The inhabitants of the South Sea Islands The Comoros cultivate fragrance and vanilla. And struggling with poverty, separatism and fear of volcanic eruptions.
Comoros has just under 700,000 inhabitants, making it one of Africa’s smallest countries in terms of population. Comoros are also small in land. The country consists of three main islands located between Madagascar and Mozambique: Ngazidja (Grande Comore in French), Mwali (Mohéli) and Nzwani (Anjouan). The fourth major island in the area, Maore (Mayotte), chose to remain French when the rest of the Comoros detached from France in 1975.
Problem Island 1: Mayotte
The status of the island of Mayotte remains a topic of conflict over France. The Comoros claim the island, which is rejected by France. There have been several referendums on this issue among the nearly 200,000 Mayotte residents, and an overwhelming majority still wants French affiliation. Mayotte is far richer and has been far more politically stable than the rest of the Comoros, which has had numerous coups and coup attempts since independence.
By March 2009, more than 90 percent of the Mayotte population voted to become a French Overseas Ministry (Département d’outre-mer). The Comorian Vice President called the vote a declaration of war. The African Union (AU) and the UN General Assembly have also questioned France’s sovereignty over Mayotte.
Problem Eye 2: Anjouan
It is not only Mayotte that has caused problems in the archipelago. On the island of Anjouan, Colonel and former Chief of Police Mohamed Bacar became local president in 2001, but refused to relinquish power when the parliamentary term expired in 2007. Instead, he declared the island independent. In March 2008, the island was recaptured by Comorian soldiers and forces from the AU. Some of the rebels were killed or wounded, and at least 11 civilians are said to have been wounded. Bacar himself fled in a speedboat to Mayotte.
It was probably no coincidence that the two countries that sent AU forces to Anjouan were Sudan and Tanzania, which themselves have problems with separatists in Darfur and Zanzibar.
Since the liberation in 1975, the political situation in the Comoros has been very unstable, with 20 coups or coup attempts. But in recent years, democracy has gained a certain foothold. There were democratic elections in 2002 and 2006 – and after the last election, the first peaceful, democratic takeover of the Republic’s history happened.
Then Ahmed Abdallah took over Mohamed Sambi as president. He has been nicknamed Ayatollah, since he has theological education from Iran. Sambi has emphasized that he is not an Islamic extremist, and is popular enough with the population that the majority in a May 2009 referendum voted to change the law so that he can sit until 2011, not just until 2010.
The presidential office in the Comoros goes on a tour of the three main islands. Zambi is from Anjouan. The three islands are relatively independent and have their own Presidents who are also Vice Presidents of the Union. In addition, there is a 33-member National Assembly on Grande Comore, the largest island.
Although the country does not have very democratic traditions, although corruption is widespread and even though opposition and journalists are being arrested for criticizing the authorities, the organization considers the Freedom House Comoros as one of the very few free democracies in the Arab world.
The Comoros, like many other areas along the east coast of Africa, have a strong connection to the Arab world. Arabic is one of three official languages (French and Comorian are the other two), and Comoros is the southernmost member of the Arab League. Almost the entire population is Muslim. There are more Comorians who understand the Arabic alphabet than the Latin, since many have attended Quranic school.
The regular school system is struggling with a lack of equipment, books and qualified teachers. Teachers’ wages are often so much in arrears that many refuse to work.
Instability not only characterizes the Comorian political situation, but also the ground beneath their feet. The Comorian islands are formed by volcanic activity, and the volcano Karthala on Grande Comore is still active. During one of the outbreaks there in 2005, several thousand residents were evacuated, but none were killed. The volcano is just 15 kilometers from the capital Moroni, and the ash from the volcano polluted the drinking water to 170,000 people.
Karthala is one of the world’s largest active volcanoes, and has had more than 20 eruptions since the 19th century. Both the Comorian population and authorities are concerned about what it could destroy. Lava can flow down the building – including the capital and the airport – and toxic gases and ash will cause serious health problems. In addition, there is a risk of earthquakes, landslides and parts of the mountain raging in the sea, causing tidal waves.
It is being investigated whether Karthala can also be used for something positive. Scientists believe there are good opportunities to use the volcano to produce energy.
Comoros have few natural resources and are among the world’s poorest countries. Gross national product per capita is in line with Chad, Burkina Faso and Haiti. The economy is dominated by agriculture even though the volcanic soil is not very fertile, and many live on what they grow for themselves and their own families. Most of the exports also consist of agricultural products: Comoros is a large vanilla producer and the world’s largest producer of ylang-ylang, a fragrant flower extract used in, among other things, Chanel No 5 perfume.
Carnation and coconut are also important export goods.
The country’s export revenues are thus highly dependent on commodity prices on the world market, which are unstable. In particular, prices of vanilla have been low in recent years, partly due to new synthetic alternatives.
People’s financial problems are compounded by increased living costs. Unemployment is high, and many are trying to get over to French Mayotte, where living standards and opportunities are better. Between 200,000 and 350,000 Comoros live in France, and money transfers from them form a central part of the Comoros economy. France is also the main trading partner and aid donor.
Although there are less than a million people living in the Comoros, the islands are relatively densely populated and the burden on nature is great. Rainforest on the Karthala Mountains is disappearing, and cultivation on mountain slopes without terraces causes the soil to erode.
Despite white palm beaches and turquoise blue coral seas, few tourists go to the Comoros. There are no direct flights between the Comoros and Europe, and the tourist facilities are little developed. But greater political stability can open for more tourism. In the future, even the problem volcano Karthala could become a tourist magnet.
Area: 2 235 km2 (51st largest)
Population: 661 000
Population density: 296 per km2
Urban population: 28 percent
Largest city: Moroni – approx. 46 000
GDP per capita: USD 802
Economic growth: 1 percent
HDI Position: 139