebrations of the 6th of July, Anjouanese celebrated with exuberance France's national holiday - the 14th of July - on which occasion they demanded to be reattached to France. The Island was covered with French flags and the political and administrative leaders who had proclaimed themselves to be the government of the island, expressed their objective as 'independence or reattachment.'

    However, as Jean Hélène writes, "it seems that, although reattachment to France would be a miracle for some supporters, for others it constitutes a pretext or a provocation towards the federal regime."48 In any case, the leading elite of Moroni was perceived as representing the interests of a rival island - namely Grande Comore - rather than the government of a federal group of island. On the 3rd of August, the Anjouan self-proclaimed government unilaterally declared the independence of Anjouan, of which Mutsumadu became the national capital and Ibrahim the president.

    Left with no other choice, the central government decided, at the end of August, to make a compromise and accepted to give more autonomy to the islands in a more liberal federation. The government declared itself ready to enlarge the power of the islands in the Comorian Republic and to reorganise the institutions in this way. The independentists' refusal was categorical. This refusal convinced Moroni's leaders to resort to a military landing, which took place September 2, 1996. But the intervention was a fiasco for the governmental forces, which were immediately repulsed to the sea by the Anjouanese militia.49 The defeated national army returned to Grande Comoros where crowds in Moroni called for President Taki's resignation.

    As early as September, the rupture seemed to be definitive between Grande Comoros and the rebellious Anjouan. On September 27th, the Mutsumadu government unveiled the results of a referendum: 99.88% of the people had voted for independence.50 Declaring that the Anjouanese people had chosen to separate from the Islamic Federation of Comoros,51 the self-nominated President Ibrahim announced that a provisory government would be formed, a presidential election would be held shortly and that an independent constitution would be written.

    When the Anjouanese secession became official, the Comorian issue took an international dimension. As a group, the international community took a position in favour of the maintenance of the political and territorial integrity of the Comoros. Regional and international powers that had interests invested in the Indian Ocean area were in favour of the status quo. This was not only the case of the United States and Great Britain, but also Madagascar and South Africa.52 France sided with its international partners but remained a key actor in the crisis.

    It is through international organisations that these states decided to make official their disapproval of Anjouanese separation. The United Nations and the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) strongly condemned the independentists, whose actions they considered illegitimate. The UN general secretary, Kofi Anan, "exhorted all Comorian parties to abstain from any act aiming at questioning the territorial integrity, the sovereignty and the national unity of the Comoros Federal Republic."53

    In order to bring about a resolution of the crisis, the OAU organised a conference of national reconciliation in Addis Abbaba to which were invited not only official representatives of Moroni, but also delegates from Anjouan and Mohéli. Simultaneously, the OAU announced the deployment of military observers in Anjouan, which angered Anjouanese separatists. After the failure of their attempt to restore order by force, the Moroni leaders turned to other approaches. On the one hand President Taki took a stance of compromise by appointing as Prime Minister Nourdine Bourhane, who benefited from a favourable image in Anjouan. On the other hand, Moroni encouraged the development of dissension among the members of the new Anjouanese leadership. The second approach was successful since an overt guerrilla war burst out between 'President' Ibrahim's partisans and those of Mohamed Abdou Modali - the former Comorian Prime Minister who was in favour of the maintenance of national unity. In February 1998, the struggle between the two factions led Anjouan to the edge of civil war.

    In extremis, Ibrahim defeated his adversaries at the very moment when Moroni and the OAU leaders wanted to use the opportunity created by the factional guerrillas to undertake a military landing in Anjouan and restore Comoros' sovereignty. Ali Moumine, Anjouan's minister of foreign affairs, accused them of trying all means to "legitimise the deployment of military observers, against the will of the Anjouan people."54 From that moment on, mutual suspicion brought Anjouan and the OAU leaders into opposition.

    For its part, France adopted a mediation policy. The French government tried to bring about a negotiated solution to the crisis ; notably during the peace talks organised at Mohéli in January 1998 and formally rejected the possibility of reintegrating the secessionist island into France.55 It also invited the Indian Ocean Commission to adopt a firm position against the Anjouanese separatism.56 But Anjouanese leaders denounced French manoeuvres and those of the international community to reconstruct the Comoros unity. Ironically - despite France's efforts - the French Mayotte continued to constitute a model for Anjouan's leaders.

    Towards the end of 1998 and in 1999, the Comorian Archipelago seemed to be plunged into complete anarchy. The crisis reached its peak, the distortion between all parties involved was at its worst and the negotiations reached an impasse. The situation remained uncertain in Anjouan, where order was non-existent. Several ministerial crises occurred in a short period of time and successive governments were deposed under the pretext of incompetence or simply treason. New factional struggles broke out and the menace of OAU military intervention remained constant. The situation was just as difficult in Grande Comore, where the regime was increasingly contested. Anti-government riots took place frequently in Moroni and were severely repressed. It was in this tense context that President Taki died suddenly of a heart attack on the 6th of November 1998. In a climate of utter confusion, Madjine Ben Saïd was nominated as acting president until the definitive restoration of national unity.

    Hope reappeared when peace talks organised by the OUA in Antananarivo (Madagascar) resulted in an agreement project on the April 25, 1999. The agreement provided for substantial autonomy for the islands as well as a new name for the Islamic Federation of Comoros - the Union of Comoros Islands. However, only Mohéli's delegate accepted to sign; Anjouan's delegate refused, arguing that the agreement did not provide for enough decentralization. More violence in Moroni followed the announcement of the failure of the negotiations.57

    On April 30, 1999, as the crisis was reaching a new impasse, another military coup staged by Colonel Assoumani Azzali ousted the Comorian President and his government. The new leader decided to appoint a cabinet composed mainly of civilians and promised that he would stay in power for a period of only one year, within which elections would be held.58 But despite these promises, the military coup worsened the crisis by giving rise to a unanimous condemnation from the international community and causing the retraction of the Mohéli leaders, who considered the coup a violation of the April 25 agreement.

    Since then, the Comorian Federation's situation has been deteriorating. Despite the promises of Colonel Azzali, the democratization of the regime has not yet begun. The tragi-comic character of the archipelago's history became obvious once again when, in September 1999, Grande Comoros was the scene of another failed coup d'état - the nineteenth such attempt in twenty-five years of independence.59 Moreover, there is no reason to be optimistic regarding the eventual evolution of the secession crisis. Despite the ongoing negotiations under the tutelage of the OAU, it became clear that the crisis would not come to an end anytime soon when a peace agreement - which called upon Anjouan to rejoin the Comoros Federation - proposed in Antananarivo in April 1999 was rejected by 99.47% of the Anjouanese population. The complete unification of the Comorian nation is now more hypothetical than ever. In January 2000, an agreement between France and the representatives of Mayotte confirmed that the island would remain French. This agreement provided for the transformation of the Mahorian Island into a French 'territory-department', thus once again handing over its fate, and the archipelago's, to France.60


    Now, in 2001, a quick and peaceful resolution to the Comorian problem seems unlikely. The Comoros, more than ever, are torn apart by the strong forces that have created dissension and contributed to the country's disintegration in its short history. In this conclusion, a brief recapitulation of these causes profondes and an overview of the possible future of the Comorian crisis will be presented.

    France's responsibility: Without a doubt, France - as a great power involved in the region - bears a responsibility for the Comoros Federal Republic's instability and collapse. When the French government condemns the separatist initiatives and claims - as it did twenty years before - that it cares about the territorial integrity of the archipelago, it forgets that "the Comoros' fate (for a long time and until very recently) was in the hands of Paris. It gave subsidies, chose to support or oppose successive presidents, and might have played a part in the numerous coups d'état."61 In addition to supporting Moroni's leaders, France is often blamed for encouraging Mahorian dissent; thus amputating the archipelago by creating a source of disintegration. "France, said one Comorian, balkanised our country and made Mayotte a source of economic instability."62

    The French island's prosperity and its appeal to the other islands is seen as the cause of all the problems, and many people think it makes the construction of a stable and durable federal state difficult. "The national unity, often defended and declared," writes Djabir, "is not a reality yet. The natural or created differences in development between the islands and the regions convince separatists that each island would be better off without the others. Could this be a consequence of the Mayotte effect?"63 Consequently, those who project a resolution of the crisis through political reform believe that Mayotte would have to be a central part of it. A figurehead of the Comorian political scene, Prince Saïd Ali Kemal, asked France to contribute to the resolving of the crisis by changing its attitude towards the Mahorian dissent. He said: "We have to think about a new organisation system for the archipelago. We have to think about Mayotte. There would not be any problems in Anjouan if it were not next to Mayotte. The reintegration of Mayotte in the Comoros, in the context of a federation where the islands would be largely autonomous, could be a solution; Mayotte could be a kind of Comorian Quebec."64 However, as neither France nor Mahorians want Mayotte to be part of the Comoros again, this solution appears highly hypothetical today.

    The responsibility of the centralising authority: Even more responsible is the centralising and arbitrary Comorian state, where federal institutions are only democratic cautions. Following immoderately the tradition inherited from of the old home-country, a tradition of administrative centralisation, successive presidents kept on concentrating powers in Moroni, flouting the concept of federalism. "History, geography and everyday life all point to the importance of a system that protects each island's diversity and particularities, but governments have tried to unite all the islands in an authoritarian way. They forgot that the Comoros have a history, a territory divided by dozens of kilometres of water, which today's communication systems cannot cover."65 The results of twenty years of arbitrary and irrational centralism are catastrophic. In Moroni, where the governments have changed but the same attitude has remained, there is no choice but to acknowledge past mistakes and the decay of the federal system. In August 1997, the following editorial appeared in the Comorian newspaper El Watan:

    The Comorian State chose to promote the interests of egoistic individuals, ruling classes and powerful families over those of the community and general public. This appears all the more paradoxical and surprising in the light of the postulate the official ideology was based on: to break up regional and municipal solidarity through the strengthening of the centralising institutions inherited from the colonial era. Blind faith in the magical virtues of Jacobin centralism has resulted in the State's blatant helplessness ... It has thus been demonstrated that the challenge of achieving fair and viable development could not be met with a rigid, centralising nation-state that ignores the particularities of each of our islands and regions.66

    This acknowledgement of failure and the deadlock in the federal archipelago, indicate that reforms are badly needed.

    Looking for a solution: The federal system is not to blame for the Comoros Federal Republic's crisis, as it has only been a fictitious system used by the successive government as a formal cover. Similarly to the cases of ex-Yugoslavia and Indonesia, the federal system has been emptied from its genuine signification and used as a institutional disguise to serve personal goals at the expense of the collective interests of Comorian people. However, the federal system remains today the best solution for the problems of the archipelagos of the quarrelsome Sultans. In this respect, an adequate Comorian federation is needed i.e. one able to adapt the successful experiences undertaken by models all over the world (India, Switzerland, Canada) to the Comorian case. Such a federation, largely decentralised and sensibly adapted to an insular structure, is the only viable way to keep the Comoros a united and independent political entity. What has undoubtedly been missing in the Comoros since 1978 is a division of responsibilities and a good co-ordination of the relations between the islands. Clearly, some difficult issues such as the status of Mayotte and the catastrophic economic situation of the rest of the archipelago still need to be dealt with, but hopefully a fair and united federation could be the answer to these problems.


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    1. For their contribution in finalising this article, the author would like to thank : Louis Massicotte, Professor of Political Science and specialist of Federalism at the University of Montreal ; Camille Risler, Doctoral student in History and specialist in French colonial Politics at the University of Montreal ; Christian Pahlavan ; as well as Alison Jeppesen and the reviewers at Gateway for their suggestions. Please note: all translations of French sources are by the author.

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    2. For a map of the Comoros Islands see: http://www.ksu.edu/sasw/comoros/comoros.html.

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    3. Side by side, with the practise of Islam, there exist numerous pre-islamic customs which are close to those practised on the neighbouring African coastline. Christians only represent 1% of the population.

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    4. The principal cities are Moroni, the capital (pop. 24 000), on the island of Grande Comore ; Mutsumadu (pop. 14 000) and Domoni, on the Island of Anjouan ; Fomboni ( pop. 7 000) on the island of Moheli. The fourth island, Mayotte, was still attached to France).

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    5. France remains the principal trading partner since 1975.

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    6. I borrow the notion of 'strong forces' (forces profondes) from Pierre Renouvin et J.B. Duroselle, Introduction à l'Histoire des Relations Internationales (Paris: Armand Colin, 1991), 1.

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    7. Jacobinism is the political doctrine, inherited from the french Revolution, that consists in promoting state centralism.

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    8. See note 3.

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    9. Abdou Djabir, Les Comores. Un État en Construction (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1993), 119.

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    10. Keesing's Record of World Events, Keesing's World Wide, LLC (Cambridge: Editorial Department, 1974), 27036.

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    11. Keesing's Record of World Events, 27036.

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    12. Keesing's Record of World Events, 27036.

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    13. Overseas Departments and Territories.

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    14. Keesing's Record of World Events, 27036.

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    15. France, Parlement, Assemblée Nationale, Journal Officiel, Bill 74-965 of the 23rd of November 1974, 11 771.

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    16. Keesing's Record of World Events, 27036.

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    17. Keesing's Record of World Events, 27036.

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    18. "Comoro Islands". In Africa Contemporary Record 1975-1976 (Londres: Rex Collings, 1976), B179.

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    19. Djabir, Les Comores, 122.

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    20. Keesing's Record of World Events, p. 27282.

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    21. Keesing's Record of World Events, p. 27282.

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    22. Journal Officiel, 4 juillet 1975, 6764. The emphasis is in the original text.

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    23. Journal Officiel, 6764. The emphasis is in the original text.

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    24. Africa Contemporary Record, B 179.

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    25. Keesing's Record of World Events, 27 282.

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    26. Keesing's Record of World Events, 27 282.

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    27. Africa Contemporary Record, B 180.

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    28. Africa Contemporary Record, B 180.

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    29. Keesing's Record of World Events, 27 283.

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    30. Thierry Flobert, Les Comores - Évolution juridique et socio-politique, Works and memoirs of the Faculté de Droit et de Science politique d'Aix-Marseille, n°24, (Aix-Marseille: Centre for Study and Research on the Societies of the Indian Ocean, 1976), 60.

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    31. Keesing's Record of World Events, p. 27 283.

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    32. Africa Contemporary Record, B 180.

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    33. Djabir, Les Comores,177.

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    34. At this time, Denard, a former Colonel of the French Army, was no longer officially associated with the French military administration.

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    35. R.J. Harrison Church, "The Comoros", p. 301.

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    36. Djabir, Les Comores,125.

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    37. Djabir, Les Comores,125-126.

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    38. Djabir, Les Comores,130.

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    39. Djabir, Les Comores,131.

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    40. "Sovereignty of Comoros over Island of Mayotte Reaffirmed", in UN Chronicle, March 1988, p. 70.

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    41. Harrison Church, "The Comoros", 302.

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    42. Harrison Church, "The Comoros", 302.

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    43. Harrison Church, "The Comoros", 304.

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    44. Harrison Church, "The Comoros", 305.

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    45. The RPR is the Rassemblement Pour la République, that is Chirac's party. Rémy Ourdan, Le Monde, samedi 9 August 1997.

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    46. REUTER, Le Monde, August 9 1997.

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    47. REUTER, Le Monde, August 9 1997.

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    48. Jean Hélène, "L'insurrection s'amplifie et divise l'archipel des Comores", Le Monde, August 9 1997.

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    49. For an analysis of this period, see "Freedom's Follies (Anjouan and Mohéli try to secede from Comoros Islands and Return to France", The Economist, vol. 344, September 13 1997, 47-48.

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    50. RFO (Radio-télévision Française d'Outre Mer) October 27, 1997.

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    51. Le Monde, October 8 1997.

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    52. See Andrew W. Terrill, "The Comoros Islands in South African Regional Strategy", Africa Today. V. 33 n02-3, 1986, pp. 59-70.

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    53. AFP, 051924, November 5 1997.

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    54. 1998 Keesing's Records of World Events, 1998, p. 42051.

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    55. AFP 021555 Feb. 1998.

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    56. AFP 011217 May 1998.

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    57. See http//www.ksu.edu/sasw/comoros/news.comoros.

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    58. See http//www.arabnet/comoros/hystory/cs_military coup

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    59. See BBC News http://news2.thls.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/africa/newsid.

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    60. 2000 Keesing's Records of World Events, 2000, 43346.

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    61. Rémy Ourdan, Le Monde, Aug. 9 1997.

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    62. In Le Monde -sélection hebdomadaire, August 30 1997, p. 2.

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    63. Djabir, Les Comores, 11.

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    64. Rémy Ourdan, Le Monde, Aug. 9 1997.

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    65. Djabir, Les Comores,120.

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    66. El Watan, Moroni, in Courrier International n°355, 21-27 August 1997, 20.


    Books and Articles

    Courrier International n°355 August 21-27, 1997. 20.

    Djabir, Abdou. Les Comores. Un État en Construction. (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1993).

    "Freedom's Follies (Anjouan and Moheli try to succed from Comoros Islands and Return to France", The Economist, vol. 344, September 13 1997, 47-48.

    Flobert, Thierry. Les Comores - Évolution juridique et socio-politique. Travaux et mémoires de la Faculté de Droit et de Science politique d'Aix-Marseille, n°24, (Aix-Marseille: Centre d'Études et de Recherches sur les Sociétés de l'Océan Indien, 1976).

    Harrison Church, R.J. "The Comoros". pp. 300-313

    Hélène, Jean. "L'insurrection s'amplifie et divise l'archipel des Comores". Le Monde, August 9, 1997.

    Le Monde -sélection hebdomadaire, August 9 1997. p. 2.

    "Référendum sur l'indépendance organisé dans l'île d'Anjouan". Le Monde. October 28 1997.

    "Comores : les séparatistes de l'île d'Anjouan". Le Monde, October 29 1997.

    Ourdan, Rémy. Le Monde, August 9 1997.

    Other Sources

    Agence France Presse: AFP, 221604, October 22 1997; AFP, 051200, Novembre 5, 1997; AFP, 051924, Novembre 5, 1997; AFP, 021555 February 1998; AFP, 011217 May 1998.

    "Comoros Islands". In Africa Contemporary Record. 1975-1976. (Londres: Rex Collings, 1976), B 178-B 183.

    France, Parlement, Assemblée Nationale. Journal Officiel. Law n74-965 (nov. 1974), p. 11 771 and July 1975.

    Keesing's Record of World Events. Editorial Department, Keesing's World Wide, LLC, Cambridge, (1974), pp. 27036 (March 24-30 1975); and pp. 27082 et 27083 (August 18-24 1975).
    Keesing's Records of World Events, 1998;
    Keesing's Records of World Events, 1999;
    Keesing's Records of World Events, 2000.

    "Sovereignty of Comoros over Island of Mayotte Reaffirmed", in UN Chronicle, March 1988, 70.

    From the Internet

    Arabnet: http//www.arabnet/comoros/hystory/cs_military coup (April-May 2000)

    BBC News: http://news2.thls.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/africa/newsid. (April-May 2000)

    Comoros Home page : http//www.ksu.edu/sasw/comoros/news.comoros. (April-May 2000)

    Gateway encourges its readers to contact us with
    any comments, questions or concerns.

    E-mail: gateway.journal@sask.usask.ca